#1 – It’s Not My Story It’s Yours: Appropriation vs. Appreciation
In This Episode
Christine Toy Johnson (CTJ): [00:00:00] Welcome to the very first episode of The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. I'm your host, Christine Toy Johnson. I'm an actor, playwright, and advocate for inclusion. If you're a regular theater-goer, you're probably familiar with the idea of a talkback. If you're not, here's how it goes: after a show, some of the audience sticks around for a moderated chat with the people involved in the production. This often means the actors, the director, and yes, even the playwright. Over the next six weeks our TALKBACK focuses on how the theater industry succeeds and fails when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We recorded these conversations over summer 2019. Everyone who joins me to chat about their perspective is a working theater professional. Some of our guests come to you from New York, others will weigh in from across North America, including me -- as I'm currently out on the first national tour of Come from Away. The Dramatists Guild of America hosts these conversations. In line with the mission of the Guild, everyone comes to our table with their own opinion and perspective, and is free to express it.
Whether you're on a first-name basis with every director in town, or you've just read your first play, we're thrilled you're here. Let's jump right in.
In our first conversation with Larissa FastHorse, playwright and member of the Sičháŋǧu Lakota Nation, we drill down on the tension between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Welcome Larissa.
Larissa FastHorse (LFH): Yeah. Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
CTJ: We're really happy to have you here.
LFH: I'm thrilled to be here. I'm a member of the Sičháŋǧu Lakota Nation, and as a Native American writer, this is something that is constantly in-, a problem in our field and a concern in our field and something we get a lot of questions about both as indigenous people and as writers. So I'm thrilled to be here talking about this.
CTJ: Please tell us about The Thanksgiving Play.
LFH: The Thanksgiving Play is a little different than my other plays. It's actually, uh, very intentionally for folks that can present as white, whether or not they are Caucasian is, you know, their business. But it is written for people that can present as white because it's exploring, uh, the issues that I deal with constantly. But I want to talk about what I deal with in theater every day, which is really well-meaning liberal folks—primarily white, because unfortunately, that's still how our field is lead—and those folks really trying to do the right thing, but often failing in their well-meaning intentions.
And so this play is exploring a lot of that, and a lot of the ways that maybe people aren't thinking about how they are appropriating culture and history and even our pain and our trauma in ways that are incredibly damaging to us.
CTJ: How did the play come about? What prompted you to write it specifically?
LFH: I originally wrote this play in response to casting issues, talking about redface and, and um, kind of an overcorrection that's happened in our field, where I haven't been able to get my plays produced, you know, second and third times because people say that's impossible quote-unquote to cast even a half-Native American actor, which absolutely isn't the case.
We have so many incredibly talented Native American actors. So when I wrote this play, I said, fine, American theater, I'm tired of this. I'm going to write a play that's for white-presenting people in one room. If you can't cast this, then you're…just don't want to work with me, and that's fine. That's a different issue that we can deal with.
CTJ: Can you speak a bit on how it's been perceived and received?
LFH: This is kind of my most depressing success. This play has done incredibly well, you know, it’s been at Playwrights Horizons, it's been at Artist Repertory Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and it's going to be in twenty different theaters this coming season. Um, so, you know, casting white people works? Um…
LFH: But the good news about it is…sorry, *laughs* it's true…um, but the good news about it is that, you know, it's still dealing with issues that I think are really important that we need to deal with. I've been fortunate enough to get to see this play produced at all the different theaters that’ve done it so far, which have been very different…demographic groups and, and regions, and socio-economic groups and lots and lots of readings of it all over the country, and it's been really great to see that, you know, despite—again—casting for white people working, it's been really great to see that people are getting the messages and are understanding what the issues are as far as how Native American people have been portrayed, even by the best-meaning people in our field.
There is a pretty shocking scene in the middle of the play that white folks are always really worried about because they’re like, “oh no, we're gonna offend the Natives, it's gonna be so awful.” And it…now mind you, it's something that's historically true and something that white people did, but, you know when we, when we depict it on stage it is shocking and it's meant to be shocking, but it's very fun to watch the Native people see it because they just laugh, hil-, you know, uproariously when they're in the audience, because we've lived with white people appropriating not just our culture but our pain and our trauma and using it for their own, you know…bettering of themselves or political progress or just to feel better because “we can see the pain and use it and do something about it,” and, you know, we've seen that for so long. I mean our entire lives, all of us, it’s, you know, it’s been going on for 500 years now and so, you know, the Native people laugh and laugh and laugh. Well-meaning white folks are oh-so-nervous that it's gonna offend people and we're like, “please, that's our everyday life.” We've had everything appropriated, even our pain.
CTJ: Wow, that is really, that's really something. I can't wait to find your play somewhere where I'm going to be, ‘cause I want to see it for-, very much.
Have there been instances where you felt like there was some appreciation that was a, a dep-, a depiction of, of your culture that you have found to be more acceptable, or pleasing? Or has that not really been in the canon of produced works yet?
LFH: Well, um, I would say-, well, so my particular culture is Lakota, and specifically Sičháŋǧu Lakota, which-, so there's over, um, almost 600 federally recognized different indigenous nations that are sovereign nations within the geographic boundaries of the United States of America. And then there's also hundreds more that are no longer federally recognized by the federal government for various reasons.
If you're talking about my culture, that's Lakota and, um, you know, I don't know that I've ever seen a Lakota play by anyone else. I'm sure someone's written one. Um, I think Mary Kathryn Nagle just did a piece that involved Lakota folks. She's a Cherokee playwright.
CTJ: Have any of the conversations sparked by people seeing your plays surprised you or illuminated something or given you an opportunity to speak to the issues in a deep and meaningful way?
LFH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the goal of my plays. I only write plays as my form of social justice work.
LFH It's, that's why I got into playwriting: was to change the field of American theater, not specifically to write plays.
LFH: And so that's, that’s what I'm trying to do, and I always say that my plays, the second act happens after the curtain quote curtain goes down. Hopefully there's not a curtain, ‘cause I hate curtains. But, anyway, *laughs* so the second act happens afterwards. I always leave more questions unanswered than answered in my plays and the goal is that, you know, you should be talking about it for quite a while and you should have to figure things out and think about the way you think about things, the way things have affected you, why you're so incredibly unsettled in some ways and why you're not unsettled in others, and yeah, I sneak into the occasional talk back, audience talk backs. Especially in New York it was really interesting, because there was a lot of—the Playwrights Horizons audience is an audience that feels they're doing better than most on sort of the, you know, enlightened side of things, um…but man, some of those talk backs were rough. It was really…*laughs* uh…
CTJ: Can you, can you talk about that a little bit?
LFH: Yeah, people were really…um…fighting for their goodness, and really upset because they saw themselves in the characters, and saw these characters appropriating indigenous people without having any indigenous people present to help them, and were making judgments about fo-, about things for indigenous people, and were doing all kinds of really…you know, questionable things in the name of helping indigenous people without actually asking any indigenous people if this is what they want and is this the help they want and need.
CTJ: Which is the whole point, right?
LFH: …people recognize themselves. Yeah exactly, and people recognized themselves and got pretty heated and upset about it, um, because they wanted to fight for their well-meaning-ness, but, you know intentions are nothing. Action is what counts, and, and the effects of those intentions, whatever they were, are real, and whatever you-, you know, I always tell people: “I don't, I don’t care what your intentions were. I don't care how good you think your intentions were. If the effect was damaging, you have to change. You have to change what you're doing, and you have to do better.”
CTJ: Right. I think that they, the conversation about intent versus impact is huge. There is often, it seems like a, a part of it that is, is meant to, uh, assuage the guilt of, of a person whose impact has been, has been negative, because they didn't mean anything by it.
CTJ: And so, yeah.
LFH: And it's really so simple, right?
LFH: You just have to ask the people. I mean that's, you know, I get contacted by endless, endless writers who want, “I wanna write this Native American story, can I tell this?” and I realize that's a different podcast topic but, that's really part of it though, right? It’s because those people end up appropriating cultures and appropriating stories for their own use and their own benefit without asking the Native folks or the, you know, particular tribe or whoever they want to talk to, you know, “is this what you want to say? Is this how you want it told?”
My practice when I work with different indigenous communities that I'm asked to write plays about, is to first go into that community and say, “hey, do you want me to write this play? Here's who I am, here's what I've been asked to do. Do you want me to do this?”
And if not, then I'll tell them no. And then I ask them, what do you—and I'm an indigenous person, right? And I still go in and I say, “what are the protocols, what, you know, who do I have to talk to to have permission to do this?” And then I go and talk to a ton of people besides whoever I’m told, I talk to lots, as many people as I can from that community and I ask them, you know, “what do you want me to write about? What do you not want me to write about? You know, what am, what am I supposed to be saying about your community?” Again, even if I should, or not? If they say no, then I wouldn't do it.
LFH: And then I bring the script back to that community over and over again and I say, “here, you have veto power over every word. It's not my story, it's yours.”
There's no time when I work with an indigenous community that art or process comes above the community…because that would be appropriating their culture for my own artistic gain, and that's not okay, and it's, you know... I think we all need to be that radical when we're dealing with underrepresented communities and sovereign nations and different cultures that are not our own.
CTJ: That's fantastic. Thank you. So Larissa I, I often talk to people about how the American landscape of storytelling needs to actually look like the American landscape of human beings, and I would love to know your thoughts on what the American landscape of storytelling should look like from your point of view.
LFH: Yeah, actually, uh, it shouldn't look like the current landscape at all, in my opinion.
So…every theater company in this country is sitting on stolen land, and is profiting from stolen land. So, every theater company in this nation owes indigenous people a space in that company and owes them a debt of gratitude that they need to ask the indigenous people how to repay. So, it actually should not look like our current country, which is the, um, effects of genocide and disease. The vast majority of our country is not Native American anymore, and so…if we can make it just look like our, you know, current country then, you know, Native Americans are in a lot of trouble because we're only like 2 percent of the population right now.
Um, what it should look like is every single theater company on indigenous land—which is all of them—should be finding ways to make reparations and to express their gratitude to the people on whose backs they are profiting. So, what that means? I don't know, they have to go to each community and find out what does that mean. How should they be paying that back?
CTJ: Larissa, thank you so much for joining us.
We'll be right back with a panel discussion featuring David Henry Hwang, Anita Hollander, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, and Diep Tran, so stay with us.
[00:12:25] Commercial Break
[00:12:26] Christine Toy Johnson (CTJ): Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. I'm Christine Toy Johnson, your host, and we're joined by an incredible panel. I'll have them all introduce themselves to you right now.
Larissa FastHorse (LFH): Hey, I'm Larissa FastHorse. I'm Sičháŋǧu Lakota, and I'm a playwright.
Diep Tran (DT): Hi, I'm Diep Tran. I'm a journalist and the senior editor at American Theater Magazine.
Anita Hollander (AH): Hi, I'm Anita Hollander and I'm a writer and a performer, and also the national chair of Performers with Disabilities for SAG-AFTRA.
David Henry Hwang (DHH): I'm David Henry Hwang and I'm a playwright.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (MMD): And I'm Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and I'm also a playwright. I will say I'm a huge cultural appreciator, bordering on appropriator, of cowboy culture.
CTJ: Thank you so much everybody. So, I've gathered you here today to talk about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. There’ve been so many conversations that we've been having about what the difference is, how the understanding of each one has…has become different over the past couple years especially, and I wanted to start with a question to each one of you:
What is the line for you between cultural appropriation and appreciation? And it’s an intentionally broad question.
AH: For the disability community, it's been, um, rife with…arguments and a, a lot of anger and fighting and stuff like that. Because of the idea of appropriation, so much of the industry is about people getting Oscars playing disabled roles when they're not disabled, or getting an Oscar for making a movie about disability which has absolutely no disability input. And the idea is that we want to be visible.
The idea of, I think the appreciation side is visibility, tell the story, and the appropriation side is when you take that and you put it out there with absolutely no input from the community that it's about. And that's been our fight for…at least for me, 30-40 years, but I know it goes back beyond when I was here, but *laughs* but for me, it's been a lot of decades.
DHH: Uh, since I'm considerably older than most of the people on this panel, you know, I sort of grew up during a time when really all of the images of Asians that were available in the media for, for the most part—I would say virtually all, and certainly the major ones—were created by non-Asians, usually white men.
And so, you know, even today we continue to struggle with the legacy of that. How do we do King and I? How do you, you know, the sort of, the major shows where Asians continue to be employed on Broadway? So, if you sort of take it from that context and how to move forward, there was a period when it was just revolutionary for Asians—at all!—to begin defining themselves and creating their own images. Not only revolutionary, but there I think was, you know, at least a certain amount of skepticism even at the beginning about, “oh well, you know, they, if you have Asians writing about Asians, they can't do it as well as, um, you know, the great white writers who, who wrote this.”
And so, taking us to the present day, I personally don't believe that you have to be of a particular community to write about that community, and I think sometimes it's interesting when people are able to write cross-culturally or, or across communities. But I do think the input is, as you mentioned, is an important aspect. I think you need to have participation from the people whose stories you're telling. You need to do your research, and I think more-, most importantly you have to be willing to not be sensitive and thin-skinned about criticism. Even as an Asian American, when I first started writing, one of the first reviews I got from an Asian American paper—for FOB, in 1980—said that I set Asian America back 20 years!
CTJ: Oh dear...
DHH: I’d, I was only 22 at the time.
AH: Oh shit!
DHH: So, you know, even from within your own community you get a lot of criticism, but certainly if you're going to write across communities, you have to be open to criticism and adjustment based on the people whose experiences you're actually trying to portray.
MMD: Yeah, I mean I agree with that. I think you need to come at it with some…humility and thoughtfulness and openness to feedback and, you need to do your research and do your work, and talk to people. But I don't, but I don't think you can't write it just because you're not of the community.
LFH: I, I go a step further. I also advocate that if you are going to write about a community that is not your own, you need to hire someone. And that means pay for them to work with you on your piece, to be an advisor or co-writer or whatever it is that you all agree on.
In the indigenous community, we have an incredibly long legacy of indigenous people being asked to serve art, and my goal as an artist is to really reverse that and make art serve indigenous people. And that means in this current situation, in this current climate, that means money and compensation and making sure that people are compensated for the work and then also have agency—as we talked about earlier—to have a voice over that work and to be able to veto anything that you're saying that is wrong about them, and be able to have that power over the art.
DT: I feel like we can't talk about cultural appropriation without talking about power and, and power dynamics and who has control over like, dominant narratives, and the conversation is different depending on which country you're talking about. I feel like a lot of the time, especially when we're talking about Asian American representation, the defense is always, “well, people from Asia don't have an issue with this.” And…there's this tendency to like, lump cultural appropriation into like, one big global conversation when it's a national conversation—and even a community-driven conversation, depending on like, who's…who's in charge of the dominant narratives in particular countries.
And so if we're talking about culture appropriation within America, it's a white-dominant narrative, even though America is 40 percent people of color. And so, how does the dominant culture look at the minority culture, and how can the minority culture have voice and be part of the dominant narrative? And I, I think when the dominant culture like, tries to… put its eye on a minority culture, it's very much like an outsider looking in to something that they see as foreign? And there's a power dynamic of the minority culture not feeling like they can talk back, or not feeling that they have agency with, to, to talk about themselves. And so like, there needs to be like, an equilibrium if we're talking about like cross-cultural exchange, which is very difficult to do.
And it, it makes me think of like, this thing I read about a, a white restaurant owner in Philadelphia like, selling phở and thinking that he can tell people how to properly eat phở. It's about who has authority over the narrative and making sure that if you are not part of the culture, like, you cannot have an authority.
MMD: Well, I just wanna complicate that, then.
MMD: It would be easy to assume that I go to an Indian restaurant and I see a white restaurant owner who is making Indian food, and I make this visual assumption that he doesn't have an authority about Indian food and I do. I've grown up my whole life in this country, he may’ve spent 10 years studying Indian cooking in India, I don't know that from looking at him. So, I just think like, sometimes we're jumping to the conclusion of who people are and what experiences they bring to something, when I might think I'm the authority on some culture, but I'm South Asian American: my culture is not that of being Indian, or of being…a sixth-generation American. It's a very particular in-between place and I, I just think it's important…
DT: Oh yeah yeah!
MMD: …to complicate things that like, just on the basis of visual-, whether somebody's white or whether they're brown is not necessarily the arbiter of like, who, what kind of cultural authority they have.
LFH: Yeah, when, um, Diep was talking about nations, just wanted to also just remind ourselves that when we're talking about the various Native American nations here in this geographic place now called America, we're actually talking about something, it's not just race or culture, it’s actual sovereign nationhood. I'm a dual citizen with the Sičháŋǧu Lakota Nation and with the United States of America. So, it's actually different ‘cause we’re also dealing with a political issue in a-, we're dealing with laws and, and the ways that nations get to define themselves.
What representation means is different for us as well. If you're writing about someone from the Cherokee Nation, you need to have someone from the Cherokee Nation as defined by the Cherokee Nation as your advisor or involved or as the authority on it. It's very simple for us because we are individual nations that still exist here within the geographic region now called the United States of America.
CTJ: David. Go ahead.
DHH: I just want to add that the, you know, the argument that Asians in Asia are not particularly sensitive about issues like race, that may be true in the way that we as Americans perceive it, but Asians in Asia really sensitive about a lot of things like…
DHH: …they're just different things. So, if you're trying to write a Chinese narrative and, you know, you're writing about Tibet, for instance, they're like super sensitive about that. So, there's things that…everybody's sensitive about something. It's just that it varies given the cultural context in which people live and are raised.
AH: Well, when you say about “people in Asia don't mind” and that well, it's a very interesting point for both of you, because in the disability community…we hear so often that, “well, people with disability don't care who plays the role as long as they see it on the TV, then they’re, they're thrilled and it doesn't bother them that somebody didn't get…even seen for the job who actually was disabled.” Or, I mean, we also talk about disabled performers playing all kinds of roles, but the idea that the disability community doesn't care just as, y’know, as long as, you know, they're there. But, so it's an interesting kind of crossing over in a way to see that they don't see it as, uh…the representative-, the representation being missing or the loss of a job or the, or the inability to be included even in-, to be seen, or the writers not being in the writer’s room. And they're not as picky often? But the same, but, if you go-, if you really hone it down to a specific disability, oftentimes that population will go, “well, that was so inaccurate. Uh, totally inaccurate. How did that happen?” Well, it was inauthentic because there was nobody authentic around to stop them and say, “uh uh! Not not not right, don't do that.” Whatever.
CTJ: Thank you. We've actually all touched on this, that in-, there was a time when you would just be thrilled that there was a story being brought to the front, to just see somebody that looked like you represented. And then as time goes by, the…the…you want to see more truth in the story. You want to see more writers…who can bring the story to life in, in very many ways, not just one idea.
So, my question is, how do you think this conversation has deepened over the last—especially I would say—the past couple of years? There's been more discussions and more awareness or, or a desire to make people more aware of the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Where is the line? Is there space for both in one place? Should there be?
LFH: I don't agree at all that it's, at some point was okay to see, you know, sailors in On the Town putting on redface and being like, “well, at least they're showing Native people,” I've never felt that way? I've never had that feeling of like, “wow, ugga wugga song, at least it's…pretending to be Native.” Like, I've never had that feeling. Maybe it's because we're so in-, as indigenous people so incredibly, incredibly underrepresented in theater? So, I didn't have that period of appreciation that, “at least we’re represented,” because I don't think that time has happened yet. And the ones that were there, I certainly never appreciated.
CTJ: Totally fair.
DT: Christine, it made me think of like, the first time I became aware of your work which was back in 2012 during the Nightingales scandal at La Jolla Playhouse where they had white people play Chinese people, and the defense was, “well, we have one Asian in this cast, so this is okay!” And at that time, not a lot of people knew what yellowface was, including like, a major Tony award-winning regional theater. And the way it's developed is, people do know what that is—well…I speak of that broadly, because there's still always work to be done there—but it's, it’s a more common term now, and I think what has changed is the industry has started realizing that communities of color are a large buying population. We have power at the box office, and so the shows sell.
If you don't want to piss a community off, you need to make sure it's authentic and there's, you know, proper representation. The only problem I feel now is, like, there's a tendency to say, “oh, we have this person of color as a consultant and we did our homework and it's fine.” And, like David said, there's not as much tendency to evaluate and to have some humility about the process, which is very thorny and complicated and it's continually changing depending on how terminology develops.
CTJ: There seems to be a move towards recognizing a need for cultural consultants. How do you feel about the increasing presence of folks that have been hired as these kinds of consultants?
AH: Oh, well performance with, well, people with disabilities have a long history of being called in as a consultant for no money, and then having a character actually created from that consultancy, and then nobody is hired, and there's no money exchanged at all. My, my biggest example was The Sopranos where they had created a character for an amputee a year before anyone called me to say to come in and I thought it was an audition, but it was actually in consultant-, a free consultation with the entire production team, asking me all these questions and stuff like that. And so I ended up, because I'm…I'm not soft spoken…
AH: I said, “well, you'll have to pay me for that.” And they, they ended, “well, oh, well, we have 25 dollars, was I…” I said, “no, really, you know,” …and they said, “okay, well you can negotiate whatever you want, you know, as long as it isn't 500 dollars.” “I'll take 500 dollars!” But of course in that same situation, they had also hired me to be a body double. We are very…experienced in the disability community of being a body double, and a consultant for very low fee, and then this other person is the role and getting the big paycheck—and getting the awards!—and, *laughs* and everything, and that's been a very big thing.
But I, I really fought that day, and sort of have been fighting for others to speak up and to not even go in until you've negotiated what that's going to be, and I think it was an eye-opener for the people on The Sopranos, who were very popular and getting their like, 11th Emmy Award or whatever, and that they splashed me across the credits with this large name because they, they suddenly realized.
But even as I left that night at like, 12:30 a.m. after doing the body double thing, I, of, the director shook my hand and said, “great! That was just great! We couldn't have done it without you.” And I turned around and he said to his assistants, “you see, that's how you do it: you get an actress to play that role, and then you get someone with a disability to, to do the scene.” And I was like, “wait, I'm a SAG-AFTRA actor, and I’m Equity, I'm a Union actor,” but, this is not unusual. But what I've seen of-, you were asking about how it has changed over time, is that we're standing up more and demanding more. It's not been easy because it's been, we've been so invisible in the past. It's, it’s been difficult. And I just wanted to say one thing to Larissa about the offensiveness in the past: It brought up my experience of going to Urinetown and seeing the girl on the skates with the braces on her leg and bashing into a wall, and Seinfeld on television where they rolled somebody down a hill in a wheelchair for the biggest laugh of that episode. So, I agree with Larissa, the misrepresentation and the butt of jokes that disability, the disability community has sustained, it is part of that argument…
CTJ: Yes. Absolutely.
AH: …that conversation.
Christine Toy Johnson: Absolutely agreed. David?
DHH: I think television has the least excuse for not bringing in somebody to be a creative partner, when they're writing about a community, because television has writer's rooms, and you have you know, six or seven writers on a TV show or, if it's a, you know, say, hour drama. And if you're going to create a storyline for a character from, from a particular community, it is not that hard to go looking for somebody who knows how to do that and can be a writer on the show. Then you know, how that power dynamic is negotiated within the writer’s room, of course, becomes an issue, but at least you have someone in the room who is getting paid at a reasonable level.
In terms of the earlier question of how things have changed, I agree with Diep that, you know, it's, there's fundamentally an economic shift, both the recognition that this country will be a majority people of color by around 2040, and the growing share of the international market. And of course, people are most interested and most critical of representations of their own group. I mean, lawyers are most critical of legal shows, you know…
DHH: So, uh, you know as Jeff Yang, the cultural commentator, put it once: “Racism is no longer a viable business model.” So, I think there's that, and then what tipped it was, I think the, the election, the 2016 election and the recognition that we are not in a post-racial society, and we can't sweep these issues under the rug, and we can't pretend that there's not oppression and racism out there. And so I feel like 2016 became sort of a tipping point.
LFH: But did any of you actually feel like we were in a post-racial society? Because I certainly never did.
LFH: That wasn't, I think that was only news to white people…
LFH: …not to anyone else. Yeah.
DT: The people with the power.
David Henry Hwang: Right, but it, but white people being the gatekeepers, where I think it was easier for them to say in 2014 that we were in a post-racial society than it is today.
MMD: I would say that, I think just the fact that we're having this conversation here, that this is a podcast that you've noticed the need for this, means that there is more awareness that we should be talking about this and it's a complicated issue and people want to learn more, and that to me is great.
And when I think back to, I mean I remember seeing The Celluloid Closet when I was in my early 20s and the idea of…yes, if there was nothing I saw of myself onstage, if I saw one representation…it was a good thing: even if it was the person who I knew they were going to die at the end of the movie, I knew they were gonna be murdered, I knew they were going to be the bad guy. And then, we got to the next day and they were the best friend, and you know, and then at some point you're like, “that's not good enough, I don't want to be the best friend.” And then they get to be the-, so there is a progression, but I can still say, “oh, it was really meaningful to me at 20 to see some representation.”
I do think though, another way that it's changed though, is I do feel like this word “appropriation,” we use it a little …carelessly? And that we weaponize it a little bit, and so I, I feel that the times we throw around things like “that's appropriation, that's appropriation,” which then starts to equal “that’s something bad that that person does,” which then starts to equal “that person is a bad person,” which that, to me, is not a useful place to have the complicated conversation about “why does it hurt or feel a certain way if my culture is used in a certain way? What are your values? How can you do this better?” Because actually, I think deep in your values you want—even if you're a white person who is an artistic director—I think deeply you probably want to do better. How can you do better? And I'm really interested in that conversation, but I'm very wary of the conversation where we start to say, “this is wrong and this is right.”
I do think art should be provocative and we should provoke conversations, and some of those are going to be really uncomfortable ones that I firmly disagree with, but I want there to be a place where we are wrestling with issues, not just doing the thing that is “right or wrong,” you know, I want to be in the gray area mucking around with people and having the conversation ‘cause I really think that's where we discover our own humanity—and I should examine myself too, I'm not beyond examination—and, um, where we discover our common humanity, which I think is so important for what we do.
CTJ: Thank you. We’ve, were talking about this a little earlier, Larissa and I, about intent versus impact, and how appropriation--or whatever you want to call it--has impacted each one of us in our, in our work and our life. Uh, fr-, not to bring up the whole—but I guess I just did—the whole can of worms about productions of The Mikado, but I know that for myself, when I saw pictures of people doing The Mikado with the garish makeup, and I thought… it was very deep to me because I thought, “oh, I now understand why people have been making fun of the way I look for my entire life, because they think we look like that.” So, the intent, you know, probably of not, of course to hurt Christine's feelings, but the impact is something that I think a lot of people can understand. And I wonder if we could talk about that a little. Larissa, do you want to go first?
LFH: Yeah. I mean, it's constant right? I mean the, what we’re being told is that we're not human, that those things that make us who we are—like you were just talking about The Mikado—are things that can be put on as a costume or put on as a set piece or put on as a prop, put on as a wig, you know, that we're being told that what actually makes us who we are—our DNA, our learned culture, our sovereign nationhood—is a thing that can be used and discarded. The damage that causes to human beings such as myself, and all of us, is incredible. The constantly being told that you are no more than a thing that can be put on and taken off, that you're less than human, is constant. I deal with that damage every single day of my life, and I see it again and again in theater and all kinds of media.
CTJ: Thank you, Larissa. David?
DHH: In terms of just sort of growing up and having images of people who look like me-, actually when I was a kid, if I knew there was going to be a TV show or a movie—‘cause I didn’t go the theater, I grew up in LA—uh, with Asians in it, I would just sort of go out of my way not to watch it. Because I had already realized on some level, although I wouldn't have been able to articulate it, that it would just make me feel bad.
And so the thing that I was desperate for was some representation which, it didn't even have to be super positive, but just wasn't either an enemy or the butt of a joke. So, you know, George Takei on Star Trek was a face that looked like mine who was competent and not the enemy and not the butt of a joke. And, you know, when I look back sometimes people go, “oh, well, did you grow up, experienced racism as a kid?” and I feel what I was oppressed by was American popular culture. And so, it therefore seems right to me that I’ve ended up spending my life trying to find ways to grab the levers of American popular culture and re-manipulate them to sort of heal whatever damage I felt as a kid from those images.
DT: Yeah, and I think I'm going to say kind of dovetails into, like, touches on what Anita was talking about in terms of like, feeling tokenized because people feel like, oh, they can just have a face that looks like yours in the room, even if they don't have any power and then that's enough, and it makes me think of like, when I saw Miss Saigon—the most recent revival—and I know that production team, you know, they tried really hard to make it a more responsible, authentic in-quotes show, and then watching it-, I was just shaking, I was just so angry when I was watching it, because for me as a Vietnam War refugee—then the product of Vietnam War refugees—watching a show where we were seen as weak and lesser than white people and watching a show where we hate ourselves, in 2017?
It supported everything that I was told by American popular culture growing up, which is like, “you're invisible and your, you-, your stories don't matter.” And then, me writing about how that show made me feel and then the responses to that, which was both the white and Asian community telling me my opinion on this show does not matter? That is also damaging. And so, just this feeling of the like, white power structure is thinking that, “oh, just because your face is there, it is enough.” Or, “just because we tried, that's enough. We’d, should get, get credit for trying to not offend you.” You, you can try and not punch me and you, and if you still punch me like, it still hurts. Like, can we have a conversation about the impact of the thing rather than like, oh, “you tried not to, you didn't want to.” Like, that does not matter.
CTJ: Thank you. Anita..?
AH: It's so interesting how…everything that everyone is saying here…resonates with me as well. And that when you see yourself as a butt of a joke only a few years ago on Broadway, ‘cause Urinetown wasn't that long ago—I mean it was long, but not that long—you're watching it, you're enjoying the show, and then suddenly bang it's like, “oh, oh that again.” It like, brings you back to “oh right, I'm not included.” And, this might be a very unpopular opinion, but I was enjoying The Prom so much, I was enjoying the show so much, and then the last number when they go “a prom for everyone!” and it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn't actually for everyone, ‘cause there wasn’t one person in that high school, not one that had a disability!
And I know people are gonna go, “ugggh Anita, why’d you do this?” But the truth is, I began to think in my head, okay, well if you were directing this show and you were casting this show, wouldn't it be interesting if the mother of the young girl who is closeted and not talking about being a lesbian, what if the mother, when she turns to her and says, “I just don't want you to have a hard life,” is talking about herself as much because she has a disability? I mean, it started, my head started going, “there's an-, there's a way we could include somebody with a disability so that when you sing “a prom for everyone…” I can hear myself right now saying these things and I know…somebody's gonna get mad at this, but the truth is the inclusion is not that hard when you think about it—if you think about it—so that I don't see the future of The Prom being ba-, a bad thing, I see it as a potential for, what if somebody from this culture was also included in The Prom? What if it was really “for everyone?” And to me that line, “for everyone,” became this big neon sign for me, because so often disability is left off the list. When, in fact, 20 percent of the population has some disability—and buying power! as you so importantly said, Diep—we do get left out a lot. And I know there's a lot of different opinions about this and I respect them all, I really, I understand when people push back, but you can hear how passionate I am about it, too.
CTJ: Thank you, thank you so much for sharing that. Uh, Deen, do you have something that you want to add, or...?
MMD: I mean, I guess as I'm listening to this, I'm thinking about how my culture and—or, my identities, right?—like, I'm, I'm South Asian American, I'm queer, I'm trans, I'm between cultures, I’m between many things. It is not a pretty dress that I wear, right? Like, I think of my culture more as like a scar. It's a scar that's either pretty, it's a scar that's ugly, but it's a scar that I earned and is like, deeply a part of the fabric of my being and so, yes, it is upsetting when somebody then puts on that culture like it's a pretty dress like, in a casual way.
And then I would, I would question their intentions. I think they try to get away with something easily without deeply understanding what that culture is from the inside, which is a different experience. But, but for me intention is everything, actually. Intention is much more important than consequences ‘cause we all fuck it up all the time. And I have certainly watched members of my community become very militant about, for instance, who gets to do yoga. As, you know, “that person is white, that person is not allowed to do yoga. I'm not taking yoga from that person.” But this person who’s saying it is not a yoga teacher, did not study yoga, does not come from a family of yoga makers, and maybe that person actually studied with a guru for many many years who decided to teach them.
I think because we are caught between—at least for me—caught between cultures, we can sometimes have our own baggage about that and cling to something because it's an uncomfortable place to be: I'm not really easily one or the other, and so I sometimes think then like, we come in with a chip on our shoulder about who is allowed to do what, which is partly true and that is real, but it is partly our own baggage to work through about how we feel about ourselves in the world and how we navigate the feeling of not feeling home in any one place, and how I, how I deal with my own feelings about that. And so, I just think sometimes we leave out the part of the conversation that is: We all need to do work, and I think part of that work is ours to do, too.
CTJ: Thank you. Before we put a button on today's conversation, I would love to go around and ask for anything else you would like to add to the conversation, or leave us with. I'll start with Larissa.
LFH: Yeah, I was just, total appreciation to what was just being said. I would just say though that the one differentiation is that, if you are on the land of a sovereign nation that they do get to say, have the final word and there is a right and wrong ‘cause it's their land and it’s their nation. And so if a theater is in any way working with or depicting people on whose land they are standing, then those people do get to have the final word because you're on their land. And so there are rights and wrongs and there are absolutes when you're talking about different indigenous communities, ‘cause again, we're talking about sovereign nations who are allowed—by law, with the United States, with treaty laws—to decide what is right and wrong and to make absolutes on their own land.
DT: I think there's like a difference between tokenizing and being inclusive. Like it, it makes me think of, um, Ali Stroker in Oklahoma. Like, she's the first woman to—actually the first artist in a wheelchair to ever win any Tony Award, right? But she's in the show where she literally could not access the stage. They had to build something special for her and, y’know, the performers and audience members with disability don't have an easy time getting into Circle in the Square. And so there's like a difference between like putting a body on stage and saying like, that's enough, versus like, actually be inclusive and wanting like, that community in the house with you, as viewers, as people who’ve given you money, and in every aspect of the creative process. I think we're still in a very surface level conversation with all of this, generally, where we think, oh if I can see that face, that's enough. But, it isn't…or, it shouldn't be.
CTJ: Thank you. Anita?
AH: Okay, so I want to dovetail off of what Diep just said, that the thing that I came in today thinking about was “universal design.” And it's a term in architecture, and I just came back from performing at the United Nations where they were all talking about, uh, disaster risk reduction and all this, but also universal design. So physically that means, before you build the building, you plan it to be accessible to all. Okay, so that's a physical thing, and I feel like creating a play about a certain culture if you want, it should be universal design, meaning: starting at the very beginning. If you're not a part of that culture but you want to write about it, that you start at the very beginning with people on board. And I agree with Deen. There are two people at this table who have written about disability, and it's been great because you both worked—that would be David and Christine, that I know of—that you, from the get-go, began working with like, Theater Breaking Through Barriers or working with me, involved in a show that you're writing, that you start at the beginning with that, so that in the end, it ends up being the depiction or the representation that you wanted to get in the end.
I will say that to have someone doing certain roles, that are of a certain culture, or of a certain community like the, the disability community, that enhances and informs the things—not only the role, but the play—and also even if the thing wasn't even written for a performer with a disability, to have one there further informs the humanity, enhances the character, which I've seen you both do.
But this idea of starting at the very beginning of it and Theater Breaking Through Barriers is one of those, Brave New World Theater, Claire Beckman, all these wonderful companies are now looking at this from an intersectional approach to find a way to be inclusive, and also not just appropriating each-, a little of this like a buffet, but actually bringing people in for their various perspectives. I think that's where we're headed and I think even in Geneva, in the United Nations, diversity and inclusion was part of the whole discussion about climate change and disaster risk reduction and universal design. It was mind-blowing that we're not the only ones thinking about this at the table. People are thinking about it all over the world.
CTJ: Thank you. David?
DHH: Um, as long as we're potentially getting in trouble calling out specific shows, there is…I think a show, that's running at the moment that has yellowface, which is the kung-fu musical at the Shed. Uh, I can't quite remember, it's something Phoenix Dragon Rising. And it just seems to be kinda under the radar. So, that's one thing that's going on. And then, I have a theory—and this is, that this’ll be controversial also—also that there are certain works which, we, I, when I grew up were considered classics which are not going to age well as the lens of a more multicultural, more diverse society gazes upon them. And, to stay away from the theater for a moment, I would like, put Catcher in the Rye as an example of a book that might be looked at, relatively soon, as just kind of whiney.
CTJ: *laughs* Thank you.
DT: Yes, join me in the hate for that book.
CTJ: Thank you so much. I think we have to wrap up, but in season 2 perhaps we will continue this conversation! Thank you so much for joining me today, as always this conversation is to be continued.
This has been The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, a production of the Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated. Our podcast is lovingly produced by Sarah Storm, Christine Toy Johnson, and Amy Von Macek. It's edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Terry Stratton, Adrien Glover, and John Marshall Cheary.
TALKBACK is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content, visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack. I'm Christine Toy Johnson. We'll see you next time!
In its inaugural episode, The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK looks at the line between appreciating a culture and wanting to explore it in art and appropriating a culture for art and profit. At the top, host Christine Toy Johnson (The New Deal, The Wisdom of Trees) sits down with Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse to talk about her Thanksgiving Play, as well as her approach to playwriting as activism.
After a break, a panel of additional playwrights, journalists, and performers join Christine and Larissa to get more perspectives on the tensions between appreciation and appropriation. The group digs deep on the power dynamics of cultural appropriation, the long-term harm caused by misrepresentation, and pushes back on the entertainment industry’s long tendency to exclude and/or underpay cultural consultants…when they’re used at all.
This episode features Larissa FastHorse, Diep Tran, David Henry Hwang, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, and Anita Hollander. The Dramatist Presents: Talkback is a production of The Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated . This episode was produced by Sarah Storm, Amy VonMacek, Christine Toy Johnson, directed by Sarah Storm, and edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. It was recorded by Eric Dabdoub for JMM, with Los Angeles tape sync support by Phoebe Unterman. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Tari Stratton, Adrien Glover, Robin Lai, and John Marshall Cheary.
TalkBack is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter [https://twitter.com/dramatistsguild] using #DGTalkBack