Since being cast in Avenue Q I've been silently struggling to come to terms with something. Considering the show's content one might assume that my struggle centered around porn, racism, or one of the other major themes. It's not. What's troubled me are stereotypes -- specifically whether or not it's okay to rely on them to convey a character's race when limited by the art form?
Most advocates would shout "NO!" but I don't feel it's as simple or clear cut as that. For some races skin tone, whether it's visible on stage or mentioned in passing in a story, is enough of an indicator to tell the audience that the character isn't the default WASP. However there are others that aren't as obvious. A lot of folks can pick an Asian out of a crowd but the vast majority can't tell the difference between Koreans, Chinese, or Japanese. I can tell the difference but I'm Asian. To the rest of the world we look the same which is why it's caused a bit of a personal dilemma for me.
In the show I play Christmas Eve, a Japanese immigrant, and most of my costumes are kimono-like. I happen to really like the items the costumer made for me but I have to confess that I've harbored a little bit of resentment. I'm really am Japanese and one of my first lines is "I am Japanese." I actually had to stop and ask myself "Do I have to wear this for the audience to really get it?"
Sadly, I do.
My name is generic enough that audiences can't use that as an indicator, and I have enough Western blood in me (German, Polish, and English) that my Japanese features are slightly muted. In the past people have asked me if I'm Native American, Hawaiian, Mexican, and Eskimo in addition to the full spectrum of Asian nationalities.
I also don't have a Japanese accent. I'm American. I grew up here. My speech patterns are American. Heck, even my mannerisms are American. While I could have adopted a Japanese accent and mannerisms for the show, very little of it translates well on stage. The few things that do are so subtle that the audience wouldn't notice them. For example, very few people are aware that the Japanese have hand gestures that accompany phrases like "excuse me" or that Japanese women carry their purses a certain way. Sure, I could still do them so that the audience would get a more authentic Japanese woman but if they're not going to pick up on it than what's the point?
The point is they'll never know if they're not exposed to the truth. As I want to vilify it, white America was never the source of my problem. The real problem is ignorance. Ignorance doesn't limit itself to one demographic.
Unfortunately the world is in this awkward transitional stage. While more people are becoming aware that what they identify as _______ culture is wrong, a lot still don't care enough about the issue to enlighten themselves. I have the daunting task of gaining the trust and approval of my stereotype loving audience so I can then gently show them that this character is a real person that defies their expectations.
While I seem to have done this well on stage (the reviews are very good) I don't know yet if I've pulled off this balance in my writing. All the stories I've written from this stance are either out in submissionland or are soon to venture there. I hope that I've done it well. I want to be a proponent for change and understanding.
It's only appropriate that in a show about finding one's purpose in life, I found mine. My purpose in life is to help people understand a point of view that is not their own.