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And, as a scholarship student at a college preparatory high school, I also learned to buy a student season ticket to the Mark Taper Forum. (Years later my best friend who grew up in the South Bronx would tell me of a similar experience in her gifted class in public school. She was taught the “proper” way to read the New York Times.) There I saw performances such as Colleen Dewhurst in Moon for the Misbegotten, Charlton Heston in The Crucible, and Peter Brook’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
I learned a lot from these experiences and made some early observations.
First, I discovered that theater was being created in many different places, in many different ways, and by many different people. Not having access to a formal theater space did not seem to stop anyone from making theater. Second, I found out that the arts world was segregated; the more money I had to pay for my ticket and the more lavish the theater, the more likely the audience was exclusively or predominantly white. And third, only the theater that took place in formal theater spaces, with their segregated audiences, was discussed in school;
the theater I found most compelling and meaningful was not part of the official record. It was as if there was an entire parallel world that was invisible, which ceased to exist when I opened a book or a newspaper.
In college I began to develop a consciousness which tied race to class and gender politics. I became close to other students of color, who were also financial aid students, when we would find ourselves stranded on campus during vacation breaks, while other students were “doing Greece” or the Caribbean, or Mexico, or Europe. As a freshman I was impressed and somewhat intimidated by what I perceived as the extraordinary number of gifted students I was meeting.
Everyone I met was a dancer or poet or painter or actor. I remember my growing anger as I attended their readings, art openings, dance concerts, and plays. Not that some of the students weren’t genuinely talented—but that I knew so many youth from Los Angeles who were equally or infinitely more talented, but who would never call themselves artists. And they certainly never had the opportunity to develop their talents. Again, I begin to view race in terms of an enormous class divide.
In 1979, with the assistance of three undergraduate students, I founded the New WORLD Theater at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Today, we have a mixed professional and student staff; we purposely blur the lines between professional and community, art and politics, scholarship and activism. A firstvoice theater of artists of color, New WORLD presents and produces works by black, Latina, Asian, and Native American playwrights. We never consciously defined ourselves as a feminist theater, but from our first season the majority of
6 KATHY A.PERKINS AND ROBERTA UNOour staff have been women, as have the authors and artistic staff of the plays we produce.
The New WORLD theater was my response to three years of culture shock from living, while attending college, in New England. It was my assertion of the realities that I knew; my stubborn in-your-face resistance to eating food that tasted bland and tolerating art that seemed devoid of passion and social relevance. Over a hundred productions later, I have seen my reality overtake the sterile New England environment I once encountered. I see it at the supermarket where now I can buy tofu, daikon, kamaboko, and gyoza wrappers (imagine I used to bring Japanese rice in my suitcase from California!). But more importantly I see it in the supermarket aisles where every fifth person is dark or has my eyes or is speaking a language other than English. As Shauneille Perry notes, “something really quite wonderful is happening, I call it the “Browning of America.”1 When we started the New WORLD Theater in 1979, we were working towards a vision, to borrow from the Nina Simone song, of “a new world comin’.” In 1995, from where I sit in the theater—that world is here.
I never intended to become a historian. It was an incident that occurred on my first day of graduate school, at the University of Michigan, that set things into motion. While looking for the orientation meeting for MFA design and technical students, I asked a young white male for directions. He immediately told me that the actors were meeting In another room. When I clearly explained to him that I was a design major and not an actress, he indicated that he was completely unaware of blacks working in areas other than performance. I told him that in D.C., where I recently came from, many blacks worked behind the scenes. He replied “you would never know by reading any theater history text.” That evening, I went to the library and examined every theater history book I could find. He was right! According to our theater historians, blacks behind the scenes just didn’t exist, except for those I saw in Loften Mitchell’s Black Drama. That young man I asked for directions, in a sense directed me to research. He was the first of many whites and some blacks who would see me as an anomaly in the theater.
1 Perry, Shauneill, “Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of New WORLD Theater” MELUS Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1989–90, p. 6.
INTRODUCTION 7It was shortly after leaving Michigan that I began conducting research on African American designers and other individuals working behind the scenes.
Not only did I know we were out there, but I was also convinced that we had always been there. African Americans have had an extensive history In theater In this country, not only as designers but also as producers and playwrights and In other areas behind the scenes since the nineteenth century.2 Learning about the history and achievements of these men and women has given me an unparalleled sense of pride, as well as an understanding of my place in the world.
As I was presented with opportunities to design for other cultural groups, I felt compelled to conduct more research on the various cultures to become a better designer. At the University of lllinois, I teach a course on multl-ethnic theater. I developed the course primarily out of the frustration of seeing many white designers design plays by people of color without understanding the culture of the text Many of these designers would perpetuate stereotypes in their concept of scenery and/or costumes. in many cases, it was evident that the designer did not understand the cultural context of the play.I became determined not to allow my students to leave the program without some basic knowledge of the larger theater world.
What started out as a design course for my lighting students has evolved Into a history course. Ironically, this was at the request of my students. Although our starting point was design, they were more interested in reading about the cultures, seeing videos of various productions and documentaries, reading plays and spending more time discussing differences between cultures, having people of the various cultures come and guest lecture, and so on. We also spent time discussing the issue of race, particularly when examining works by people of color in America. I found it necessary to develop a common vocabulary for a course of this nature. Now we explore such terms as racism, prejudice, ethnicity, culture, and sexism. Through looking at the plays they become aware of such Issues as the enslavement of blacks, the removal of Native Americans to reservations, the singling out of Chinese for exclusion, and the placement of Japanese Americans in concentration camps. They also become aware that being American refers to more than just Caucasians.
The course has, in essence, become a look at the history of people of color throughout various parts of the world, as well as in the United States through theater. When teaching my multi-ethnic course or my class on African American women, students of both genders, and various ethnic and racial groups express their frustration, as well as outrage, for not having been taught a more encompassing history of America in school. Most of the students admit that upon finishing the course, they have a different perspective of what theater means and a greater appreciation and understanding of other cultures. They have a more global view of the world. My main observation has been that white students are less prone to take on a superior attitude when they are aware of the accomplishments of other cultures. For students of color, particularly many
8 KATHY A.PERKINS AND ROBERTA UNOAfrican Americans, who are often as ignorant as whites about achievements by people of African descent, a sense of pride emerges.
Like Kathy, I began research in theater history by accident. As a theater director I had no formal training as an historian, but as an Asian American theater artist I was reluctant to subscribe to the widely-held myth that Asian Americans had not started writing for the theater until the 1970s. Certainly Asian American culture blossomed as a result of the Civil Rights and anti-Viet Nam War movements.
However, I often wondered why we, as people with such strong traditions of popular and classical theater, would have to wait nearly 150 years to see evidence of an engagement of dramatic literature in America. I certainly understood that Asian American writing for the theater emerged later than our poetry and fiction because of the added dimension of theatrical production; but I couldn’t understand why Asian immigrants, who carried with them both the tradition and reverence of written language and the practice and culture of theatrical performance, could arrive in this country and suddenly become mute and unexpressive, waiting, as we are led to believe, for their children’s children to pick up a pen and compose a play.
As a director of contemporary theater, I began to find myself looking back; it became imperative to find out who had gone before me and my age set, to understand, as Anna Julia Cooper stated, “when and where I enter.” I felt the assumption that ours was a “new” literature and corresponded all too neatly with the xenophobic notion that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners in our own country, that we have no right to ownership, that we are the exotic, the other. I also identified with the few Asian American women in theater I met, who in the absence of a legacy, expressed the isolation they felt, each reinventing her own wheel.
The research of Hawaii-based writers and scholars, specifically Eric Chock, Arnold Hiura, Darryl Lum, and Steven Sumida, led me to writing by Asian American women for the theater beginning as early as the 1920s. I was thrilled to learn that some of these pioneers are still alive and was able to correspond with and interview them, adding their statements to a growing archive of over two hundred works by Asian American women playwrights.3 I learned from Asian American women who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s of their inspiration for 2 My research on African American stage designers has culminated, in part, in an exhibition at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center featuring over fifty African American designers for the American theater since the turn of the century. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950, which I edited in 1989, was an attempt to remedy the fallacy that African American women produced very little during the first part of this century.
INTRODUCTION 9writing for theater, their love of their art, their experiments with form—and their discouragement when their plays were rejected for production because the language they were forging deviated from standard English or because their works refused to conform to stereotypical themes and images, Ling-Ai Li, who wrote under her American name of Gladys Li, is possibly the earliest published Asian American woman playwright, spoke of Caucasian teachers who were stunned that she would have the audacity to write plays as an “Oriental” woman in the 1920s. Today in her nineties Li is still a working writer, living in New York City. But she abandoned her dream of writing for the theater
early on, discovering upon her arrival in New York:
No one was interested…an Oriental had no chance… I could have written better plays and bigger plays [but] when I got to New York I met all those theater people and I found out that there’s no place for a Chinese…. I went to their teas and conferences and they were interested to talk to me, but there was no place for me or any Chinese unless you did one of those “Chin Chin Chinaman Chinatown, my Chinatown” kind of plays.
(Li interview 26 December 1993) Listening to the experiences of these early writers was very moving for me; their words document the courageous efforts of Asian American women who attempted to break the bonds of gender, race, and class in a society which had rendered them silent and invisible. Each labored in isolation, inventing dialogue that would not be spoken, as they faced elements of the same oppression that today prevents women playwrights of color from receiving the attention and support they deserve. Encountering their body of written work, and their keen minds and generous, fighting spirits connected a vital lifeline for me, creating not only a cultural continuum, but a sense that our isolation can no longer be enforced once we know about each other’s work and struggles.
It is important to dig up our grandmother’s voices and speak for them. We are speaking for those people who didn’t have a voice.