Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Is the Tribune's Theater Critic Chris Jones a Racist?

For years I've wondered If Chris Jones is racist.

Here's some backstory. I'm a Korean-American actor who recently moved from Chicago to LA. From 2002 to 2015, I transitioned from improv classes to storefront theater to my Equity card. Over time, I began to wonder if the Chicago Tribune's main theater critic Chris Jones was a racist. I asked several members of the theater community there. We hemmed and hawed, but no one wanted to speak up. Plus, it's a difficult and painful survey -- to go back and calculate the percentage of white plays which get 3.5-4 star reviews vs plays of color which get 3.5-4 star reviews. I started and then stopped because the initial data hurt my heart.

But now I live in LA. And again, I've watched my Asian-American colleagues suffer yet another poor review. There are ripples to prejudiced reviews. The box office receipts are lower, the Asian immigrant community wags its fingers at its youth for pursuing art, theaters across town decide to do another "safe" play, and the whole country just plain loses when people don't confront their racism.

Here's my letter to the Editor of the Tribune which the paper chose to ignore. Let's ask the question: Is Mr Jones racist?


To the Chicago Tribune:

Chris Jones once again gave an Asian play 2.5 stars. Mr. Jones who grew up in a predominantly white society often gives glowing 3.5-4 star reviews to plays centered around white people talking to white people. This is especially true of white plays done by the storefront scene.

However, Mr. Jones does not extend this generosity toward Asian plays. In fact, his reviews are usually out of step with the overall tone of the other reviewers. Timeline's Chimerica is the latest to fall victim to his racist POV. Other excellent productions which were ignominiously subjected to his racist perspective include The White Snake (of which I was in the cast), Blood and Gifts, Yellowface, Kafka on the Shore and Jungle Book. Yes, he gave Chinglish 4 stars, but that play happened to be Broadway material.

The white theatrical community has benefited greatly from his support of their work and their efforts. A theater critic is part of the industry. They guide and shepherd audience members through the vast array of offerings. But the critic also needs to be mindful of the composition of audiences. Championing white theater is wonderful, but routinely tearing down Asian-American theatrical in-roads is short-sighted and shameful.

Hollywood is coming under fire for its racist practices because it is filled with unconscious racists. These are white people with media power who were raised when the throat of Culture was gripped by the white hegemony. But we now live in a post-Obama America. Power and color are no longer synonymous. Legitimacy and race are no longer tied together by a white rope. Whitewashing on screen is no longer tolerated, and a critic’s blatant derision of yellow faces on stage is vile.

Kafka on the Shore may not have been a perfect production, but it was a cataclysmic event for me. I’d never seen East Asian faces portraying an East Asian story. But tepid reviews kept patrons away, especially traditional Asian immigrants who care very much what the White Man thinks.

It would behoove Chicago's theater scene to examine its deep-seated prejudices. Hedy Weiss was called out for her blatantly racist review of Invasion!. I've stood by long enough while Chris Jones repeatedly writes of his distaste for plays composed of Asian faces. Chicago deserves critics more discerning than that, and Asian-American theatrical professionals deserve more dignified treatment than that.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Suicidal Speaks

Suicidals rarely speak to one another about The Subject. To be fair, Suicidals almost never speak openly about their ideations.  Consequently, I have little idea if my experience as a Suicidal is anything akin to that of others.  But I do know that I have felt misunderstood by Non-Suicidals.  Also, the few times I have read and heard from Suicidals - Stephen Fry's essay and Shawn Colvin's interview on Oprah to name two - I have felt the relief that comes from hearing from one's tribe.

In light of Robin Williams' passing, I'm going to expose my relationship to Suicide as a concept and as an on-going reality in my existence.  In doing so, I hope even one person will learn something constructive.  It's likely that some will be offended because several have been offended in the past.  It is possible, however, that another Suicidal out there will feel a little less lonely and get just a little more breathing room ... for it's the isolation that is so utterly suffocating.

After yesterday's news, many Non-Suicidals (hereafter referred to Non's) have written and posted, "When depressed, call a friend."

As someone who has been in the vice grip of Suicidal Ideation all her life and as recently as May, I can attest to this:  By the time you're contemplating nooses and knives, there are no appropriate friends left.  Either you've pissed them all off, or the shame keeps all depressive thoughts hidden. If there had been a trusted friend or therapist, a Suicidal wouldn't have come this far down the road.

Additionally, perspectives on Life and Death are so intimately personal that most people cannot talk to a person contemplating suicide without being activated themselves.  Then the tightly coherent Suicidal has to listen to a Non's flimsy impromptu polemic on Life.  This leaves the Suicidal mute, unheard and unrelieved of burden.

I get it - it's hard to listen to someone who is having a hard time with the idea of living.  But please don't be so glib to think that we Suicidals haven't already tried phone calls. That kind of listening takes training - a lot of training.  In fact, trained personnel are often not trained enough.

Twice I've called Suicide Hotlines in the middle of the night, only to hang up on them.  I don't know what they teach those people.  Maybe you're only supposed to call if you have a gun to your head.  But I deeply desired someone anonymous to listen.  I just needed to funnel these inchoate thoughts into semi-tangible words.  Instead of listening, I twice received "counselors" who seemed offended that I wasn't in the middle of my suicide plan.

Years ago, I met someone who worked as a counselor at Northwestern Memorial's Mental Health Hotline.  He told me of a woman who called in every night as she was going to sleep.  None of the counselors knew who she was, but they were all aware of this "regular."  She simply wanted to say good night to another human being, and they were generous enough to let her. Technically should she have been using the Suicide Hotline?  Maybe not.  But suicide isn't about technicalities.  It's about terror and fear ... it's the monster who is uncontainable by protocol.

I've learned to stop talking to friends when I feel suicidal.  I only get responses which frustrate me.  I get responses which try to fix me, change my mind, block me or shake me. I get responses which have more to do with them and are completely unhelpful to me. Adages like "We love you" and "It's not fair to other people" are not helpful when I am longing for relief.

So, what would help? What, pray tell, could a Non do or say when confronted with this knot of. Life and Death?

Well, first of all, it would feel so great if someone would just say, "You sound like you are in so much pain right now."

To know that I'm sitting with someone on the same page always helps me breathe a little easier.

And then maybe something like:
"I'm not where you are right now, so I can't honestly say that I know how you feel.  I'm not going to try and fix you - if you're this far along, I'm sure you've tried and thought of everything.  So I can't *do* anything for you.  But I can sit and listen.  If you feel like you're having to hold yourself together ... if you feel like you just want to let go for once, I'll listen and let you let it out.  And because I'm not in your position, you don't have to worry about me.  I'll sit and stay steady while you let go and get it out of you."

It is likely that many of us will know someone who commits suicide.  My freshman advisor locked himself in a car and turned on the engine during my spring break.  A friend hanged herself at the magic age of 27.  Sometime before the age of 30, a slightly distant aunt drank insecticide and lay down under the enormous cherry tree at the family house. These are just a few.

And anyone in the arts will know someone who takes their own life.  Why the arts?  Because we are creative people who live in the realm of vulnerability and uncertainty.  We embrace independent thought, and some of us will take it as far as choosing to take ultimate control of our lives.

Will I someday take my own life? I don't know.  But I do know that I am solely responsible for my happiness, and I am the best judge of the best path.  Some have said that they would never commit suicide because of the hurt it brings to others.  But I also know firsthand that living out of commitment to others only breeds resentment and eventual hate.  So either I live with inner peace, or I die.  That is my commitment.  And as a Suicidal, the fact that I get to choose gives me breathing room.

Robin Williams, Godspeed.  All of Genie's wishes have now come true.

* I do not speak for all Suicidals.  I only write for the illumination of a particular mindset which is not extensively covered in the media.

Friday, May 16, 2014

My Ultimate Wish for Us - Thoughts on "Fresh Off the Boat"

A dear friend messaged me with this trailer for ABC's new pilot Fresh Off the Boat at 6:53am, a testament to his enthusiasm for the project and for my people.

Today's Moral:  Be careful when messaging Eliza.  She can get *very* wordy.  Reply is below.

Dear Friend:

This is going to be a lengthy response because it's a topic I've been thinking quite a bit about lately.  My different personas have distinct responses to Fresh Off the Boat.

First, as an Asian-American actor, I love it.  It looks smart and funny, and it's a perfect way to get Asian experiences mainstreamed.  I hope it survives for a few seasons, and I appreciate the strides we are making.

On a personal level, it hurts to watch the trailer.  My own experience was so blisteringly and unrelentingly painful that watching "Asians having fun" increases my feelings of alienation.  How will it feel to be a suicidal Asian-American teenager seeing a pretend Asian family cracks mainstream jokes on network TV?  A part of me balks at the idea of America seeing a bunch of quick-witted jokey Asians.  I fear that our deeper underlying issues will be dismissed even more.  The rate of untreated mental health disorders and domestic violence in minority cultures is so high, and this is due to shame and silence.  Will the TV empower us or shame us more?

I do, however, concede that we may actually be increasing our odds of finding help by bringing our culture into the mainstream conscience.  But the skeptical side of me looks other minorities and wonders if that's just another TV pipe dream.  

Personally, I champion the writing that brings our ghosts out of the closet, the writing that pinpoints and damns the deeper cultural behaviors that poison my people.  Jokes about food and mistranslation and the Old Country feel shallow sometimes.  But perhaps laughter can mitigate the harder times.  Perhaps levity can ironically help us change the terrible ways we treat each other which arise out of the simple and base fears of being an immigrant.

In the meantime, I will support any ethnic voice which emerges into mainstream media.  At this point, any ethnic writing takes bravery.  The world gets better by one step at a time, even if that step is slightly different from mine.  

I just challenge those of who know better.  Let's go beyond the gimmicky, food-centered and obvious topics into the hearts - dirty, tired and damaged though they may be - of our people.  The cliche holds here: the Truth - if we have the courage to write it - will set us free.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014: My Year of Living

Flying in the face of Cynicism and and Scorn … defying Petty Disdain and Paltry Excuse, I, Eliza Shin, resolve to live every day of 2014.  I shall mark each day of the twelve months of 2014, and in declaring so, I throw my arms out and lay down my defenses.  Instantly, I am vulnerable to your doubt.  In days to come, I shall be vulnerable to my own ridicule and fatigue.  Nevertheless, today I stand and proclaim my intention to live out 2014.

How??  Why????  Thanks for asking!  :)

Basic Premise:  I will do *something* everyday for a month.  New month?  New Thing!

Inspiration came from three distinct sources:  
1.  Elizabeth Gilbert's glowing Happiness Jars

2.  Matt Cutts' 4 minute incisive TED talk "Try Something New for 30 Days" 

3.  Anna Chui's splendid article on LifeHack "Here's a Shocking Truth If You Think You've Wasted Your Life"

It all started with the inspiration to do a year-long Happiness Jar.  As great as that idea is, I tried a similar project before, and the novelty wore off sometime in March or November.  So, Matt Cutt's talk gave me the idea to refresh myself each month with a different "marker."  The clincher was Anna Chui's article.  The knowledge of death - that there is an end to life … the knowledge that we are not suspended in a gelatinous eternity - is what summons our vitality.

So, my January days shall have a Happiness Jar.  

Other possible Things/Markers/Summoners of Vitality include 
Write a poem
Ride my bike
Take a photo
Clean the house (oh my!)
Give to a charity
Play an instrument (I have 5 to choose from at home)
Swim (!!!!)
… and whatever other iridescent hummingbird of an idea flits across my vision in the days to come.

People in my own family have scorned my idea of greeting the new year with Resolve … but this Kimchi Babe is undaunted.  I'm spicing this year up.  Welcome, fellow adventures, to this thing we call Life!

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Murmuration of Thanks - My Tribute to Rich and Judy Shereikis

I waited too long.  I almost called just a dozen days earlier on Easter but didn't.  He who hesitates may not always die, but I hesitated and in the meantime, the man who effectively served as my English-speaking childhood father died.

Rich Shereikis and my father supposedly met as roommates the night before their interviews at the then newly-built Sangamon State University in Springfield, IL.  I write "supposedly" because when my father doesn't want to talk, he won't talk.    The reasons are legion, but as an internationally known lecturer, he is versed in the lecture form.  Conversation, especially with the daughter of his first wife, has always been halting at best.

Both Rich and my father were hired, and thus our families became intertwined.  Rich and his ebullient wife Judy had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age my myself.  For me -- a verbose and fidgety girl -- the English-speaking Shereikis house was as good as an amusement park.  I recall an abundance of glue, cats, laughter, yarn, people, popsicle sticks, conversation, paint, ease ....

Granted, my adult self understands fully that laughter and conversation are frequent guests when actual human guests are in a house.  And just as the humans say their good-byes and drive away, Laughter and Conversation often take their leave as well.  Then Tension, like a sullen outdoor family cat, starts meowing on the landing.  I know perfectly well that the Shereikis family had their own familial battles.

But as a three-year-old child of an ESL father who had just buried his first wife ... as the young daughter of a man who had been clearly angry at his wife while she was alive and was now enraged that she unceremoniously abandoned him ... well, I slurped up all the coherent affection I received from Rich and Judy and brood.  Having already parented three kids, they understood noise and clamor and mess.  Looking back, however, the highlight was that this family could converse in non-academic preschool English.  They could actually understand me.

This family saw me through the hardest time in my life.  They watched my mother stumble through her leukemia.  They housed me on occasion through her ill health.  They most certainly came to the funeral where I recall being bored, kicking my chair and wishing the Korean pastor would follow the American pastor's lead and say something I could understand.

The Shereikis house would go on to provide a steady loving presence through what would become 18 months of rotating female-relations.  My Korean family members pitched in to help my father by sending in cousins and aunties to come stay with me.  Unfortunately, what no one predicted was that a three-year-old heart would break over and over again at every departure.  Believe me, I am just as infuriated at the little three-year-old psyche as my father was for not being more compliant.  But the heart trumps intellect every time, absolutely every stubborn time.

Then my father brought home a 90-pound non-English speaker as his new wife.  Judy valiantly stepped up as a tutor, introducing this timid waif to the ball-busting English language.  I hadn't met my new step-mother before the wedding, either, and I have often wondered what Judy thought of my father's collage of a family.  The glue to this construction was secrecy.  My father expressly forbade me from speaking of my mother or her passing.  The 21st century me is a bit disgusted -- seems like a girl should approve of her new mother and mourn the passing of her "real" mother -- but that's my modern brain talking.

Michael the youngest Shereikis and I attended all four years of high school together.  With his older sister Becky already at the Southeast Spartan helm, it felt like having pseudo-siblings at school.  For four refreshing years, I didn't have a secret.  It also helped that Michael and I shared quite a bit of the high school experience.  Being children of academics, we were really good at our academics.  We took all the high-track classes together, applied to Ivy League schools together and eventually both went East.  Our goals made sense, our focus made sense, and in Michael's presence, my life made sense.  Despite my father's prohibition, Michael knew, Judy knew, Rich knew, Becky knew ... and they never made me feel ashamed.

Decades passed, and the Shins lost touch with the Shereikis's.  However, a few years ago, I learned that Rich and Judy were close by in Evanston.  Although I desperately wanted to reach out, something held me back.  Rich and Judy held my most sought-after prize - precious memories of those years of my mother's illness and my childhood in English.  The language and cultural barriers in my household ensure that all conversations are riddled with bullet holes of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.  All through school, my parents would chant "Do well!  Do well!" to me before every test, every day of school, every event.  I would snap, "I know!" and they would retort, "What's your problem?"  About 10 years after I left the house, the subtitles to a Korean soap opera silently informed me that the idiomatic translation is "Good luck.  Good luck."  "Idiotic idioms," I muttered.

But these two exquisite people -- Rich and Judy -- would be able to tell me what happened in English through American eyes.  Because no matter my ethnicity or my fluency with Korean, all the intricacies and nuances of my Self and my experiences are decoded into English, filtered through this mind which was molded in America.

Yes, I've been to plenty of therapy, but sometimes all a person needs is a witness.  I didn't have the capacity to digest the events of 1973-5 with my childhood intellect, but I've never stopped thirsting for the details.  Once I knew where Rich and Judy lived, my parched heart felt greedy and restless.  So I waited for it to calm down.  Well, in this case, Rich's heart gave out first.

The Shereikis family gave this child a haven when she needed it most.   Shame on me for never turning around and saying thank you.  But thank you thank you thank you -- I offer up a murmuration of thank you's.  From the bottom of this stunted middle-aged heart, I say thank you for caring for a girl who wan't your own.  At an age when I couldn't even pray, you were nevertheless heaven sent.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Happiness Times 100, Multiplied By Zero

The headline said "Click this and feel 100 times happier."  Sounded great to me - I was already in a great mood.  Who the hell doesn't want to be 100 times happier?  Plus, the link was from a trusted friend who lives in an ashram and regularly posts uplifting quotes.  What could go wrong?

Well, two minutes later, my feelings were hurt.  Two hours later, I was openly pissed off from the video.  And by 7:30pm, I went to bed depressed, hoping to wipe my psychological slate clean.

What was in that video?

"Click this and feel 100 times happier."  The video started with a soothing sunny shot of smiling people holding balloons outdoors.  The voiceover promised me that this video was about True Love.  So far, so good.  Then a young man looks straight into the camera and says, "I know true love exists."

For a suspended second, I expected him to talk about his lover -- male, female, tranny, hermaphrodite, whatever.  Love was in the air à la Supreme Court Style, and I awaited a heart-warming quip.  Adding to the atmosphere was the copious April sunshine.  Ah, I was ready to be 100 times happier!

"I know true love exists.  I've seen in in the eyes of my parents since the day I was born."

This drilled right into the most susceptible part of my heart - a place I thought had healed long ago.

Now I know for a fact that I'm not the only one living on this earth who has never had a comprehensible gesture of love from their parents.  Usually, I pull this off fairly well.  I've learned oodles from therapy and self-help books.  Here are a few gems:

1.  On a "higher plane," my parents love me unconditionally.
2.  Some of us, before we incarnate this time, choose early emotional trauma so that we can delve into a deeper emotional experience at an earlier age.
3.  Lack of parental love or guidance makes me stronger.
4.  I'm who I am because of the experiences of my youth ...

... and on and on and on ....

Now what startled me the most was that I'm still sore about this.  In fact, I thought I was better than this.    Hadn't I outgrown my outrage at having been dealt my tough hand?  I shrieked silently at myself, "You're too old for this.  You're too old for this.  This is unbecoming.  You're too old for this."

Let me jump back here.  About ten years ago, I found myself sitting in a hotel bar past midnight.  Across from me was one of my former professors who was in town for a conference.  Suddenly he was admitting, "I've only had sex with one person."  Hmmm, I realized *this* is happening.  I was in the driver's seat, and I knew it.  Mulling this over in my mind, I purposefully kept the conversation on tender and intimate territory.

But he was an amateur at seduction, and it was not to be.  Feeling a tad too cozy, he spilled, " ... and I know it's because of my dad ... " and proceeded to elaborate on how his father's coldness and distance had hurt his boyhood feelings.

Within five minutes, I was out of the hotel and in a cab.  A man of nearly 50 still blaming his father for his current emotional state?  "Get over it," I thought.  It seemed undignified, unseemly and uncouth.  How could someone almost 50 still be moaning about his father?  "Get help, and get over it," I thought as I crawled into my own bed alone.

But here I am, ten years later, in bed alone (yet again) after a two-minute video bruises my childhood feelings.  Maybe my former professor wasn't as stunted as I'd imagined.  What haunts me the most is the possibility that my assignation of parents -- something I had no control over -- doomed me to isolation then and keeps me in this vice of isolation now.

Romantic partnership advertises itself as a salvation from past isolation.  Romantic partnership also seemingly has the benefit of the lottery -- anyone can step up and buy a ticket.  But maybe that isn't true.  Maybe some of us have been marked from day one -- from the day the doctor said, "It's a girl," and the parents said, "Oh," while the grandparents said, "Maybe next time."  But it wasn't just Day One.  There's also the day when I was 10 and they were disappointed in my IQ ... the day when I was five when they suggested I have plastic surgery ... etc.

Nevertheless, it feels uncouth, unseemly and undignified to still be affected at my age ... to still be mad ... to still even remember these petty details.  In this age of regeneration and mindfulness, don't we all accept that they did the best they could?  Can't I accept that they did the best they could?

Watching videos like the one today, I'm reminded that my green-eyed monster lives.  After all this time and thought and money, I still don't know how to wholly kill it or starve it or love it or annihilate it or incorporate it.  I guess it's time to take myself back to my proverbial psychological drawing board.  Shall I write "I will not be jealous of other people's loving parents" 100 times?  Or I could write "I promise to get over this crap" 100 times.  Or I could just write ... and trust ... and write .... and release ... and write ... and breathe ... and wait ... and keep writing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

10 Commandments for 21st Century American Theater - through the eyes of a yellow face

Imitation is the highest form of flattery ... so let's raise a glass to the Old Testament Big Guy.  I love telling people what to do, so here's my response to recent race discussions in the Chicago theatrical community.

1.  Thou shalt not use makeup, masks or prosthetics to suggest or obscure an actor's ethnicity.
This is akin to pulling back the corners of your eyes and then claiming that you're Chinese.  It's tasteless and puerile.

2.  Thou shalt not invoke "artistic license" when questioned about cultural choices made in your production.
If you're grown up enough to put up a production, you're grown up enough to justify and explain your decisions.

3.  Thou shalt not leave ethnic breakdowns out of casting notices.
By listing ethnicity or delineating "open ethnicity," you will increase the numbers of appropriate actors at your auditions.  I cannot logistically go to every audition for non-specified females.  Also, you don't get to leave out ethnicity from your audition notice for a culturally-specific play and then claim that not enough ethnic actors showed up.  

4.  Thou shalt not mount a culturally-specific play without cultural consultation.
This is does not have to fall on your dramaturg -- they are busy enough.  Get a Cultural Consultant like they did for Kite Runner or get a local Buddhist monk or a community member or your friend's immigrant mother ... get someone.

 5.  Thou shalt not ask ethnic actors to find other ethnic actors and call that your "minority casting call."
The ethnic acting communities are large enough that, believe it or not, we don't all know each other.  Also, new faces show up everyday.  Give everyone a fair shot at your play.

6.  Thou shalt not expand the acting opportunities of white actors in the name of "multi-cultural open color-blind casting."
No other occupation allows 20% minority inclusion and then starts taking away jobs from minorities in order to hire more white people.

7.  Thou shalt not dismantle new or unfamiliar culturally-specific work with "multi-cultural casting" and invoke Shakespeare.
The classics are part of the active literary consciousness.  If I put a collar on my cat and call him Macbeth, people will expect him to be a badass cat.  You can't put a white woman on stage, call her Mariko Matsumura and expect me to know what the hell you are trying to say.

8.  Thou shalt not give all the leads to white actors, cast minority actors in subordinate roles and be unaware of the message you are sending.
A production with a white king, a black servant and an Asian "dog" is not ok ... even if it is The Royal Shakespeare Company.

9.  Thou shalt not invoke white people's money as a justification for discriminatory practices and programming.
The white public can relate to stories containing minorities as evidenced by the aforementioned Kite Runner, August Wilson's plays and even Harold and Kumar.  And guess what? My money's green, too.

10.  Thou shalt remember that theater is capable of incisive exploration of the present human condition.
"I want to burn with the spirit of the times.  I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny.  I am disturbed at my comrades' failure to rise above narrow caste interests which are alien to the interests of society at large.  Yes, the theater can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence."  Vsevolod Meyerhold

... aaaaaaaaaand "Scene!"