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Let's Be Together: Affinity Space in Theater

Equity in the Arts
Lauren Yee and other artists gathered in Signature Theatre's lobby, holding drinks and smiling.
Larkees Jennifer Haley (far left) and Wenxuan Xue (second from right) with playwright Lauren Yee (third from right) and other artists at Signature Theatre's CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND community event.

Hosting community nights has been an effective approach for theaters to reach out to target community members and dedicate specific nights of performance for them. This season, we are seeing many playwrights working with Off-Broadway theaters to create affinity nights as part of their community engagement efforts, including some of the Lark-developed plays in production. For example, Donja R. Love’s one in two, a play that explores the intersection of Black, Queer, and HIV+ identities, hosted LGBTQ+ Night as well as Black, Queer, and Here Night, encouraging folx of these identities come and see his work. Similarly, Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, currently playing at Signature Theatre, has hosted multiple Asian American nights (and will host one more, coming up in March), while C.A. Johnson’s All The Natalie Portmans at MCC hosted both Black Night and Queer Night (each has one more coming up in March). Affinity nights have become a new trend across the off-Broadway theaters, and I think it’s exhilarating! 

I grew up in northeast China, an area that is more homogenous than New York City, with over 90% of the population being Han Chinese. Growing up, I was very used to living with people who look like me and speak like me, and I took it for granted. When I moved to the U.S., it was the first time I noticed the difference between me and the rest of the population. And when I went to see a Broadway play for the first time, I realized the majority of the theater-goers here are wealthy, elder, White populations. It was a huge cultural shock for me. Since then, I have always felt I was an outsider of the American theater. 

What alienated me is not simply the fact I look different, or come from a different background. It has more to do with what was being shown on stage and how it was received by the audience. When I went to see Anything Goes for my birthday (now I truly regret that decision, why did I ever think that was a good birthday present!?), I was cringing during the moments when the two Asian actors on stage had to perform stereotypical Chineseness. I was angry at the level of racism and cultural appropriation depicted in the show, but what was even more upsetting was that the audience around me were totally unaware of this. They were laughing and having fun, and it made me wonder, were we even watching the same show? 

Anything Goes might be an outdated show, but often, even when I am watching a new play, written by an Asian American playwright, other audience members’ responses still affect my experience. Of course the point of theater is to be in a community with each other, and of course different audiences have different reactions. But given that whoever the majority is in the audience can often dictate the collective response, there is a delicate power dynamic in play when the community in the audience doesn’t reflect the community represented on stage. For example, if it was only me and some other Asian audience members who could understand certain jokes, and if I responded vocally, I might be stared at, and feel exposed in the room. On the other hand, when a tragic event happens on stage that personally resonates with me, and non-Asian audiences react in a way that’s like “OMG, that’s so horrifying, but also so beautiful” as if it’s some trauma porn, I’d also feel deeply troubled by that. It’s similar in some ways to how white critics reviewing work by artists of color can be problematic, because they often judge pieces based on paradigms from cultures other than the one the plays are written for. In situations like these, I am hyper-conscious about not only my own reactions, but also the reactions around me. And because I’m hyper-conscious about all of this, it can be an exhausting experience. Sometimes I have to charge my energy before entering a theater space, because I know I will experience microaggressions, I know I’ll most likely hear my name mispronounced when I sign up for the waitlist, I know I’ll always be seen as a perpetual foreigner by people around me, I know I’ll always be exposed to the abundance of whiteness in the world. 

So. What if there were a night with an all Asian audience? What if the audience around me could also share a similar understanding of what happens in the play? What if there could be a space where I feel at home? 

If we can have a play with all Asian actors on stage, then why can’t we also have a house full of Asian audiences? If we have an evening (or sometimes multiple evenings) of performance dedicated to patrons and subscribers, why can’t we also have an evening of audience for the people the play is about, and perhaps for whom the play is written for? Especially those from marginalized communities. Everyday they are navigating a world of whiteness, straightness, patriarchy, and cisness, etc. When they come to see a show that explores and celebrates the richness of their stories and their identities, why can’t we do everything we can to support them?  Turns out a lot of playwrights are answering these questions, “we can.”

Cambodian Rock Band is a great example of that. On the second Asian American night, Lauren Yee posted on her Instagram with a picture of the audience and captioned it, “Hey American theater, you don’t have to invite the Asians in. We’re already here.” It’s sensational. It’s exciting. It’s beautiful. Unfortunately I didn’t see the play on one of the Asian American nights, but I did go to one of the earlier community events, and the cast shared some of the songs from the show with us. It was one of the first times I saw so many artists of Asian descent gathered together. For that brief hour, I was relieved and safe. I felt that I was in a room with people I could trust, though it was the first time I had met most of the people in that space. I didn’t need to constantly explain myself, why I do or don’t do certain things because of my cultural background. I didn’t need to feel insecure about myself and my identity. I felt a sense of home, a family. 

Affinity space doesn’t have to be all about race and ethnicity. It is about a group of people with shared backgrounds, goals, or values coming together. And just like we live in a world of intersections, affinity space doesn’t mean monolith. Under the umbrella of Asian audience, there is still a diverse range of ethnic groups speaking different languages (who were all pitted into the random category of “Asian” by Western colonists). Affinity space can also be relational depending on what’s most useful. Perhaps it’s useful to have an all-people of color space, or some time it might be more helpful to have an all Black space, i.e. The Movement Theater’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, or an all Filipino space, or folx whose native language is Spanish, etc. But the most important thing is that we gather because we can build a community together in spite of the system we are constantly encountering outside of the affinity space. 

Perhaps one day, we can exist in an affinity of human race on the global stage. Perhaps soon enough, we can be in solidarity with each other and find solutions together to combat any global issues including the coronavirus, overpopulation, refugee’s resettlement, and climate change as a cohort. But we must first heal from our own traumas before going onto the larger battlefield. We must have an anchor of home before leaving and stepping into the unknown. 

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