Mentorship for Students of Color
“What is the canon?”
No one spoke up- the gentle hum of the AC filling the silence of the room. I sat at my desk, pondering the question in my head, not exactly sure what it meant.
“Who’s in it? Are you in it?”
I left class that afternoon reeling- my head spinning with questions about my own identity and how that reflected my place in theater. Only a few days before this incident, I had auditioned for the first set of shows for the semester with a monologue from The Glass Menagerie, the same piece I had used for college auditions. I walked back to my dorm, running the lines in my head, diligently looking for some meaning behind the words. And to my dismay, I slowly started to realize it didn’t resonate with me as much as I thought it did, and it got me thinking: why had I chosen this monologue in the first place?
When I looked back to when I first discovered my love for theater and my experiences in high school, I was only exposed to the works of “the greats-” Shakespeare, Williams, Shepard, Miller- the ones considered in the “canon.” Without any exposure to playwrights of color, much less Asian-American playwrights, I discovered I had subconsciously self-identified with the white bodies on stage. I latched onto these narratives, because I thought I had to, because I thought they were my only option.
The same professor who challenged me that afternoon eventually encouraged me to take an African American Theater course. In that class, I was shown there were other stories out there. I still did not see myself in them, but that class gave me the push to look, and when I finally did, it started a process of self-discovery. My mind shifted and I started to exist in my perspective of what American theater was. Although that may not be reflected in the actual canon, it empowered me to push through and fight for my own voice and my own narrative.
For the next four years at school, that teacher took me under his wing and continued to influence my identity as a theater artist not only in the classroom, but on the stage as well. The fondest memories I have of working on shows were during the ones he directed me in, because for the first time, I was able to bring my whole being into the rehearsal room. Choices were made out of my own personal experiences as opposed to foreign theoreticals, because he understood who I was and where I came from. It didn’t matter what the source material was, because we could talk about it without walking on eggshells. It felt like what I always imagined a true collaboration would be. When he gave me permission to allow my art to be more personal, the driving force behind it became stronger. I wasn’t creating art just to create art, I was also inspired to challenge the oppressive structures not only in the institution, but in society in general. He chose A Raisin in the Sun as his directorial debut at school, which was the first production in the department’s history to be directed by an African-American faculty member, with an African-American cast. He chose to present King Hedley II at the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement in a predominantly white institution. He taught me that, in art, intent matters and that the intent needs to serve something beyond yourself.
I didn’t realize that I took having a mentor for granted until he passed away in November. I sat at his memorial and listened to student after student express their gratitude for his guidance, but also their concerns about who would take his place. Who, in this institution could continue the work he did for me and many other students of color when he was only one of two faculty members of color by the time of his passing?
I’ve read multiple accounts now, such as Cindy Tsai's The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School, of what students of color have suffered in their institutions and it makes me grateful to have had a source of support, but devastated over what students who don’t are currently experiencing. Microaggressions from my peers were enough to drive me to almost transfer after my first two semesters, so I can’t even imagine the pain of experiencing them from my classmates AND the faculty. In discussions of this issue, two solutions always surface: more cultural competency classes for faculty or hiring more professors of color. As someone who was fortunate enough to have had a role model, I would advocate for the latter. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to hold predominantly white faculties accountable, but even with competency classes, how can they properly guide me and people like me when they don’t have an understanding of what we have had to navigate, especially if they don’t share many, if any, of the same lived experiences as us? A huge demographic in educational institutions all over the nation have been feeling neglected. Why not hire someone who is actually equipped, not only to teach them, but also to help them understand the things they will have to fight against in this industry? Someone who has actually done so? It is the students’ right to have that guidance, because they sure pay enough money for it.
Recently, when I’ve opened up a draft of something I’m working on, there’s this familiar voice in the back of my head that asks me: “Do you want to be more than just the Asian character with one line? Or do you want to show people you can do anything?” Words often spoken to me in the rehearsal room. And sometimes, when I feel complacent about the things happening around me or in my own art, I hear my teacher’s constant reminder that I have to work harder than most of my peers, because of the color of my skin, because of my sexuality, because of where I came from, and it invigorates me.
So through my art and my administrative work, I try to honor the first person to make me think critically about theater, who pushed me to become aware of my own identity and my own place. I try to honor the person who took a young, aimlessly hopeful, Asian artist and led him to the voices and the stories that validated his own pain and his own joy.
I try to honor Rodney Gilbert.
An excerpt from "Mentorship for Students of Color" appeared in the May 2018 edition of The Lark's monthly newsletter. To get more stories like this straight to your inbox, sign up for The Lark's mailing list!