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But Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise

Stages of Resistance
Velina Hasu Houston in a shiny, green shirt sits on a couch and smiles at the camera.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!

Don’t write about people of color.

Don’t blend Eastern and Western theater aesthetics.

These were things that were said to me when I began making art for the stage.

The inspirations for the art I wanted to make often included immigrants, people of color, and globally blended theater aesthetics. Did that mean I needed to learn to be an excellent secretary, like many of my white teachers in Junction City, Kansas, told me? No.

For someone who is Japanese, African American, Native American Indian, and Cuban, life is always political. Even amid this complexity, people of color come from mono-ethnic perspectives and do not understand a multiethnic perspective such as mine. To exist in almost any space creates challenges, but the making of art that resists those challenges allows me to liberate myself from the categorical cages into which many feel they must place me. Art, therefore, is an avenue to freedom.

When I began making art professionally in the 1980s, words such as “multiculturalism” or “diversity” or “emerging artist” were not in use. It was a time after affirmative action and before multiculturalism, so there were no systems in place to make my journey any easier. Being a young playwright was considered a disadvantage because I did not have experience. Now being an older artist is considered a disadvantage; young and older artists often ask me when I will stop creating. Besides being in five “minority” groups – Asian, Black, Latina, Native American Indian, and female – I now have the pleasure of a sixth: elder. In Kansas, where I grew up, the terms of navigational lubrication – multiculturalism, diversity, emerging artists – were not a part of the conversation and one was expected to accept the mainstream’s conventions, even if it eliminated your actuality and your perspective. Fortunately, I was a rebel to race and to the arts from the outset. My father had been a soldier in three wars (World War II, the Korean War, and the war of having dark skin in the U.S.) and there were global wars everywhere, so it was part of the DNA of my calling. Bring it on.

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was discouraged from writing stories about Japanese immigrants, women, and any other people of color. My style of writing, which often meshes East and West, and can employ elements that have no place in Western theater traditions, was also discouraged. I was made to feel as if my perspective on the world was wrong and that I needed to choose the “right” path. When visiting a professor, he expressed disappointment about my interest in people of color, particularly Japanese women. The fan whirred in his office as he said, “You need to write for a whiter audience.” At first, I was not sure if he said “wider” or “whiter,” so I asked, which only made him angry. He said if I was serious about my playwriting, I needed to understand “nobody is interested in the lives of Japanese women.” He encouraged me not to waste my time. One of the plays that he was opposed to was Tea, which has been produced and studied around the world (it premiered in 1987 at Manhattan Theatre Club and continues to be produced today) including in such countries as China, Japan, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Egypt, India, and others.

The professor’s counsel inspired me to write a thesis play – Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken) – that was set in 1946 Japan; and that included Japanese and African American characters. Indeed, he inspired me to continue to dance with the ghosts and other surreal entities that had found their way into my imagination due to the Japanese folklore my mother shared with me.

My art resists what the Western world (and perhaps the East, too) considers to be conventional, “real” cultural representations. Frequently, I am told by people of color such things as “You don’t know what a real Asian is” or “You don’t know what real Black people are.” My art instigates new ways of seeing and being in the vein of culture. My “real” when it comes to being Japanese, Black, Latina, or Native American Indian is my real. One must tend your own garden. Furthermore, I grew up with stories in which The Real and The Supernatural were without borders. I did not need to write for a whiter audience or for an audience that needs to assess my cultural authenticity.

This is what I do: I write, I create. I am glad I took a path less traveled. I would feel that I had compromised myself if I had not.

Some people have told me my uncommon choices are not political at all. They speak of politics as if it can only pertain to things governmental. I, however, explore the politics of life. I explore intersections of humanity that most feel should not be in conversation with each other. I poke at the underbellies of such intersections and seek illumination about what they can be. I am not content to stand in the river and let the currents sway me in one direction or another. No. I must move against the currents. What other choice is there if I hope the world can learn and grow and change?

I believe art has the power to transform society. When audiences are exposed to art, certain things are illuminated that make them perceive differently to one degree or another. It may be a very small degree, but it is a step in a direction that otherwise may have never been considered.

Borders, speed bumps, and naysayers will emerge – from individuals, one society or another, and sources that believe their perspective on life is everybody’s law. Artists must jump over those borders, ride those speed bumps and leave them behind, and smile at the naysayers. And then turn to your art and create, create, create.