The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School

My First Semester of College as a Person of Color in a B.F.A. Musical Theatre Program

By Cindy Tsai ’21

1 | MY DREAMS WITHIN REACH

On my first day of college, I looked left and right and saw one other person in the selective training program for musical theatre who looked like me. Only one. And I thought, “Hey Cindy. You made it. You’re special. A program of seventeen people and you’re one of them. You should feel lucky.” So, I came here, expecting nothing less than the best damn training, the greatest sense of empathy, hoping to learn how to be in this industry – this white industry – as a person of color. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition has recorded that approximately 80% of all Broadway and Off-Broadway roles go to white actors, while Broadway and Off-Broadway sweeps an average of 78.5% of white audiences (Onuoha). Not knowing these statistics, I was in for a few surprises.

I was originally deferred from this college program. To force my way in, I met with the head of the department. After a relatively unsuccessful audition season, I looked him in the eye and said, point blank, “I am terrified of entering this industry. How am I supposed to make it?”

This white man responded that I had nothing to worry about, because there are shows like Hamilton now. I could be in Hamilton, he said, while he couldn’t. Hamilton is a musical written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, in which the Founding Fathers of the United States and other historical figures are played by people of color (known as “color-conscious casting”). And you know how I reacted? I agreed. I actually believed that his words were encouraging, that somehow, Hamilton evened out the playing field, that I have nothing to worry about. It didn’t occur to me that that was an instance of minimization of racism. That somehow, in his eyes, one production could make up for all of the unequal opportunity people like me face in this industry. I left his office, and three weeks later, I was accepted – to the school of my dreams.

2 | ROOTS

That leads me to my first semester of college in this intense training program. I moved from San Gabriel Valley, which has the largest concentration of Asian American communities in the United States, to Boston, which has on several occasions, been named one of the most segregated cities in America. Growing up in San Gabriel Valley, I was blind to racism. In fact, I didn’t even know that I counted as a “person of color” until my last year of high school. Being Asian in an area where there was such a strong Asian community felt normal to me. About 27% of California residents are immigrants (Hayes). Thus, there is also a substantial population of children of immigrants, like me. A lot of my friends from high school are children of immigrants, and I found myself immersed in a cultural metropolis growing up. I was born an American citizen, but growing up with immigrant parents made my Chinese culture integral to my upbringing. Even if there were racial subtleties that occurred around me, my protective armor and strong sense of pride shielded me from ever noticing them until I left for college. Expectedly, I experienced extreme culture shock when I arrived in Boston. Suddenly, I was being stared at. Every time I met someone new, I was presumed to be an international student. Scared of being “othered,” I over-Americanized my voice, widened my eyes as big as I could, and disassociated myself from other Asian people.

In my program, I am the only person who has never been the lead in a musical. I have been in over twenty productions and I have never once played the lead. I’ve been typecast, of course: the Harvard admissions officer in Legally Blonde because of the nerdy Asian stereotype, Tiger Lily in Peter Pan because I was the only ethnic person in the production, Schroeder in Charlie Brown because all Asians grew up playing the piano (right?); countless racial-based subtleties in the roles I was cast in, and through all of that, not one lead role. But hey, I have four years of college to make that change. Ignore the fact that through the four shows my college put on in my first semester, not one person of color was cast in the leading role. One show, Pride and Prejudice, cast a good number of people of color, but Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy (the two leading roles) were both played by white actors. Because the school’s theatre programs don’t value diversity, it’s difficult to cast people of color in leading roles because there aren’t enough actors of color to choose from in the first place. After all of the typecasting in one-dimensional and stereotype-rich roles that I endured before college, my hopes of finally playing the lead in a musical began slipping away.

3 | THE PROGRAM

One requirement of the musical theatre program here is that each student must have private coaching sessions with the department’s faculty members twice a semester. Just the student and the faculty members in a room together. During one coaching session, I asked for suggestions from a faculty member for new songs I should put in my audition book. The white faculty member asked if I had looked at The King and I. This suggestion had nothing to do with my voice range or my personality. This suggestion was given on the basis that I could play someone in The King and I, a show that portrays a group of Asian people as barbaric and exotic, then shows these people being indoctrinated with English culture. This advice was a shortcut – an excuse to see me as less than a full human being, as nothing more than my race. Thanks for the suggestion.

One day in jazz class, the instructor was teaching a dance move and specified that boys should do it one way and girls should do it another way. My classmates and I cringed as she continued, saying that in this industry, there are certain standards for male and female parts… the same way there are standards for racial types. She looked at me and said that if a part called for an Asian female, I would be typed as that because that is what I am. Thanks for the reminder.

I didn’t realize how much I stood out in this program. My white classmates are seen as blank, the norm, while I am color.

4 | SOMETHING’S WRONG

October 24th, 2017 was a day that changed me. All of these microaggressions happening around me seemed like subtleties – until a protest erupted. A group on campus, POWER, led a protest about the college’s lack of accountability to the diversity clause in its mission statement. I joined in, following the crowd to crash the faculty assembly.

As I marched with my peers into the room, my eyes locked with someone walking out – the head of the musical theatre department. The same man who told me I had nothing to worry about, because of Hamilton’s existence. He walked out before the protest started.

I went in and followed the chants of my peers – “No more oppression, no microaggressions!” and “Education is a right, that is why we have to fight!” I looked around and saw how uncomfortable the faculty members were. As the chants settled and leaders of the group began to speak, I searched for the faculty members of my program. Surely, they must be here (though the head of the program had already left). I spotted two musical theatre faculty members and smiled – thank goodness, they were here to witness this. But after a short while, I realized that their body language was stiff. They never clapped for speakers; when all faculty members were asked to stand, they remained in their seats; and they left before the leaders had finished speaking. I even had class with one of the faculty members right after the protest, and she didn’t say a word about it.

I can still recall how I felt during that protest. I felt empowered, frustrated, angry, sad, understood. It was a moment of reality for me. One instance in which I realized that I am different. It validated all of the microaggressions I experienced since I moved to Boston. It showed me where the priorities of my program’s faculty lie. It was a wake-up call. This is the world I live in.

5 | COMING TO TERMS

After the protest, I began noticing microaggressions and racism more easily. A comment in class minimizing racism here, a racial stereotype employed there. One day we had a debate about Miss Saigon, a musical based on the opera Madame Butterfly about the romance between a South Vietnamese woman and an American soldier. The musical has received criticism for its historical inaccuracy surrounding the Vietnam War and the racist stereotypes employed throughout, not to mention its solidification of white authority and the “white savior” narrative. During the debate about the historical accuracy of the piece, a classmate stated that the musical isn’t offensive because that is how it happened, that it was history. According to who? The white writers of the show?

During another debate about lack of opportunity for people of color, another classmate offered evidence to my Asian American friend – the show Shadowhunters has a role for an Asian male, Magnus Bane. As if the one role could make up for the hundreds that white men have at their disposal. And to add to it, Magnus Bane in Shadowhunters is considered a “downworlder” or essentially a demon, which marks him as the “other.” He is also described as exotic and flamboyant.

These two instances are examples of how microaggressions could be sent by the best-intentioned people. The Miss Saigon historical inaccuracy comment comes from what people are taught in Western culture, and how we operate systemically. The Shadowhunters example was sent with the intention of encouraging a friend of color, but was received as a minimization of racism. I observed these comments as moments of good intentions not being enough – that there must be a fundamental change in the way we think in order to start battling these issues of microaggressions.

Slowly, I gathered the courage to confide in one of the faculty members. I set an appointment, and she and I spoke about how I had been feeling since I arrived and the disappointment I felt in the head of the department. I expressed my concerns about the diversity in the program and the ignorance I heard in faculty members’ comments to me. She validated everything, agreeing that the microaggressions I faced were uncalled for and hurtful. Through tears and stories shared, we agreed to set up a meeting with the head of the program to talk through all of the doubt and loss of faith I had in this school and this faculty. She offered to be in the meeting with me as support.

6 | CONFRONTATION

The day came for me to meet up with the head of the program to discuss what I had been feeling since I started college.

I brought up the incident when a faculty member told me to look at The King and I. He responded by telling me that the mission statement of the program is to make students as self-sufficient and marketable as possible. He said that any suggestions I had been given were in service of that mission statement. It’s discouraging to know that in this training program, I am only seen as marketable in productions like The King and I.

And then he offered a statistic – that if you look at the percentages published by the Actors’ Equity Association, there are more Asian actors than white actors working right now. I later followed up on this statistic. According to the 2015-2016 season report from Actors’ Equity, there were 51,057 members total and 17,834 employed for the season. 963 members (2.2%) were of Asian descent, and 34,736 (81.1%) were white. While not all members of Actors’ Equity are employed each year, there is no possibility with the numbers that there are more Asian actors working than white actors.

I brought up how he minimized racism by saying that I have nothing to worry about in the industry because Hamilton exists. He responded by saying that he didn’t appreciate me coming in here reprimanding him and putting words into his mouth. These words stung. I didn’t expect such a confrontational and defensive response, and I felt as if nothing I said after bringing up this incident would be listened to at all. All I truly wanted from him in that moment was acknowledgment, validation, and an apology. After his wary response, I didn’t get much time to say anything else. He began spewing his anecdotes and words of wisdom:

  • One time he needed to cast an African-American woman in a role, and he got his eighth option – because the other seven women were already working.
  • He just saw an article stating that there were eleven new Asian American productions going up. Eleven!
  • The best auditionee he ever had was African-American, and he wanted him in this program so bad – but the student couldn’t afford it. What was he supposed to do about that?
  • He asked me if I wanted him to put me in touch with another Asian American alum of the program. He’s been so successful because he’s been in The King and I five times.
  • He asked me if I wanted him to bring someone from Title IX to discuss this issue.
  • In thirty years of teaching, I’m the first grievance he’s had.
  • He is willing to talk about this as long as I don’t bring my emotions to the table. He deals with facts, not feelings.
  • If I don’t agree with the mission statement of the program, then I am welcome to leave.

The entire time, my then trusted ally of a faculty member didn’t say a thing. She sat in her seat, and when she spoke, she said she could see where both of us were coming from. Thanks for the “support.”

7 | AFTERMATH

It was a hard few days after the meeting with this man. I began to feel crazy. Maybe I was blowing it all up in my head? Maybe I exaggerated events that were only culture shock? I’m the only grievance he’s had in thirty years, so I must be going out of my mind.

The end of the semester drew near, and finals week was approaching. One more week, and I would return to San Gabriel Valley for winter break – the place I grew up believing was my sanctuary. At my voice final, I sang for my peers, and I was given individual notes from my classmates about my performance. All of the notes I received were either complimentary or constructive – until I stumbled across one that read, “Wait… were you the girl from Miss Saigon on Broadway?” I suddenly became uncomfortable. Was this a compliment? An insult? A joke? Then I realized. It doesn’t matter what intention the note was sent with. Regardless, that comment was made on no other basis than my race. What a perfect way to end this semester.

8 | THAT’S NOT THE END

My first semester of college was not what I expected. It was full of hate and ignorance, but also learning and finding power within myself to endure these seemingly new experiences. As I headed back to San Gabriel Valley, my hometown was no longer the safe haven I had made it out to be. After being exposed to this amount of aggression and ignorance all at once, nothing could look or feel the same anymore. Every time a white service industry employee was rude to me, I would wonder if it was because I was a person of color. My jaded eyes showed me that my once cherished childhood memories had microaggressions built within them too; my peers in elementary school telling me my food smelled bad, being called a whitewashed Asian, drawing on an extra eyelid when doing my makeup. It was as if I re-experienced my entire life through the lens of the beaten down first-year college student of color that I had become.

This tells the experiences of only one of the two semesters I have spent here. Disappointingly, these types of microaggressions have not stopped. I feel so unsafe at this program and school that I have decided to leave – transferring to a different B.F.A. Musical Theatre program with a more diverse student body and a more culturally competent faculty. It is not conducive to my artistic and personal growth to be in a place where I feel that my voice isn’t heard – especially by people who are supposed to be educators. I have been forced to uproot myself from what I thought was the school of my dreams.

There are always going to be people that I can never change, so the most I can do is offer my experience and show initiative. Is it worth it to keep having the conversations, to keep fighting, to keep advocating for myself? I’m not going to lie, every time I bring up my experiences in college, I clam up and relive the traumatic microaggressions. It has been immensely difficult to go on knowing that there isn’t really a place for people like me yet. Is it too painful to continue trying to change an industry that doesn’t let me in? What I do know is that this semester of college has taught me what is important to me. I want to push change within the industry, and then the world – and I could use some help from allies of all ethnicities to do it.

 

(Note: All experiences and stories have been paraphrased from my memory and understanding. Not all quotations are verbatim.)

 

Works Cited:

DiPaola, Steven. Actors’ Equity Association 2015-2016 Theatrical Season Report An Analysis of Employment, Earnings, Membership and Finance . Actors’ Equity Association 2015-2016 Theatrical Season Report An Analysis of Employment, Earnings, Membership and Finance.

Hayes, Joseph. “Immigrants in California.” Public Policy Institute of California, Jan. 2017.

Onuoha, Mimi. “Broadway Won’t Document Its Race Problem, so a Group of Actors Quietly Gathered the Data Themselves.” Quartz, Quartz, 4 Dec. 2016.

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17 thoughts on “The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School

  1. As a person of color as well I can 100% agree with everything you have stated in this. I was cast in several productions as the ethnic diversity. I was even given a role because I was told “he will bring ethnic diversity into our cast.” Here’s hoping to a better more inclusive future.

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    1. Wow. I literally feel like like oi could have written this myself…and I am an African American female who is probably 20 years older! I experienced this while getting my first Master’s in Intercultural Relations at Lesley College (Cambridge) and recently while getting my 2nd Master’s at Emerson. I empathize with you and I am sorry that you had to go through this. I hope that your new program is much more deserving of your talents. The head of the program at Emerson should be calles out on his blatant ignorance and racism…and White Privilege!

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  2. Cindy, I hear you and you are at the forefront of a new wave of Asian Americans entering into fields that needed changes. Stay true to yourself and don’t be afraid to pave the ways for people behind you. Best of luck!

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  3. As an Asian American musical theatre professor, I’m writing to affirm you. Thank you for documenting your experiences of navigating structural white supremacy.

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  4. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and incisive piece. As a senior professor of theatre I think this kind of reflection is exactly what we all should be reading and discussing. I’m going to recommend that we use this in our intro course for majors. This could not have been easy to write and I very much appreciate your courage in doing so. You should never had to have these experiences, let alone have to write about them, but thank you (again) for putting this out there for us all to read. The field needs artists like you!

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  5. This is an extremely relatable article. As a person of color studying Theatre we are often gaslighted by white educators into excusing white supremacy. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  6. Thirty five years ago at the end of my first September in drama school at end of year conferences my dept head told me; “You’re reading gay.” Never mind that at that point we had done very little scripted work; all “finding yourself” exercises. After all these years, I still wish I would have walked out and called an attorney to get my tuition back. Hint, hint.

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  7. You’re not alone in this! In my theatre program, I often got roles because of my race: I played the Chinese lady with bound feet, the Chinese immigrant, the laywer, etc. I’ve been there too, and I’m inspired by your piece. Great writing and wonderfully articulated.

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  8. I’m sorry you had to experience this. As an Asian American performer of color, I have also had my share of inequalities and racism. I call it out and keep fighting for my rights to be in this field. Everyone has something to offer and it’s up to us to stand up for ourselves as a collective to change this systemic problem. Change will happen but it takes time.

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  9. I am truly sorry for your experience, but I am encouraged and inspired by your strength and commitment to make change. I support you. I hope that you are able to push the line forward! To break through and make the industry and the world a better place for everyone. I am an ally and I believe in you!

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  10. Thank you so much for sharing! I am an African American woman in my second year in the Musical Theater Major. I almost cried when I read this it was like reading my diary. Even down to the conversation with the head of your department. Our experiences are almost identical it’s crazy. Keep fighting the good fight sis I’m right there with you…thank you for reminding me that I’m not crazy and this is a fight worth having. I’m literally the only one in my whole department and the first black woman they’ve ever had in this major…it’s rough. But thank you for your honesty and courage in speaking out! You are so inspiring to me

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