What do you have to do to get noticed around here? It seems like all of us in the theater biz are permanently tortured by this question. Directors, actors, dancers, singers, designers of all varieties, not to mention writers, press agents, and critics, all clamor for a look, a nod, a glint of recognition in the eyes of Our Audience, even if that’s just some schmuck transferring trains at Union Square.

(You don’t think writers schlep their merch in the subway? Clearly you never met Donald Green.)

What are the implications of this, admittedly banal, insight? For one, theater in New York City is about as close to a truly free market, red in tooth and claw, as you’ll ever find spontaneously occurring in nature. It’s not just a buyers market either, it’s a sadistic buyers market. Since humans started walking upright, our entertainment has been watching each other slip on banana peels and end up in the hospital. Accidents, pain, embarrassment, and outright malice have always been the stock-in-trade of the theater. Sadism and voyeurism go hand in hand. Theater is the most brutal popularity contest in the world.

So what step by step (if not blow by blow) advice will get you to the top? Ming Peiffer and Kat Yen’s messy, brilliant new show The ABC’s Guide to Getting Famous doesn’t say, though you don’t need a Ph D. in fame to know that being a hysterical, sociopathic, narcissistic douche, willing to abase yourself in every conceivable way is probably a sure-fire method. Instead Peiffer and Yen’s show combines elements of documentary, anthropology, and old skool agit prop to represent the plight of the Asian-American actor in New York.

Did you catch that? ABC’s doesn’t mean step-by-step, it means American Born Chinese. Peiffer and Yen’s paradox is right there in the title — hence the apostrophe. “Minority” actors (in this case Asian-Americans) feel ghettoized, forced to perform, and often feel they do so poorly, for a captive audience of cousins and other patrons of the arts more genetically similar than the average (meaning white?) sucker willing to fork over a hundred and fifty bucks to see Matthew Broderick lip sync in a white dinner jacket. Well, anyway, it’s nice work if you can get it. Asian-American actors want to be able to play any part without you judging them on their Asian features.

Is there anything less fair than popularity? Is there anything more American than the neurotic and self-contradictory compulsion for competition and equality? What do fairness and entertainment have to do with each other? These are the questions you might ask yourself as you watch a succession of attractive, seemingly competent Asian actors of many different nationalities (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese) tell tales of theatrical discrimination in The Big Apple.

On one hand, these actors resent having to play national stereotypes, or stereotypes of Asians in America that reflect poorly on them as a group. On the other hand, Viet, the Vietnamese actor in the show, is gobsmacked when, at a casting call searching for Vietnamese men to play Vietcong, the casting director gives the role to some Japanese dude and tells Viet he just doesn’t look Vietnamese enough. In one scene Peiffer plays a white ad agency type who tells a young Asian woman (Peiffer?) that she doesn’t look “familiar” enough. She’s just not “relatable” for their audience. Clearly the “family” and “relatives” of the people the ad agency wants to buy their product aren’t Asian, and that is wrong, either because the target consumers are racist (probably), or because ad agencies are racist (definitely).

In one hilarious scene a young, attractive Asian man complains that he should be able to play any part — well, except for Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. Black people have the privilege of being able to control their representation on stage thanks to centuries of oppression. The last time any actor appeared in blackface that I can remember was Damon Wayans in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. On the other hand, European high culture is the birthright of all the world’s peoples. I can’t tell you how many productions of Shakespeare I have seen where one of the family members — usually an oppressed wilting flower like Cordelia or Ophelia — is played by a black person, even though the rest of her “family” are lily white. The irony of hearing an old white man say to a young black woman “if thou shouldst not be glad, / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress” is almost too much to bear. And yet, when Du Bois says, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not” we applaud the universality of humanity, not the colonializing universality of Whiteness.

You, raised on post-modern critical race theory, will probably say this is a positive historical development, the unwinding of centuries of colonialism and white privilege. It is not, however, the unwinding of privilege as such; it is merely a recentering of privilege according to the cultural capital of the race being represented. Asian Americans have many deep and venerable wellsprings of cultural capital to draw on, but as Peiffer and her subjects point out, to do so “types” them as not-American. If Asian-Americans don’t type themselves they become invisible to mainstream (white?) audiences.  Black Americans, by way of contrast, have a lot of cultural capital that they have worked for centuries to accumulate, but their capital is peculiarly American — there is no conceivable “America” without black Africans —  and its authenticity has been proven by epic, existential struggle. They can claim to have forged their worldview in the furnace of a genocide waged against them, and is that not the very definition of identity?

Whiteness, on the other hand, is a special lack of specificity. It is the universal, the empty, that which is so general, it is meaningless. It too was forged, not as the reaction to a genocide, but as a reaction to claims of existential superiority by religious zealots in the European Christian Reformation. Whiteness, as the scientific, rational, dispassionate, liberal, colonializing spirit of seventeenth and eighteenth century England (for that is precisely what Whiteness is) denies the privileged point of view. There are no “races” from the perspective of whiteness, only subject positions that can be mapped, and, as the popular obsession with Nate Silver continues to prove, mapped mathematically. Unfortunately for Whiteness, however, identity has proven extremely difficult to kill. It seems like people don’t like to give up their feeling of being special, an individual, made unique by their singular experience of suffering and joy.

Whiteness is the being and nothingness that the ABCs in The ABC’s Guide aspire to: a universality that is a projection, not an effacement, of their  Asian identity. The universalizing, totalizing, technologically oriented, materialist ideology that drives Whiteness as an identity, is an ideology that many Asians embrace (at least in my non-scientific sampling). Being good at math, being able to exist in diverse cultural worlds, feeling that material success is the natural reward of universal “best practices,” is an expression of Whiteness. But it is the antithesis of theater, which is all about the particular, the existential, and the suffering of an individual.

This is why The ABC’s Guide is, in fact, brilliant, if messy. Beneath the juvenile rant against the unfairness of the high stakes, winner-take-all competition that is acting in America (remember, the winners get untold riches and a spot on Grey’s Anatomy), The ABC’s Guide is a drama about the conflict between wanting to fit in and needing to stand out. The climax of the play (and its best moment) is when Peiffer asks the audience pleadingly if we want to know more about her. She is half Chinese and half Anglo-American; she was raised in material comfort in a white cultural milieu; her Chinese mother divorced her father and married an observant Jew, and now her mother celebrates Jewish holidays. So what does that make her? What could have been a myopic, hypocritical, and unintentionally racist work turns out, in the telling, to be a bridge from the specific, understood as identity writ small, to the universal, not meaning “white” but simply “human.”

Advertisements