Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Colorblind Casting Controversy Continues

This was posted by my friend and fellow actor Eliza Shin on her own blog recently in response to the casting controversy over at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) due to their, ahem, modest use of Asian actors in their production of the Chinese play The Orphan of ZhaoApparently, the RSC has cast only three out of 17 parts with actors of East Asian heritage, and those have gone to characters including two dogs and a maid.  Just like the situation with The Nightingale over at La Jolla Playhouse, the news has gone viral, covered in various places such as Angry Asian Man.  What is it about Asians (and Asian culture) that non-Asian folks in the arts and entertainment world seem to believe that this level of appropriation and exclusion should be acceptable in this day and age?  

Anyway, onto Eliza's post.  Thanks for giving us all a shout out.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Another Face of Love: A Case for My Asian Brothers in Theater

There is a habit being perpetuated in theater around the world.  Asian males are not being allowed to play Asian male Leads.  Sometimes they get to play donkeys or dogs.  Often times, they are a side character: grocer, editor, doctor, etc.  But when the Lead calls for an Asian male, my Asian brothers are not being cast.
The tragedy in this race-bending casting is not readily seen by the wider world.  The illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company and the La Jolla Playhouse are as blind to their racism as are many non-Equity Chicago theaters.  I have spoken and written about this topic in reference to Lifeline Theatre’s upcoming production of “Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was” by Barry Hughart.  My words have not always been pleasant, but I ask for leeway since there is pain on all sides.  Here I wish to share my vision and the reasoning behind my words, posts, outrage and tears.
The Lead in “Bridge of Birds” is Chinese scholar Master Li Kao who unfailingly introduces himself as a man with “a slight flaw in my character.”  For almost 300 pages, the humble Master Li and his side-kick Number Ten Ox traipse through China in hopes of finding the Great Root of Power.  The children of the village have fallen comatose, and the Root is their only cure.  From page to page, Master Li’s ingenuity, humor and lucidity pull them through predicament after predicament.
Toward the beginning of the book, they cross paths with Miser Shen, one of the greediest men alive.  He has spent his life foreclosing peasants and squeezing money from the poorest of the poor.  However, along the way, Miser Shen has a conversion experience, sees the error of his ways and joins forces with Master Li and Number Ten Ox.  Unfortunately, one of their adventures proves deadly, and Miser Shen is fatally wounded.  On his deathbed, Master Li reassures the dying man that the Yama Kings will surely reincarnate him as a tree and “... for miles around the poor peasants will know you as Old Generosity.” 
The Hero of a play is the person with the greatest heart.  Consequently, it is there that the audience rests their hearts.  For an actor, how thrilling it is to embody the vessel of integrity and bravura!  It is the chance to display and amplify their nobility, no matter the banalities of their “real life.”  Playing the Lead calls upon the best in an actor, and for two hours (or so) a night, that actor gets to distill themselves into their brightest essence.
The Lead, however, is also of paramount importance to the audience.  Played appropriately, we grow to trust them.   Our emotions follow them.  As the action builds, we look to the Lead to shepherd us through this ritual of theater.  We, the audience, get to fall in love anew.
When Master Li assures the dying Miser Shen of his arboreal legacy, the audience is reminded of the refreshment in forgiveness.  As Master Li designs a flying bamboo basket, we get to float aloft on the currents of ingenuity.  We live through the Lead.  We feel relief through the Lead.  An audience of strangers binds their hearts together through the Lead.
The beauty of theater is its ability to enchant disparate audiences through Leads of varying facades.  “Jitney” at Court Theatre is an example.   I’m not African-American.  I’m not from Philadelphia.  I have no experience in driving a cab.  Yet I loved them all for the span of the play. 
I wish so passionately for my Asian brothers to be able to play the Lead because they deserve to have audiences love them, too.  They are worthy of the opportunity to display high-minded versions of themselves.  Also, we, the general public, subconsciously thirst for the chance to surrender and be lead by one of them.  How do I know this?  Because we all want to know the many faces of love. 
My heart can attach to the Lead whether they be homosexual or Jew, female or deaf, colored or amputated.  Increasing the types and shapes of Leads in our plays, reiterates the foundational Truth that by simply being human, we are each capable of being Heroic.  And isn’t that the light we wish to bring to the world through our craft called Theater?


Monday, October 8, 2012

In non-acting news, I recently took my test for sandan (third degree black belt) in the martial art of Aikido.   It'll take several months for the actual paperwork to be processed in Japan and to receive my certificate, but until then, I did receive a copy of the test video from the folks at Milwaukee Aikido Club (the hosts for the event where my test took place). 

Seems like ages since I first started as an exchange student in Japan at Waseda University with the Waseda University Aikido-Kai.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Looking back at the cold and uncomfortable shoot of Red Dawn back in December 2009.
Here's me standing by my trailer door (first time I ever had one of those).  Courtesy of my scene partner Cindy Chu
My stay in Detroit was longer than expected, resulting in me actually being around for the wrap party and being able to go.  It was a bit surreal, hanging out with Asian guys from the stunt team who played the various Chinese (later North Korean) cannon fodder for the film's all-American heroes.  Saw Jeffrey Dean Morgan walking about and even chatted briefly with Chris "Thor" Hemsworth, who gave me a compliment about my playing drunk in our scene together. 
However, though there was a party, it wasn't really the wrap.  The shoot was already way over schedule, but I guess all the arrangements had been made.  So the party went on as planned, but my actual final shoot date was afterward.  Didn't have a car of my own available so I was largely stuck at the hotel during my non-shooting hours.  Can't say I was that fond of hotel life after a while, my schedule largely consisting of checking e-mails, meals in the hotel restaurant, working out in the hotel gym and fitting in a few freelance translation jobs. 

Well, I guess the remake of Red Dawn has finally been screened and the first reviews are out.  Truth be told, I really wasn't expecting much.  Most of the recent Hollywood remakes have been mediocre.  In fact, they've been so innocuous I don't think they'll have any effect on memories of their older, better antecedents (Nightmare on Elm Street, Total Recall, Fright Night among others).  What I saw of the script during shooting didn't exactly impress me.

I have very mixed feelings about being part of this.  I first heard about the Red Dawn remake when it was announced in 2008 or 2009, and had read that the Soviet threat of the 80s original were being replaced with China.  I thought it was an awful, offensive idea then, and still do.  Then I later read actor Roger Fan's great blog post about his experience being asked to be part of a script reading of the remake.

It was literally days after reading Roger's post that my agent called me up to say that they had feature film audition for me.  I was initially excited until she said it was for a film called Red Dawn.  My heart sunk.  What should I do?  After reading Roger's post I had actually raised a fist and gave a big "Right on!"  to the air.  I finally rationalized that I had already audition for all sorts of movies in the past that had not led to anything (Barber Shop 2, Roll Bounce and Formosa Betrayed to name a few).  And, I was relatively new to my current talent agent and felt that I should do my best to make a good impression.  So, I received my sides via e-mail, went into my agent's office, taped the audition, and thought that I'd be done with it.

To my surprise, the next day over lunch at a local bibimbop joint with my buddies Andy Vitale and David Babbitt, I received a call from my agent saying, "How soon can you be in Detroit?  They need you tomorrow."

It was all very surreal.  I felt a deep seated conflict between the professional opportunity and my own views of Asian representation in the media.  I remembered a conversation with actor Andre Ing I had had years prior where he said it was important that we (Asian Americans) did not take roles that demean or disgrace us.

There were other factors to consider though.  I generally support myself as a freelance Japanese translator, and work had started to slow to a trickle with the bad economy in 2009 (this was December).  My wife had been laid off from her job and nothing had come in as yet.  Plus, we were planning on getting married the following year and worried about the expenses.  So, I said yes, and next thing I know I was whisked off by car and plane to Detroit for what ended up being two weeks of being on location (though they really only used me for two day's shooting).

It's such a tricky situation, this profession.  When I was younger and simply a film fanboy, it was so easy to get irate about films that I thought were racist, and to get on my high horse about the actors who accept roles I thought were harmful to the image of our community.  Now, faced with practicalities of trying to be a working actor, I've discovered the decision-making process to be much more complicated.  God knows if it was the right decision long-term.  But I did it, and have to live with it.  I did run into person in the Chicago Asian American community last year who knew I was an actor and gave me a dismissive and dirty look when I mentioned that I had worked on the Red Dawn movie.  There was part of me that wanted to get worked up, angry at being judged in such a knee-jerk fashion.  But another part of me asked, was he right?  Who knows?

Well, thanks to the hard work of local author and my doppleganger-in-name-only Dwight Okita, my actor's reel is finally complete and up and running.  It's up on Youtube and also on the video section of my webpage.  Thanks Dwight O!
I recently had the pleasure of being asked to audition for Chicago's acclaimed Goodman Theatre for their upcoming workshop production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig.  It's part of their New Stages Amplified festival of new plays program.  I had auditioned at the Goodman for their generals a couple of times, but this was the first time I was being brought in for something specific.  The script is simply amazing: a stark, emotionally wrenching story of a girl from rural China who makes the journey to the city to seek her fortune as a factory worker.  It's the first play I've ever read that deals with the dark underbelly of China's newfound economic success (I enjoyed David Henry Hwang's Chinglish,, but that dealt more with people at the managerial level, and focused on U.S.-China relations.).  This is one play that I truly hope receives a full production some day.  And regardless if I get a chance to be part of its development, I'm going to push folks to check it out.

The play's characters are all Chinese, and it was refreshing to see that the Goodman was aiming to aim for a fully Asian cast.  It's been a few weeks since the initial auditions and callbacks.  No word, though two of the female roles have been set.  Given that the Asian American acting community in Chicago is small, there's definitely been chatter amongst its members speculating on who might get what.  Some actresses already received release notices, but I haven't heard anything from my agent (or the grapevine) so I have my fingers crossed.  That being said, I'm just glad I made callbacks, and given that the competition includes some very talented folks, I'd be honored to lose out to such esteemed company.  
Here's some great news.  I will be in the cast of the upcoming play Bridge of Birds at Chicago's Lifeline Theatre, running next year from June 13 to July 31.  The show is based on the book Bridge of Birds: A Tale of an Ancient China That Never Was by writer Barry Hughart.  It's an ensemble role, so I'll have the opportunity to duck in and out of various characters and guises.  Great chance to stretch the muscles and show some range.  I've been an admirer of Lifeline's work over the years (and have auditioned for a couple of shows).  They're specialty is original, homegrown adaptations of literary works.  I particularly liked their adaptation of Neil Gaiman's early novel Neverwhere, which featured some very ingenious staging to bring to life Gaiman's fantasy world of London Below, its numerous environs and fantastic beasties.   Here's to 2013!

Monday, July 23, 2012

I see that articles have started to come out regarding the recent casting controversy at the La Jolla Playhouse with their China-set but remarkably Asian actor-deficient production The Nightingale.  


I actually think that theater companies have a right to cast shows however they please, but they should always be aware of what the consequences might be.  Given the theater market in which they are located and the high profile of their company and the parties involved in the production (Laramie Project creator Moises Kaufman and the team behind the hit Spring Awakening), I'm really shocked that they should be socially tone deaf to the idea that they might be wading into choppy waters.

I feel like there is a general assumption that folks in the theater community are a progressive-minded and/or PC crowd, hence it comes no surprise that so many Asian American actors were shocked and angered that a company should seem to deliberately chose not to cast Asian American performers in a show set in, well, Asia.  I think that La Jolla and company have come off rather badly in the process, making them look like a bunch cloistered and narrow-minded.  I don't actually think their decision-making fits the definition of racism, but I certainly see why many are tacking that label onto them.  And I do think the burden of dealing with that label is there's, not anyone else.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Outside of acting, one of my other major pursuits is the martial art of Aikido.  I've been studying it since 1993; starting out as a member of a college club when I was studying at Waseda University in Tokyo as an exchange student.  I am presently training with a small club in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood (http://www.chicagoaikidoclub.com/) and am also teaching an 8-week summer program for a day camp run by the Jewish Council of Youth Services.  My first entry on the aikido club blog about the experience is now up and running.

Bringing Aiki to the (Little) Masses

Bill Cruze and Dwight Sora 9:45 AM, Thursday, June 28, 2012.

Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. I’m standing in front of 15 children ranging around ages 10 to 12, wide-eyed, excited, ready and raring to go. My face projects a friendly, optimistic smile (at least I hope it does), while my brain races to remember all of the ideas, exercises and plans that I had been poring over since April. I get a nod from my contact at the host organization. We’re schedule to start at 10:00am but things are running ahead of schedule, so it’s time to take the plunge at last. I open my mouth to speak: “So, who can tell me what they think of when they hear the words ‘martial arts’?”
I was quite surprised when the Chicago Aikido Club was first contacted about running summer aikido classes for the Jewish Council of Youth Services (JCYS). After all, we’re a relatively modest operation, and there’s a lot of bigger and more established aikido dojo in the area. However, Gene Lee, the JCYS staffer who gave me a call, was impressed by our website. Gene had been looking for something new for the JCYS’ summer day camp programming, and had brought up the idea of martial arts with his bosses. His own background included some tae kwon do training, but he was attracted to the idea of introducing aikido. Specifically, he liked the idea of introducing the kids to ukemi, aikido’s concept of cooperative training which is quite different from many other martial arts.
After first trading phone calls and e-mails with Gene in April 2012, I started chatting with club members and colleagues at other dojo about how to put together a kids program. I myself had never taught one, but several trusted friends had, and since I was going to end up being the primary instructor, I wanted to make sure I had as good a grip on things as I could.
From what I could gather, there were a couple of disadvantages with aikido in terms of teaching it to kids. First off, unlike karate or certain Chinese styles, it doesn’t have a repertoire of solo kata forms, which would certainly lend itself well to keeping groups of children occupied. I remember noted judoka Donn Draeger cynically mentioning in a Discovery Channel documentary that the appeal of kata is “the clock ticks by and the dollars roll in” (my paraphrasing).
Also, my more experienced aikido colleagues reminded me that you cannot teach aikido to children the same way you do with adults. I would be dealing with late elementary/junior high-level kids; kids whose focus is not always functioning at maximum. While there is a certain “sink or swim” aspects to adult aikido learning, it would be on the instructor to maintain the kid’s interest, not to mention keep them entertained.
Luckily, everyone I talked to had as many suggestions as they did warnings. I cannot praise enough Bill Cruz from Milwaukee, who simply had an arsenal of games and exercises gleaned from years of teaching aikido to kids. I already knew that I would have to hold back on teaching waza (techniques) for reasons of safety and liability. Bill introduced me to variations of tag, follow-the-leader, duck-duck-goose that incorporated everything from basic tenkan and irimi movement to demonstrating the foundations of centering and connection.
As it so happened, Day 1 turned out to be great for all. The kids turned out to be an exceptional group – attentive, enthusiastic and willing to learn. Added plus was the camp counselors all participated in the class as students (giving the kids a great visual example) as well as ran defense for me when discipline needed to be maintained.
What really surprised me was how easy it was to let the class develop its own thematic identity organically. I had stockpiled some ideas of what the theme of the 8-week program would be (including concentration, cooperation, maybe some basic self-defense). I had also been informed that bullying is a big issue for many of the kids and their parents, something I had a lot of experience with from my years doing social issues performances with Imagination Theater. Starting the kids out with some basic warm-ups and stretches, and moving to posture and practicing tenkan, it gradually became obvious what my targets would be: relaxation and awareness.
Of course, those two points are fundamental cornerstones familiar to any aikidoka, but watching how the kids responded to each exercise led me to believe that these two points would guide everything else. Relaxation, because it would be a way of communicating to the kids the idea that anger or aggression was not always the way to respond to a situation, whether it be frustration at themselves or towards another person. Awareness, because of both the issue of safety during training, but also awareness of how what you do affects another person (whether mental, physical or emotional).

Day 2

I received some added assistance from Ian Miller and Andy Vitale, which led me to introduce the basics of forward rolling. On the point of awareness, I decided to make it clear to each of the kids that only they could decide whether they were ready or not to take a roll. I did not mind if one of them was afraid or felt hesitant, but I told them that if at the moment of truth they could not bring themselves to take the roll, they had to decide not to do it, and waste no time in moving on and to the back of the line (Of course, hoping they might decide differently the next time around). It turned out to be a great tactic, simultaneously keeping things moving along, but also reinforcing the idea that everyone was an active participant.
For an experience that I thought would top my shodan test for wracking my nerves, the JCYS summer kids program is shaping up to be quite a trip. I expect to learn a lot from these kids, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dwight Sora, Chicago
July 12, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This has already soared about the internet and blogosphere more than a few times now, but I don't think it can hurt mentioning it again.  Controversy has erupted about the La Jolla Playhouse's upcoming production of The Nightingale, a Chinese-set tale based on a story written by Hans Christian Anderson. 

Like many folks, I was first alerted to this by the blog post by Asian American actress Erin Quill.

This has since been reposted on various sites, including www.angryasianman.com.  I recently caught the response of the show's creators here: https://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jul/11/behind-a-playhouse-casting-controversy/?page=1#article.  Frankly, I don't find the explanations at all acceptable, just a lot of lazy, intellectually dishonest justification for orientalism and cultural appropriation. 

Sheesh, it's the 21st century.  Gilbert and Sullivan I forgive, but not the makers of this thing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Well, here it goes, my very first blog entry for my very first blog.  Had no idea how to kick things off, so thought I'd just follow up on this year's Father's Day.  Had a great meal with my mom and dad, lovely wife Czerina, her mom Carmen, and my sister-in-law Josephine and her fiancĂ©e Kurt.  My mom ended up cooking up a huge storm - felt more like Thanksgiving than your typical Father's Day.  All-in-all, a pretty good day to kick off a pretty busy week.