Decentering Whiteness in Theater: The Wind Cries Mary by Philip Gotanda
It’s time to change the white-centered theater classics for more diverse choices
Before I begin to dive into this article, I’d like to acknowledge the vast amount of privilege I have as a half-white, half Asian person, currently living on the land of the Nipmuc and the Massachusetts tribes. I also acknowledge that everything I say here is “a draft” towards my thoughts on decentering whiteness in theater as I continue to learn.
Our colonized mindsets are deeply ingrained in us and our educational curriculums, and theater is no exception. Last weekend, I attended the virtual Broadway for Racial Justice Conference, and I found it exciting to be surrounded by theater artists trying to do the work to change how the theater industry is, and how that starts at theater school.
If you didn’t already know this, whiteness is revered in theater; it’s considered the most “elite” identity and a ticket to success. The phrase I often hear people say is “If you know how to do Shakespeare, you can do anything,” and last weekend I couldn’t help but wonder the validity of that statement. Shakespeare was a white man, and so, for BIPOC artists, his experiences don’t cover everything. They just don’t. What a person of BIPOC identity can experience is so nuanced and different for each race and for each person. But the fact that people can say that…. It’s as if conquering the language and the emotions sourced from a white person, is how to master acting. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare and Chekhov’s language and the acting techniques (to a certain extent), but there’s more work by BIPOC artists that are just as good and encapsulate even more nuanced experiences. We need to decolonize our curriculums in order to begin to decolonize theater, and so, because I have come across some BIPOC “swap lists,” this will be the beginning of multiple articles where I read a play, that is just as good or even better than a revered white classic. Let’s jump in shall we?
As I read Philip Gotanda’s The Wind Cries Mary, I felt awestruck. The Wind Cries Mary takes bits of inspiration from Hedda Gabbler, and turns it on its head. The main character Eiko, struggles with her own identity among the rise of Asian American identity politics inspired by Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement. During this time, Black, Asian and Chicano students at institutions like San Francisco State, bonded together, calling themselves the “third world.” Asians in America like Eiko, who had always been seen as oriental, struggle to understand exactly what they are: oriental or Asian-American.
Something I thought this play touched on was a phrase my Asian American Theater teacher once said that has always stuck with me: “To be an Asian American is to mourn for the country that will never truly accept you, and to mourn for the home country that will always see you as foreign.” It’s very evident that Eiko’s character struggles with this as she slowly reveals her conflicting feelings in cryptic, poetic language, towards being a Japanese woman, a Japanese American, an FOB (Fresh off the Boat), model minority, and a “Japanese princess” to her husband. Through her interactions with the other Asian characters in the play, we begin to see the very different opinions each Asian character has towards the current movement in history. In contrast, we see the resistance among the white characters to see these “orientals” as anything but a monolith with foreign characteristics. To be honest, Eiko’s character was just the type of complex and nuanced female character I crave to see, and if I could stage a play of this, I’d choose it over Hedda Gabbler any day.
There’s a passion that pours from Gotanda’s work when he dives into Asian identity, and I think he knows it too. When I create art, I know I tend to write about my identity, it pours out of my fingers as smoothly as Katara waterbends in Avatar: The Last Airbender. For me, my identity has had such a huge impact on my personality, my experiences, and who I am, that it would feel impossible to ignore that. To ignore a huge chunk of me, my base. And maybe it’s my way to scream back among the theatrical altars of whiteness we have in art, to say, “Hey, I’m here too, and my experience is just as important.” I don’t know exactly, but I feel like Gotanda felt this way when he turned Hedda Gabbler into this, to dethrone eurocentricity. And maybe he hopes that those who hold the power in theater, will begin to see the plays they refuse to notice, and see the nuanced and powerful experiences just one POC can go through. Maybe they will say something to the likes of what one of Gotanda’s characters says in the play, “The stakes at which he was writing.... Like blood pouring from a wound. I envied him not being white.” And though I’m not sure how I would feel about envy being a response, maybe this would make them truly see that Shakespeare and Chekhov aren’t the only powerful human experiences in writing.