Representing diversity in theater

Earlier this semester, students in the Beginning Directing class – myself included – went to see “The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up” by Carla Ching, produced by Mu Performing Arts at the University of Minnesota. Our instructor for the class, Randy Reyes, directed the show and is currently Mu’s Artistic Director.

The show was incredibly well-done; Reyes’ direction and the actors’ performances impressed the entire class. The play depicts two Asian-American children, Diana and Max, whose parents cheat on their respective spouses with each other. Throughout the play, the narrative jumps between childhood, high school, college and early adulthood, reinforced by an imaginative and kinetic set filled with cardboard boxes.

In class discussion, Reyes pointed out to the class the really important reason for doing this play: that it depicts Asian-American individuals without expecting them to answer for the “Asian-American experience.” While the characters’ races clearly influenced their life and their experience of the world around them, the show did not focus on this alone. Rather, it was a story that had two Asian-American characters as the leads. This is not something that happens often enough. Often when minority actors are cast in plays, the only parts for them are grossly stereotyped or supporting roles. White men have dominated the industry since it began, leading to horrid under-representation of other experiences. Ching’s play is so important because it is at the head of a new movement to expand theater and finally represent minorities, women, non-heterosexual people and other-abled people in our theaters.

Thinking back through the plays I have acted in and helped to produce, an appallingly small number are not written by white men. Clearly this is something that needs to change. White men are not the only ones who have worthwhile shows to stage. Theater should belong to everyone, not just the ones in positions of higher power. That is why Twin Cities theaters like Mu Performing Arts and Penumbra Theater are so important. They do their best to represent Asian-American and African-American stories in ways that the theater industry simply has not before now. Support of these theater programs is vital to fostering an ethical and wholesome theater scene in the Twin Cities.

In the meantime, what can we do at St. Olaf to represent other stories? Since we are not a racially diverse campus, it is not always possible for us to truthfully and respectfully represent other races. However, we can strive to produce more work by women and non-heterosexual playwrights truthfully. In addition, bringing theater artists like Randy Reyes to campus helps theater students to receive different viewpoints and spread awareness of programs like Mu Performing Arts.

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