Race casts shadow on entertaining show

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/12/19 18:13:40

Photo: Xinhua

My eight-year-old niece hit me with a dilemma recently. Being born and growing up in a small town in the US, the little girl is establishing herself as an emerging ballerina. She has already been cast two years in a row in the local ballet troupe's annual holiday season performance of The Nutcracker. She was excited by the opportunities but also a little disappointed - she would like to play the role of a "party girl," but instead was offered some less prominent and less human roles, such as being a gingerbread and a big mouse.

Most Chinese parents, in such a situation, won't think twice before telling their children to work even harder to sharpen their skills and cross their fingers for next year. But as a skeptical aunt, my mind couldn't help wandering into some dark territory. I have watched the show for two years now, and haven't seen a single non-white kid among the dozen or so party girls who came on stage in the opening scene, clad in shining festival gowns.

I may have brushed it off as a pure coincidence if this was not a town where the majority of the population is working class white, and wears it on its sleeve. It is a place where I was recently queried by a curious white man in a gym as to whether I had seen the Statue of Liberty when the TV there was showing an ad for Liberty Mutual insurance, and where an older Chinese girl my niece befriended has been cast three years in a row as a Chinese maid in the "Chinese dance" scene, a role reserved for teenagers and often criticized for being stereotypical.

Even If I am extrapolating inaccurately from this particular production, it is a fact that US ballet lacks diversity. Changes are happening slowly. The New York City Ballet selected 11-year-old Charlotte Nebres to be its first black Maria (the heroine of the story) this year for its famous Nutcracker production by choreographer George Balanchine. The production debuted in 1954.

But it's far from enough. In an op-ed piece entitled "Why is Ballet So Bad at Representing Asians Onstage? Look at The Choreographers" published by the Dance Magazine last year, Filipino American dancer John Peter Viernes lamented he had never seen a ballet choreographed by an Asian American on the stage of the New York City Ballet.

"We must acknowledge, and then rectify, the fact that underrepresentation on stages and screens has almost always been about bias, prejudice and racism rather than who is, or isn't, truly talented," he wrote.

So now should I point out the ugly side of the world to my niece, who, so far, still regards it as a candyland, and prepare her for the possibility that she may not get the role of party girl next year or the year after no matter how hard she works, or should I just let her go practice and do her best before the rainbow-colored disguise of her world melts gradually when she grows older?

While I was debating with myself vehemently, my husband sent me a link of a YouTuber named Lizzy Capri. Clearly a young Asian American, Capri has attracted four million subscribers in two years by posting fun videos such as she and her dog going on a shopping spree and having lunch with a date under the water of a swimming pool. "This generation of Asians is so talented," my husband exclaimed.

This was only a few days after we watched The Farewell, a movie by the Chinese-American director Lulu Wang, and starring actress-rapper Awkwafina, that has recently been nominated for two Golden Globe awards, and a year after we watched the phenomenal all-Asian Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians by Chinese American director Jon Chu (which also starred Awkwafina). 

In between, I have watched several Asian-led shows in New York from stage plays to musicals at venues from off-Broadway theaters to bars. 

A recent musical I saw at the off-Broadway Theatre Row was Romantic Misadventures of Ah Q. Based on the famous character created by the 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun and produced by the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the show only started being promoted three days before the opening due to the uncertainty of the US visa applications for the performers from China. Still the seats were filled, mostly by Chinese people. 

My husband is only half right. Asians have been talented all the time, but now they have more opportunities to show it, thanks to social media and the opportunities in independent theaters. 

More importantly, the size of the Asian audience, especially the Chinese audience, is now big enough to support many more shows.

While I was watching Capri's stunts, my churning mind was calming down. I decided to not alert my niece about the unfairness of society. She will certainly have to face it in the future. But I am also certain that she is growing up in a whole new world.

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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