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Born as the wrong ethnicity: an open letter to AATP

When I first heard of the Asian American Theater Project (AATP), my first reaction was, a whole theater company dedicated to promoting Asian American acting — how perfect! Since middle school, walking into theater auditions would twist knots in my stomach. There’s something unsettling when every other student auditioning is white, the directors are all white, the characters are all white and you’re not. I actually am white, but I’m also Chinese, and whenever I walked into an audition I had a sinking feeling I would never get the role I wanted because I was not white enough.

I distinctly remember being told in eighth grade by a white boy that I would never be Willy Wonka. Who’s ever heard of an Asian Willy Wonka? That boy was cast as an Oompa Loompa while I was given the role of maybe the first ever Chinese and Caucasian Willy Wonka. Unfortunately however, my acting career hit a wall after that and the feeling of being an outsider settled in again, pushing me away from the productions of high school.

When I came to Stanford, I set out to audition for a play stamped with the AATP seal, an organization with a mission I back 100 percent. As a student run group, I expected to be surrounded by other individuals whose acting careers suffered just because they looked “too foreign” and would appear too noticeably different under the lights. The first AATP production I auditioned for was an excerpt from Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” a play about the struggles Vietnamese refugees faced in Vietnam and the United States. When I showed up to auditions my first thought was, everybody’s Asian; this is a good sign. As we began acting out parts of the play, a play previously unfamiliar to me, the horrible pit in my stomach came back as I realized that one actor was supposed to play every white character. I immediately knew that if I was cast, that person would be me. Because while I am Chinese, I am not Asian enough to stand up on stage with completely Asian people, and unable to fill the role of a Vietnamese refugee. When I saw the cast list confirming the truth I had known all along, I was extremely frustrated and despised that I hadn’t gotten a bigger role. But I had made the commitment and followed through.

I wouldn’t be angry at the staff for their decision to cast me, the only Caucasian and Chinese actor, in the role of all the white characters, had it been solely about acting abilities. But it wasn’t. Appearances first, skill last. I’ve done enough auditions to recognize the point of no return, when minds have been made up. For “Vietgone,” this happened before we even walked into callbacks.

This quarter I decided to put what happened with “Vietgone” behind me because I still believed in AATP and what it stood for. I signed up to audition for Jiehae Park’s “Peerless” for two reasons. One, the dark farcical humor of the play aligns perfectly with my personality and two, the main male role is a character who looks white and is one-sixteenth Native American. What could be more perfect for me, an Asian American who was too white to be a refugee? So I filled out the Google form and excitedly waited to be scheduled for an audition. After a week of hearing nothing but still seeing the “audition for ‘Peerless’” emails, I filled out the form a second time. This time I got a response but it was not the one I was expecting: “due to specific casting requirements regarding the ethnicities of the characters in ‘Peerless,’ we are unable to cast you in this production.” Come again? Now I’m too Asian to play a white person? How could they possibly even know my ethnicity if I wasn’t even given the opportunity to audition? Nothing on the Google form asked for that information. Incredulous, I emailed the producer and asked how she could, before meeting me, exclude me from the auditions because of my ethnicity. Nine days later she replied with an apologetic email, but the die, or rather the play, had been cast.

I want AATP to learn from my personal experience about what aspects of acting are truly important. Granted, I’m not one-sixteenth Native American, but flexibility and creating believability are two important allures of the art. Remain cognizant that diversity exists, and don’t confine or exclude Asian Americans from acting based on appearance; the outside world does that enough. You were created for an awesome purpose and I implore you to uphold what you exist for. My story may be a classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as AATP usually gives acting opportunities to ethnic minorities rather than taking them away, but that vision may have been lost somewhere in the bureaucracy. I can’t speak to others’ experiences working with AATP and I would like to believe that I was just a fluke who slipped through the cracks. It’s clearly the end of the road for us, but I still have hope that you will do whatever it takes to make sure that what happened to me is never repeated.

— Noah Tin-y Brazer ’21

Contact Noah Tin-yu Brazer at nbrazer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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