Race & Theatre: Is Being “Ethnically Ambiguous” Really An Advantage?

Tess Nakaishi

  • Washington State Columnist

Professors, directors, and fellow actors have all told me that, as an actress of mixed racial descent, I have an advantage. They reason that there is a growing demand for diversity within theatre and that my vaguely ethnic appearance will allow me to ride this wave by adapting myself, chameleon-like, to a range of non-white roles. And yet, although I respect these people and their opinions, I just feel uncomfortable whenever I think about trying to capitalize on my mixed background.

For one thing, I still struggle to reconcile with the idea of playing other races and ethnicities. I am half Japanese and half Irish/German, but many can’t pin down my exact ethnic identity right away. So while I could easily blend into a Native American role, for example, that is not what I am. If it is inappropriate for a Caucasian actor to play that part, is it really any better for me to pretend to be Native American? I do look the part more and perhaps I could bring more awareness of what it means to be non-white, but I still would feel better knowing that a Native American actress had that role. It’s a complicated issue, and I still haven’t quite decided how to approach the idea of non-white actors playing ethnicities not their own.

Besides the moral issue of my taking on roles that are not Asian or Caucasian, I feel doubtful of whether my race is quite as useful as my white mentors seem to think. Theoretically, if I could play all white characters, all Asian characters, and characters of other diverse backgrounds, it would be an advantage because the pool of potential characters would be larger. But here’s the rub: mixed race people are still usually viewed as racial others, and this makes it more challenging to land roles which are traditionally white. And, since characters without a specified race are often assumed to be white, that includes most roles. 

This is my fear whenever I audition with a monologue that references race. If I play an Asian character in my monologue, will the director label me as an “ethnic actress” who can be set aside for a variety of racially diverse roles but will be forgotten when casting the white leads? What if they see me as too Asian for white roles and too white for Asian roles? Will they turn me down because I seem separated from the other white actors? Will I turn into the token minority, or will my flexibility truly be appreciated, as my mentors and peers have optimistically suggested? I’ve never encountered a director who overtly evaluated me on the basis of my race, but when you’re in the audition room, you can just feel when they’re looking at you differently, like collectors sizing up a rare new painting they just aren’t sure where to place.

It is important to note that I have always lived in predominately white areas. In the town where I went to college, diversity was so lacking that it was common to have second rounds of auditions, send out emails asking non-white actors to take on certain roles, and even bring in actors from different states to fulfill the diverse roles required by some plays. When directors are nervously scrambling to avoid casting white actors in non-white roles (and sometimes failing to do so altogether), it does make it seem like diverse actors are in great demand. But, first of all, the situation would be different in a more diverse region and, second, it actually doesn’t feel that great to be sought out just because of your race. Receiving a not-so-subtle email which clearly indicates they just desperately need an actor who fits your racial makeup is not a treat; it’s more like a slap in the face as your identity as an actor is reduced to the color of your skin. Actors like to feel they’ve earned a role, and being the prize of a wild goose chase for diversity does not fulfill that desire. To put it in a different context, it would be like knowing you got a role because you were the only one tall enough or the only man who showed up to auditions. Yes, a role is a role, but it just feels icky.

Race wasn’t as important to my identity before going to college and becoming more involved with theatre. I am equally white and Asian, so I didn’t even think of myself as a minority for a long time. Now, with the current political climate and the knowledge that race has become part of who I am as an actor, I find myself aligning more with my Asian side. I, too, am starting to see myself as a minority who is somehow separate from and different than my Caucasian half.

And as I pick up the gauntlet of racial justice and acknowledge that I am viewed as a racial other, I feel sad remembering the neutrality with which I once viewed myself.

From a savvy business perspective, maybe capitalizing on my mixed racial background is the smart move. Those people could be correct in their assertation that, just as actors of all kinds need to figure out their type, I need to embrace my racial fluidity and use that feature as a tool to distinguish myself. Maybe I’m reading in too deep or giving in to paranoia. Maybe I’m just afraid to slap more labels on myself. After all, there’s really no way to quantify who has more parts available or who has it easier in the cut-throat world of casting. It’s all so complicated and subjective that I can’t determine if my being mixed race is helping me or hindering me.

My point of writing this is not to paint myself as a victim. I have been cast as minority characters and in roles with no race specified. But I do think it is important to understand that my situation is different but not easier. Yes, it does mean I can step into certain plays and roles Caucasian actors can’t, but it also brings other unique challenges and frustrations. I remember reading negative comments claiming reverse racism when Portland Center Stage presented an all black version of Oklahoma. A friend of mine recently received backlash for encouraging diverse actors to attend his auditions. I sat through a play which blatantly used yellowface and terrible fake accents. Every time I hear news of a movie being whitewashed, I feel pained at the injustice of it all. The sad truth is, it is not equal in the world of theatre, and anyone who doesn’t present a white appearance will struggle to be accepted in many, many roles.

So, I will embrace my mixed background and not shy away from material which interacts with racial topics, but my race is not a fun prize won spinning a wheel—it is my identity and my reality, for better or for worse.