And the Jessie goes to: Adele Noronha (Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role, Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy, produced by Touchstone Theatre); Valerie Sing Turner (John Moffat and Larry Lillo Prize), and Chris Gatchalian (Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion Award) at the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards ceremony, June 26, 2017
So there I was, sitting at a table on the main floor of the Commodore, with Chris Gatchalian on one side and Jack Paterson on the other, at the 35th Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards. Truth be told, I hadn't planned on attending this year's festivities on June 26, 2017; award ceremonies aren't really my thing, despite sitting on the Jessies board the previous year as part of the effort to address the systemic racism called out in an open letter from the community in 2015, when it was discovered that two out of four juries had zero representation of artists of colour. (It's kinda hard to say "no" when someone asks you to help fix something you've loudly complained about.) But I got a phone call while I was working in Toronto as guest artist with Canada's National Voice Intensive, advising me that I'd been selected to receive this year's John Moffat and Larry Lillo Prize for mid-career theatre artists. And now I was on my second gin-and-tonic, trying to stop myself from inappropriately blurting out to Chris that he'd won the Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion Award (I was on that jury as a member of the Jessies Diversity Committee), and alternately anxious that my acceptance speech was going to be cut off by the band for being too long, or worse, drowned out by the well-marinated colleagues at the bar for being too political.
But as noted in a recent Facebook post, that evening made me pretty damn proud of my theatre community. It's not often that we get to see meaningful social change within two years of an action. Out of the 27 regular categories, 20 or 74% featured at least one nominee of colour, with three categories dominated by artists of colour: Reneltta Arluk, Donna Soares, and winner Yoshie Bancroft for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Small Theatre; Raes Calvert, Aadin Church, and Tom Pickett for Outstanding Performance by Actor in a Lead Role, Small Theatre; and Shannon Chan-Kent, PJ Prudat, and winner Adele Noronha for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role, Large Theatre. Adding up all the other artists of colour who took home trophies – Laara Sadiq (Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Large Theatre), Quelemia Sparrow (Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Original Script), Alessandro Juliani (with Torquil Campbell, Outstanding Sound Design/Original Composition, Large Theatre), Rohit Chokhani (Significant Artistic Achievement, Large Theatre), Angie Descalzi (Mary Phillips Award for Behind the Scenes Achievement), Alexandra Lainfiesta (Outstanding Performance by Actress in a Lead Role, Small Theatre), and Carmen Alatorre (a double-winner garnering both Small and Large theatre prizes for Costume Design) – the 12 awards and 41 nominations for artists of colour represented a significant improvement over the previous 34-year history of the Jessies.
Building on innovations rolled out for the 2016 ceremony – the beautiful welcome and blessing by Elder S7aplek Lanakila (Bob Baker) and Sapkwus Slulum (Eagle Song Dancers), and a terrific mix of culturally diverse presenters and hosts (Munish Sharma, Tetsuro Shigematsu, Carmen Aguirre, Kim Harvey, Emilie Leclerc, Ming Hudson, Bahareh Shigematsu, Bryan Woo, Aliyah Amarshi, Raes Calvert) – the 2017 Jessies impressed even further by adding two ASL interpreters, an accessibility ramp to the Commodore stage (instead of the usual stairs), and a gender non-conforming house band, the awesome Queertet.
Kudos to the Jessies board of directors and producer Christie Watson for respectfully listening and responding to community concerns with empathy and energy. Enshrining representation and inclusion as a policy has not only increased well-deserved recognition of artists of colour; it has also resulted in a more wide-ranging slate of nominees across the board, with no single company or production dominating, as has happened in previous years. This kind of bold leadership has increased awareness and positive action among individual companies and artists, which reflects positively on the entire community – so much so that by the end of that night, I felt like we, as a community, had won something much bigger.
And my speech? Well, the band showed marked discretion in letting me finish to the end, and at the request of a friend, I've published it below. Congratulations to everyone!
In one of my mother's many photo albums, there's a picture of my younger sister and me when we were two and three years old. We're in my parents' living room, flanked by the couch and the coffee table. Marilyn is sitting on a towel; she's laughing. I'm standing next to her on another towel, a third towel tied around my waist, and the sleeve of a red sweater extending out from my hands like a rope, a serious expression on my face. We're in our underwear. And despite the fact that Marilyn is sitting, we're pretending that we are waterskiing, having seen a man waterski the day before when my family had a picnic at Shawnigan Lake.
In another album, Marilyn and I are about 5 and 6. This time, we're in the basement. This time, we're both smiling. It's a fairy-tale wedding. Marilyn is Cinderella, and I'm her debonair prince. Our costuming is slightly more sophisticated: Marilyn's in a long skirt purloined from our mother's closet; I'm sporting a jacket and trousers, a lace frill at my neck, my long hair tied back. My mom has captured for posterity the happy-ending of the play we had put on. Just for her.
My sister and I had a rich imaginative life, fed by the storybooks our parents read to us, the books we voraciously consumed ourselves, the characters we saw on TV, in movies, in theatre productions, and in our everyday lives. However, I never imagined that I would one day be standing here, accepting a prize to support the stories I myself would write for the stage. Because as rich as my childhood imagination was, it was, frankly, stunted. When I was seven, I was a princess in a community production of The King and I. All the adult Asian roles were played by white actors in yellowface. I remember my sister and I having dark brown make-up applied to our faces, hands, and feet; I guess they thought we didn't look "Siamese" enough, not realizing that Thai people come in all sorts of shades, and that royalty would not have the same dark skin as commoners labouring under the sun. I didn't see anyone who looked like me on a professional stage till my 20s, when I was in London studying music on a scholarship. It was an Andrew Lloyd musical in the West End. And yeah. The first professional Asian actor I ever saw onstage didn't even play a human being; she was a cat.
That little Asian girl in my parents' basement dreamed of being an actor. But she lacked the imagination to pursue that dream. Because she hadn't seen a real-life possibility, she got a degree in music, and pursued a career in classical music. Without seeing it, she couldn't imagine it.
In the age of the internet, it's hard to imagine that our imaginations might be stunted when the entire world is literally at our fingertips. But there's a reason why the CBC website no longer allows commenting on any story about Indigenous peoples in Canada, even when the story is positive. Because until someone has a living, breathing experience of another person that allows them to see the full humanity of that person, they will lack the imagination to see more than the stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated to this day. And if certain groups of people are completely invisible, the imagination has nothing to build on. Nowhere to go. Stunted.
We, the theatre community of Vancouver, specialize in living, breathing experiences. We need flexible and wide-reaching imaginations willing to seek inspiration in all kinds of places: a brothel in India. A poet's secret. A moonlodge on Turtle Island. An Indigenous WWI soldier. We need to forge a bigger space for Indigenous and culturally diverse artists in order to create meaningful living, breathing experiences that will inform our collective and community imaginations, and in turn, expand society's beliefs as to what is possible.
I want to thank the families of John Moffat and Larry Lillo for having the generous imagination to establish and fund this award. And I humbly hope that my standing here will allow more young people of colour to see that it is possible to imagine ourselves onstage, telling the stories that matter to us, and pursuing our dreams.
Those were the final words in an essay I wrote entitled, The Danger of a Single Story, which appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Canadian Theatre Review, at the invitation of guest editors Rebecca Burton and Laine Zisman Newman (co-organizers of the EIT initiative) for an issue devoted entirely to the notion of "Equity in Theatre". The title was inspired by and borrowed from the remarkable 2009 TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and as noted in the magazine's contents page, I argue that "the danger of the single story is that people fail to see the possibility of other stories that have been ignored and erased from history" - a pretty crucial matter for a cultural sector, the theatre, that is all about telling stories.
Are you implicitly racist despite your best intentions? If you're brave enough, there's an actual test to definitively find out!
Most Canadians believe that they are not racist. That we are better than our American neighbours. That if we don't actively discriminate against marginalized individuals or groups because of their skin colour, then we're not racist. But what if we unconsciously privilege white people over people of colour? Doesn't that, in fact, produce the same result of inequality? Of erasure? What about systemic racism? The infrastructure of racism?