We’re taking a little break from all of the multiracial goodness to enjoy the warm weather! In the meantime there is lots of content to keep you happy, enjoy getting to know all of the amazing people from our Featured Multiracial profiles!
We’re taking a little break from all of the multiracial goodness to enjoy the warm weather! In the meantime there is lots of content to keep you happy, enjoy getting to know all of the amazing people from our Featured Multiracial profiles!
Apparently, I have been living under a rock. Sometimes I can be quite oblivious. When I first heard about the 72 Shootout by the Asian American Film Lab (AAFL) I was like why have I never heard of this? Is this new? Nope, they’ve been around for years. I am apparently just living in my own little world.
Of course, I knew I had to meet Jennifer Betit Yen he president of AAFL and find out what exactly this 72 Hour Shootout is and what other awesome things AAFL does.
Along with Ms. Yen, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodi Lin – Social Media, AAFL TV Editor, and 72 Hour Shootout Editor.
Alex – What is the 72 Hour Shoot Out? And why did you start it?
Jennifer – Well, I didn’t start it. Film Lab is an older, not old, organization. It started in 1998, it was a collaboration of Asian American screenwriters. They were frustrated because they had reached that point where they were able to sell their scripts, but then they (studios) were like it’s cool you have a script about a Korean or Chinese, or Filipino person but we are gonna cast them white, so we are gonna totally change this. They (the writers) were like AHHHH, so this was their sort of little cathartic thing, but then it grew, and grew, and grew, and it became bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The Shootout started 13 years ago, and what it is, is it’s an annual filmmaking competition. It started locally. It was just New York only and they worked with ABC, and they worked with the Asian American National Film Festival. And the film festival said, look, we will donate a theatre. We will give you a theatre space and we will have the top ten films show at our festival to support Asian American Voices’ stories, faces, whatever. And ABC said we will provide a judge from casting and we will maybe give the best actor/actress a screen test. So it started very, very tiny – something crazy small. Now it’s a global film-making competition. We start programming in March because the idea is we want to pull… the idea is we get all kinds of people competing, from a stay at home dad with his iPhone, who made a movie about his kids, which was totally adorable and cute, to actual real production studios, that do it to sort of stay in the game, to keep themselves “fresh”, like just play, meet other talent. So we get a wide, wide, range. And to try and level the playing field a little bit and you know, cause maybe you come in and you have an amazing story, and a great voice, but you have no technical skills, so from March to June we run a series of how-to seminars, Q and A’s, we bring in filmmakers, we bring in lighting people, gaffers, grips, everything, set out resources, so that people know even stuff like makeup, costuming, and how do you do it on a budget, and what do you do if you have no money for like insurance, permits, what are the rules of the city… so on and so forth. From March to June we just take registrations and teach everybody. And then, usually, it’s the first Thursday of June we announce a theme that has been kept secret. When we announce the theme, usually at 8 pm, first Thursday of June at a launch party live in New York, live streamed across the world, if you have wifi, the clock starts ticking. They have 72 hours to write, cast, shoot, edit, everything, their short film of five minutes and under. Then the films compete for mentorships with executives at NBC, screen-tests at ABC, cash prizes, and all sorts of mentorship awards with established filmmakers.
Alex – That’s so cool, that’s really awesome. (To Jody) Is there anything you would like to add to that?
Jodi – I’m pretty new to the organization, but I think what stands out for me with this, I mean the 72 Hour Shootout is that it’s run by Asian American Film Lab, but there’s a cross section of diversity that comes to the competition.
Jennifer – One principle actor and at least one principle crew member, like a director or writer, have to be of Asian decent. But we encourage diversity because in saying we support diversity and inclusion we can’t then produce only homogeneous content. The idea is to produce content that accurately reflects the cosmopolitan nature, the diverse nature of the world we live in. We have a production arm too, and what we do with our production arm we invert traditional mainstream casting. If you look at your usual show or your film and generally speaking the main character is usually a white male, we invert it, so it’s always a woman of color, and usually, an Asian American woman, because Asian American’s… what are we? I think we are five to six percent of the population? Something like that. But we account for way less than two percent of the roles when you look at it (film/tv). And usually when you see an Asian role like you’ve seen all the controversy about “Ghost in the Shell”…
Alex – Oh yeah!
Jennifer – “Doctor Strange” and everything.
Alex – Oh yeah.
Jennifer – You know, all the yellow face and white washing… it’s quite fun…
Jodi – That’s what I kinda love about watching the top ten films of last year, was that it was diverse, it wasn’t just about being Asian American, it felt global.
Alex – What have been some of your themes from previous years?
Jennifer – “Lose the Labels”, “I’m Not Colored Blind”, “A Guest in My Own Country”, which is actually my favorite, although it was crickets when that got announced. I came out to the Film Lab in 2012, and it was my first shootout, and I was really freaked out… I had no idea, it was like I just took this job and all of sudden it was the shootout, and it was like THAT time and I was like “Oh my God, I don’t know how to do this”. Usually, you have a big sponsor, they have a lot of influence as to what the theme is, but that year we really didn’t have gigantic sponsors. We had financial sponsors, we had all these in-kind sponsors… it was up to us to think of what the theme would be. And we interviewed all these past winners, and one of the winners we asked her why did you compete in the shootout? She said, “I competed in the shootout because growing up I never saw faces like mine or heard stories or voices like mine on TV and it made me feel very alone… Like a guest in my own country.” And that really resonated with all of us. So I thought let’s use that, so we were like the theme is “A Guest in My Own Country” and everybody was like… ughhh….(Laughter)
Jennifer – (laughing) How are we gonna do this?
Alex – Like what do we do with this? (Laughter)
Jennifer – And then we did one on beauty, like mainstream constructions of beauty. Particularly like Asian American women are hyper-sexualized. We found out all these very interesting things. Like Hapa women and Asian women are the ethnic groups most likely to be sexually assaulted in college.
Alex – Wow.
Jennifer – Yeah, really interesting stuff.
Alex – Interesting.
Jennifer – But least likely to have it go through the legal system.
Alex – They just don’t speak up? How sad.
Jennifer – They speak up, but usually the case is dropped very quickly. Like they might report it to a teacher, they might report it to campus security, but then it just dies. Whether it’s them not fighting or the school being like… uhhh…you know… well…. or whatever. I don’t know.
Alex – That’s really interesting.
Jennifer – So we did one on beauty and constructions of what does beauty mean? People with disabilities and stuff like that. What else did we do? “This is Just a Test” we did one year, which is kind of random, it was chosen by one of the sponsors, like half of them were about pregnancy. Which I didn’t expect. I was like “Oh, oh ok. Alright, pregnancy tests…”
Jennifer – It’s not what I would have thought.
Alex – That’s so funny.
Jennifer – So that was an interesting one.
Alex – Do you have any films that stand out in your mind? Any that were your favorites over the years?
Jodi – Last year there was one called “Scorpion” which I really loved. It was high action, the story was about two hitmen. A mother and a son, it played a lot about the stereotype of hitmen and being an Asian hitman. I just liked that one a lot. And “Wired”, I liked that one.
Jennifer – And the cool thing about the hitman one too, was that the hitman who was really good, like spot on but also like a forty plus Asian woman.
Alex – Ohhh. That’s cool.
Jennifer – Just little things just challenging the way we think about…Alex – It definitely does. I love that.
Jodi – And “Wired” was the undercover cops, do you remember that?
Jennifer – Oh, that was horribly funny, in a great way.
Alex – Now, you can’t talk about this year’s theme… can you allude to it at all?
Jennifer – So from March to June we have a generalized theme, it may or may not have anything to do with the secret theme, (whispered) usually it does though. It is just an issue we think is pertinent to the times, that we think is important that we want to focus on just to generate dialogue, and talk up to the secret theme. So that theme is “Stand Together” this year because, you know, we are at a very interesting place now… for so many reasons. And so what we wanted to focus on is not walls, threats, or divides, things that keep us apart, but rather our common humanity, what brings us together, what connects us. So we started talking about, what images do we have that are meaningful to us in a positive way, so we talked about there was a black woman, she was at a vigil, she was lighting a candle for a fallen Asian American police officer. There was a white woman just standing there at a Black Lives Matter rally. There was a straight Asian guy with a rainbow flag at an LGBTQ demonstration. So on and so forth and these things were very meaningful, that’s kinda what we want to see. So Cici Chu, the woman that wrote and edited the promo film last year and this year created a little short kinda based on those experiences. And so we are using the Stand Together hashtag (#StandTogether) for our general theme. And then we will have a more specific one the films will have to be based on.
Alex – That’s really cool. Anything else you would like to add to this?
Jennifer – Just one thing, so we launched a production arm, and we are really trying to generate and push out content and connect the Shootout with the production arm and generate really diverse, really innovative, really fun, cool content and pulling all these filmmakers in so that’s kind of exciting so we have a bunch of projects in the works and Jody actually has a project she did. Can I tell her?
Jodi – Of course.
Jennifer – So this is very interesting. So Jody (to Jody), is this ok? Do you want to tell her? So Jody was actually involuntary committed to Bellevue, to the psychiatric ward.
Alex – Oh my God.
Jennifer – And when she first told me I sort of had this sort of oh my God, this is horrible, and I imagined horrible things, like being in restraints… but she had a very positive experience. So one of the things we do with the Film Lab is we try to generate content that’s fun, it’s fictional, it’s entertaining in its narrative but it promotes the positive effectuation of social change. So her film is all about mental health and…
Jodi – Recovery.
Jennifer – Recovery.
Jodi – I made a film about the experience. It was a short film that I made. (”Borte – Queen of Tibet”) When I got sick I thought I was the reincarnation of a queen, queen Borte, who I felt was the daughter of the Dali Lama from a past life. So I thought I was the reincarnation of this queen. When I made this short film I was nine months out of this hospital stay that Jen talks about. It was a five-week stay at Bellevue, and nine months out of the hospital I made this film hoping to be discovered as the queen. And what happened was in making the film, this shift in perspective happened and I was able to see that that delusion was actually keeping me sick. And the event we are planning is about the healing power of filmmaking. In the film, I am Asian American, but the film is a very human story about recovery and I just so happened to be an Asian woman in America having survived this experience. I am in remission from schizoaffective disorder.
Alex – This is so prevalent for now. I feel like mental health issue is just something we just cover up.
Jody – Exactly.
Alex – It’s horrible. It’s so wonderful you did this.
Jodi – Thank you, I mean on the panel I hope to bring in this radical psychiatric doctor, and his theory is mental illness isn’t something you just throw a few pills at and sweep under the rug. Like it is a whole mind-body, physical mental spiritual experience. And like each person subjectively has their own recovery process. And for me, kinda the long and the short of it is, I got better by making a film because I am a filmmaker. And I think that is one of the points, it’s for mental illness awareness month May 1st, so I think that will be one of the topics of discussion is how film making can be used as a healing force.
So often all we do is complain about the lack of diversity and inclusion. Of course we need to continue to complain, bitch and moan. However, I think we also need to be reminded that there are organizations that are doing something to change the status quo, there are people that are making a difference. It’s nice to be reminded that there are people fighting for actors of color. It’s important to note those making a difference. We are all so much stronger together. Keep screaming and complaining. Keep fighting. Change doesn’t happen overnight but together we can rise up.
For more info on AAFL and the 72 Hour Shootout please visit their website.
I was always aware, growing up, that I was neither white, nor black. No one directly called me out. Although, the question, “What are you?”, did always feel like a public challenge. It wasn’t spoken, but it didn’t need to be. I didn’t quite fit in on either side; not white enough, not black enough. I wasn’t sure if I would ever belong to one group or the other, but as I grew up I learned that being white was never even an option. I was half and half, but the world never views white/black mixed kids as white. I guess that made me black enough by default. Eventually, I knew that I didn’t need to be enough of anything, for anyone but myself. I choose the labels I wear. It never occurred to me, though, that any issues with racial identity would follow me into motherhood.
My children don’t shun me, but they don’t feel like I understand their experiences, as black kids, either. I didn’t even know I was that different in their eyes until my daughter said to me, “Mom, how does it feel to be the only white person in a house with all black people?” OMSheeesh, I thought, you can’t ask people that. Even if they’re your mother. I wasn’t really offended. I actually laughed in the moment. I’ve got that thick “motherhood” skin you need, to maintain your self esteem while raising children. It did make me realize, though, my daughter really thinks I’m white.
She looks at my skin color as an advantage over her own. I’m comfortable in my skin, but I am secretly obsessed with her golden brown tone. Then again, I see brown skin as a thing of beauty. I don’t automatically think of the negative stereotypes that are sometimes associated with it. Even though I was a bit confused about which heritage should dominate my description, I’ve always had a natural pride in who I am and all the wheres I come from. I’ve definitely experienced prejudice, but I never internalized it. For me it was more a reflection of the person looking down on me. It exposed their character, not mine. It’s different for my children. The oldest two primarily, experience our white washed world as a defective sore thumb. They think the issue lies with them. They don’t see their beautiful reddish brown skin, or their African American heritage as a blessing, and that makes me incredibly sad.
I know I can’t change the way some people will see them, but it’s my hope that one day they’ll absorb my example of how I see myself. I also know now, that the only way I can do that is to share with them some of my own experiences. I don’t bake myself in sunshine the way I used to throughout my high school and college years, so chances are I’ll never not look like a bright light. I can’t make us look more alike in that way, but I can help them understand that I’ve never experienced white privilege. That brown is brown, and my lighter shade has never exempt me from prejudice.
I’m grateful my daughter said what she did, because it made me aware of how she sees me as different. Now the challenge, for me, is to help her see that, really, we’re very much the same.
You can also find Xavia over at Messiful Mama where she shares her humorous take on motherhood.
This day is important to me. Today women are striking across the world in a display of solidarity. I recognize that not all women identify as feminists, although I don’t understand it. I also recognize that the majority of men do not identify as feminists, although I don’t understand that either.
I think back to my childhood and realize the privilege that I have always had. Part of it I was born into, my parents were both white and educated and came from families where they were loved. Growing up I was bossy (and still am) and no one ever made me feel bad about it. I was encouraged to be a leader, I was raised to be confident, and because of that support I achieved in school and in sports. I get my work ethic from my parents, they didn’t preach it, they just lived it every single day.
When it was time for college I had a couple years that I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or how to recognize my talents. I took that time to take a lot of women’s studies courses (sounds pretty Boulder-like right? 😉 and then with my dad’s suggestion I found my passion in the world of marketing.
I went to art school and graduated early, I was ready to jump into the real world. I landed the job I wanted, again privilege followed me. I feel very grateful for the life I have had and I recognize that while I have worked very hard, there were so many factors that have been working in my favor ever since I was born.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the world of advertising was flawed. About a year into my career a coworker of mine got drunk and revealed his salary to me. We went to the same school, graduated at the same time, were hired at the same time, and had the same job- he made $10,000 more than me. I remember taking the information in calmly and then headed home to figure out how I was going to make this right.
So the next Monday I told my boss that I needed to talk to his boss. I gave them the facts, they came back with comments like “well, schooling and how long you have worked here all play into salary”. When I told them we were literally identical in all of those factors, they gave me the $10,000 raise. Keep in mind I was making $25,000 a year at the time so this was huge for me. But besides the bump in salary, it made me grateful that I was raised in way that made me comfortable enough to fight for what I was worth.
I moved up quickly in my career. I had a male friend tell me one time he wished he could bottle up the “cajones” I have. As I moved up I was often the only female creative in the room. It definitely has shaped the personality I have today. The environment was competitive, frat-ish at times, and has been full of uncomfortable moments with clients, coworkers and bosses.
Now, getting close to 40 I have been in this world for almost 18 years which seems impossible, but it is true. I am a long way from that young woman fighting for her extra 10k in a lot of ways, but in many ways much has stayed the same. I became a mom to a daughter just after my 26th birthday which opened my eyes to figuring out how I wanted to raise a strong female.
I teach by doing and fighting. It has just been the 2 of us for the better part of her life. She is my teammate, at my side all the time, so she sees the fight. She sees me when I am struggling, but most importantly she always sees me get back up. She sees that I am flawed like everyone else, but that I am fiercely devoted to doing anything and everything I can to make sure she succeeds. I have become the woman, the feminist, the boss, and the mother I am to show her what she is made of.
My hope for her and the people in her life is that they realize this is what it means to be a feminist. It means that she means as much to the world as the boy who sits next to her. It means that her brown skin is as valuable as my white skin. It means that all of the men in her life- her father, her grandfathers, and everyone else who loves her- want her to succeed and believe in her success as much as they would believe in a boy’s.
I recognize my life has been full of blessings and full of privilege. I am very grateful for everything that I have been given, the love that I was raised in, and the chances I was given to prove myself. That does not mean I don’t have something to fight for. I have heard this a lot lately, women in a position of privilege who don’t understand that one woman’s fight is all of our fight.
My dream is a world where we are all feminists, because we all recognize that your son is not better than your daughter. He doesn’t deserve additional opportunities or respect simply because of his gender. When women do better, we all do better. Please find your own way of standing in solidarity today, I am striking with the knowledge that all women do not have that luxury, so I will strike for them too. Even more important is how each of us continue to carry out the spirit of today into each day moving forward.
I strongly identify as a mixed-race Black and Latina female. I was raised by my parents to never choose just one or the other because I am both: all day, everyday. As passionately as I hold my racial/ethnic identity to be true, I have grappled with the fact that the world sees my truth as a falsity. I, Joanna Lillian Thompson, am proud to say I am the child of a Black man, born and raised on the ghetto streets of southeast Washington D.C., and a Central American woman from Nicaragua who came to the United States with nothing but a dream for a better life.
As a child, being mixed was not complicated. I grew up in the rather diverse suburb of Rockville, Maryland, right outside of the nation’s capital. There, commonalities between my friends and neighbors were highlighted more so than our differences. However, as I have gotten older and moved away from home to travel nationally and internationally to pursue my academic and career goals, I have found myself in more and more situations where my mixedness becomes a topic of interrogation. These situations are fueled by constant reminders of what makes me different from those who do not identify as mixed-race. Unfortunately, I am more than used to typical questions of “What are you?” or “What are you mixed with?” and statements like, “I didn’t think being mixed was a thing.” or “You don’t even seem Black and Latina.” Nevertheless, the questioning of my racial/ethnic identity has come to a point where it is not just a question of what am I, but a discrediting of my racial/ethnic identity all together.
This discrediting of my racial/ethnic identity recently came to a highpoint when a new friend of mine, who is Black and undeniably Pro-Black in her personal beliefs, frankly informed me that I am not “ethnic,” I have been “whitewashed” because it sounds like I was “sheltered,” like my parents “kept all the Black people” away from me, and I am “not like any other Black/Latina person” she knows because “other Black girls” don’t sound like how I do. The justification for my apparent display of no ethnicity, according to my friend, are due to characteristics I embody such as I am passive and am too nice, I talk properly all the time, I like baseball and hockey, I do not listen to a lot of “Black people” music, I am not urban, I say phrases like “okie dokie,” and I simply carry myself in a way that if you did not know me, you would not necessarily think I was Black or Latina. These characteristics, from how I act, to how I speak, to even what sports and music I like, have somehow, and unbeknownst to me, stripped away my racial/ethnic background. Ultimately, it has made me a White person.
When thinking about these characteristics, which seem to be perfect evidence to support the claim I am not “ethnic,” I believe what I like and how I act are merely consequences of the environment I was raised in and the spaces I continue to surround myself in. I was raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, which was a well-off suburb. Compared to most youth, I had a pretty amazing childhood which included an abundance of love from friends and family who were prosperous themselves. I do not say that to be conceited, but to simply acknowledge the varying levels of privilege I have been given in my life. My childhood included being excited for my first Backstreet Boys concert at the age of 13; yearly summer vacations to the beaches of Florida with my parents; attending different professional sports events, including soccer, because my father, that Black kid from the ghetto of D.C., worked as an equipment manager for the Washington Diplomats in the 70’s and fell in love with the sport, among other sports as well. My life includes both of my parents, whom have now been married for 34 years, and have always supported me in any way they can: financially, emotionally, spiritually, and just by being my best friends. Today, I live on the north side of Chicago where I am pursuing my PhD in Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and have been extremely fortunate to meet people from different walks of life who are just as diverse as I am. Somehow, these wonderful characteristics, which have irrefutably shaped the eclectic person I am today, have simultaneously disqualified me from being genuinely Black and Latina.
Several questions have since risen in my mind from this new information on my lack of minority status. First, what does it mean to be ethnic? Second, what does it mean to be “genuinely” Black and/or Latina? Third, how does having a nice personality, liking certain types of music and sports, or being well-spoken as a POC essentially make you less of a POC? Sometimes I wonder, if I were to give into stereotypes, would that make me more genuine when it comes to my racial/ethnic identity? If I grew up on the same ghetto streets as my dad, if I struggled in the shacks of Nicaragua like my mom, if I had not been afforded good opportunities in the affluent suburb I grew up in, if I had a single parent to support me and wondered why one parent left, if I carried myself with a heavier and more aggressive swagger, if I blasted ratchet music 24/7 and spoke with more street slang, if I asserted a more visible pro Black/pro Latina way about myself, would all of that somehow qualify me as ethnic, would all of that somehow make me a bonafide Black and Latina female?
Personally, I cannot deny that I have struggled with questions of, “Am I enough?” and “Will I ever be enough?” This is because I have been, and most likely always will be, reminded that as “half and half,” I will never be fully Black or fully Latina. Yes, I could feel as whole as I wanted, I could shout it from every mountaintop and be proud of the reality I hold to be true, but the world will always see me as two parts of a whole, never two whole parts. The saddest part about these reminders is they usually come from my own people: Blacks and Latinas/os. My own people, who I assume will be the first to have my back in times when I am feeling inadequate, are the first to criticize and remind me that ultimately, I am neither Black or Latina.
And so, what happens now? Where do mixed-race individuals like myself, who are constantly being reminded of what we are not rather than what we are, go from here? Do we stop believing in who we are, whether our racial/ethnic identities are perceived by others correctly or not? Do we continue to convince our own people, the ones who give us the most pushback for not being enough that yes, we are enough and we should not be stripped of our racial/ethnic identity simply because we look different, sound different, or prefer to engage in different cultural interests? Do we try and establish definite connections for what it means to be “ethnic” or “genuine” as a POC so that at least we have “rules” to abide by when claiming a minority racial/ethnic identity? Or do we just not care, let the sensitivity and emotion all slide, and just deal with being accepted by some and not by others?
At the end of the day, I know I cannot give into the negative feelings I experience from discontent and questioning by others who feel I am inaccurately portraying the racial/ethnic identity I was born into. I know I cannot change people’s opinions, especially if those opinions are not grounded in anything definitive, anything aside from personal ideals. I also know the pride I have in my claim as a Black and Latina female is my truth, my reality, and that will never falter. Despite potentially not fitting into whatever cookie-cutter mold there is for being a “genuine” POC, best believe, no one can tell me that I do not fit into the history of what it means to be Black and Latina in America, because I do, I know I do. My place in history, as a strong Black and Latina, has been written and continues to be written; backed by a soundtrack of pop and hip-hop, a wardrobe of sneakers and sun-dresses, hooping to the basket on the court and sliding into third on the field, a personality that is equally passive and aggressive, and a swagger that is undeniably a lady in the workplace and a beast in the streets. Whether this depiction of who I am is evident to others or not, I know is it there. It is in my being, it is in my blood, it what wakes me up every day and puts me to sleep every night. And you know what? That will always be enough for me.
As mentioned in previous posts, I’m an NPR addict. We have a local broadcast called The Texas Standard that highlights all-things-Texas. Every day, I mostly learn about what the new presidency means for the state and I think they talk about tacos every show, with a once-a-week argument about chili or tacos being the state food. I will admit, I don’t get as excited for this show, as I do for THINK or Fresh Air, but love their travel tidbits and random Texas History. When the show brought up The Underground Railroad in Texas, I naturally thought slaves were making their way north, but I was wrong…
In the 1850s, Nathaniel Jackson, a white slave owner from Alabama, left his plantation for the Rio Grande Valley, bringing his black wife, and former slave, Matilda Hicks, their bi-racial children, and freed slaves. Jackson Ranch was established in 1857 and served as a refuge for runaway slaves making their way down to Mexico. The family built a church, a cemetery, and served vital roles in their little south Texas community for generations. The Jackson’s heirs still live today, many of whom mixed with the Mexican-Americans in the town. Lots of multi-racial goodness, but unfortunately, very little information about this revolutionary family.
In 2005, a lovely historical marker was dedicated to the cemetery for all to learn about this brave family. I never heard this story, and it makes me wonder how many others are out there just like it. If you know any, please share, and we’ll do a post on it.
To quote “Hamilton” there’s nothing like being in “the room where it happens”. I love watching a rehearsal, especially that of a new show. It’s magical getting to witness art being made. Especially good art (yeah, yeah art is subjective. Whatever), and “Thoughts of a Colored Man on a Day when the Sun Set too Early” is just that.
I’m a sucker for diversity and thinking outside the box. It gives me chills seeing something that will challenge your perspective. I think this show is just that. I was lucky to get the opportunity to sit down with the creative team and discuss this show and why diversity and inclusion are so important in the theatre arts. This amazing group of people are part of the solution. They are so inspiring and I hope more theatre companies will follow suit!
Take notice. This is what a theatrical revolution looks like. Rise up!
Alex: Why this show? What made you decide to write this?
Keenan: This piece is very important to me, I started writing this piece while I was in college. And due to the climate, you know, the racial tension going on here in America. And a voice that I felt that needed to be told. I felt that this piece was important to write about young black men and expressing their emotions, and how they feel about the world around them, the society they live in, and their own culture.
Chris: Can I pop in on one thing (said to Keenan), which you said is one of the things you said before is that you also wanted to create a piece for people of color (POC), that didn’t, that wasn’t a gangster…
Keenan: Oh, right right right right.
Chris: But you said it much more eloquently than I did.
Keenan: Yeah, I just be talking, Um…
Keenan: So I also, wanted to create a piece, that wasn’t, that didn’t harp on the stereotypical plight, of African American Males in American. So… I didn’t want to create a piece that centered around street life, or gang culture, I wanted to show full spectrum in the diaspora of you know, the African-American culture.
Alex: Oh, I love that. So I guess another question for you would be as an actor that is a POC do you feel there has been, um, more progress in this industry for diversity and inclusion or do you think we are kinda at a stand still?
Keenan: I believe, the last few years, there has been progression. I feel like there was a point where there was a stand still, I feel, I feel, early 2000’s there was a turn that started, then I think it stalled out for some years, but I think in the last couple, couple of years there has definitely been a turn, um, in the industry where there is more work provided for us.
Alex: Um, what do you think needs to change in order for diversity and inclusion to become the norm in the entertainment industry?
Keenan: I think people a lot of times focus on who’s in front of the camera or who’s onstage as far as acting, but I think we need inclusion and diversity in all spectrums of the field. So, from the actors, to the playwrights, screenwriters, to the directors, to the producers, to to stage management, and assistant directing, I think we need diversity and inclusion across the board and not just in performers, because if you have more people behind the scenes, you also have more people wanting to tell their stories as well. So if you have more diversity and inclusion as far as when it comes to directors and writers, who have more of those stories wanting to be told even before it gets to the performers. So I just think we need it front to back.
Alex: I agree. Um, so for you, for both of you actually (Chris and Jenny) Why is this show so exciting to you? What made you decide “hey I’m gonna produce this show, I want to do this”.
Chris: Ah, so, John Cariani, who is a dear Royal Family friend, sent me Keenan’s play. And it was called “Thoughts of a Colored Man on a Day when the Sun Set too Early”. And I said that’s a beautiful title. And then uh, Keenan, was so patiently waiting as we did the show last year, and uh came and saw my work, which I think is always important for a playwright to see what Royal Family is about, and what we do. And um, and then we did the reading of it, and I thought “Wow”, and Keenan put together the whole reading, cause I think it’s really important for a playwright to bring in the voices that he wants people to hear, I think that that’s really important so that it was his cast, and so I heard it, and I, I remember at the end of the reading thinking “Oh my gosh, this is gold”. I remember thinking there is so much gold in this. And I was so inspired by it and um, I just went into this “what is the next step?”. And then we took some time to figure out what the next step was and Royal Family very much, especially with, can I say Trump being president?
Alex: Yes, please do!
Chris: Ok! With Trump being president, um that there was no question and after certainly the… there was two things, I was so… Keenan and I had lots of discussions about race because the first thing I said to him was, are you sure you want a white woman directing this? And then I called every person of color that I know, and asked if they thought it was ok if I directed it? (To Keenan) Is that pretty true?
Keenan: mhmm, mhmm.
Chris: (Laughter) I came back and said, sort of came back to saying “yes” we all agreed that it was ok. And that it was about me asking the questions that needed to be asked, as somebody who is white, when I didn’t understand something, that that is something I can say to Keenan like “I don’t understand this”. And so anyway, I guess in the long winded part of this is that we as an organization really felt that this play had to be told. That there was no question that in this climate Keenan’s voice had to be heard and this group of men that he has brought needed to have a place to act. I feel like that was sort of everything that came together. And then I called Jenny and Taye… (laughter)
Jenny: Yeah, as multiple layers I guess for us and how we got involved. The first was wanting an opportunity, already having developed a relationship with Chris and Royal Family, and wanting an opportunity to collaborate first. And when she sent Keenan’s play, first off it just it comes and I read that title, and it’s beautiful and intriguing, and I don’t think anyone would read that title and not be interested in what it’s all about. So right off the bat attention is grabbed, and I’m going “What is this?” this looks like something interesting. And then, um, in reading it, honestly it was for many reasons it was unlike anything I had read before. The poetry of it was so beautiful, um, the imagery, and his way with words. And so we’re talking about some really important topics, and we’re talking about race and everything, but it, but he has a beautiful way of kind of flipping it on its head and coming from a different angle. So it doesn’t feel like something you’ve just seen played out before. Um, it’s a different perspective, which I thought was really interesting. And again to echo what they said with the political climate and everything that is going on, it just felt like there’s this energy underneath where its like it just has to come out right now! Now is the time, this story needs to be told right now! So for us to jump on it and be a part of bringing it in front of audiences, and giving it a life, is of course very attractive and exciting, and such an honor. And then um, from a choreography stand(point), and right away I sent it to Taye and I said I think you would be really interested in this, do you want to do this? Should we do this? And um, one of the things for him was – well I don’t want to speak for him – but right off the bat, it did remind him of “For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide – when the Rainbow isn’t Enough” which is a play he saw when he was younger, he saw his mom perform, and it was um, something that really stood out to him as a young boy seeing his mom as an actress in this play. And it was meaningful to him, so there was also like a – that personal attachment to kinda something that was reminiscent, it was reminiscent of and obviously, you know, he can speak to you about why he’s personally involved. But from a choreography standpoint, um, it was a play that was presented to us that didn’t have music, and so Chris said: you know, would you want to choreograph this? And what’s so amazing is that there’s actually without there being music yet, Madison is providing beautiful music of course but, without there being music yet, there is music in the words. Um, there’s this beautiful rhythm and musicality, which was so attractive to us. And right there on the page, you can see movement, you can see choreography, it’s just begging to be there. Without it being, “and then they danced”…
Jenny: It’s just asking for it and so the words actually provided the music for us in the script, which was very exciti
Alex: So, going on from the choreography standpoint, um, is there a specific genre of choreography, or like a specific style of dance you are using? Or is just like, however, the words inspire you to move?
Jenny: I think it’s honestly, I think it’s… it’s surprising us, um, because I think it’s actually, it is really coming from the words. I think we came into it having one approach, kinda wanting to go maybe against what was being said, and have kinda, you know, this abstract movement to go along with this beautiful kind of poetic um writing. But what we found is we were sitting in this world of wanting to punctuate the words, or-or the images, with our physicality’s, so it became um, a lot more pedestrian, and gestural, um sometimes in an over exaggerated way, and sometimes in a more realistic way. Um, because we are working with all these men, these beautiful performers, but not a lot of them are, most of them are not dancers. Which is actually beautiful for us, because we’re coming from a real place and wanting them to live in their bodies, as people/actors, and so using what we have provided for us with these guys, it’s kind of um, a more natural pedestrian kind of earthy organic approach of the movement, that hopefully supports the writing. I don’t know if that answered your question…
Alex: (To Keenan) Do you agree, do you feel it’s helping your words come alive more?
Keenan: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I…my initial purpose for this play was to create a piece that had enough breath and air in it, for whatever collaboration that happened in the future, or whatever artists put their hands into it, that they would be able to make the play malleable. And move it to how they want it to move. So I purposely left things out like very detailed stage directions, musical notes and things like that, uh, for that reason. I had that foresight years ago because, I created this specific piece for artists of color to be able to uh, just really, just really, uh… be free, and not feel like they have to be stereotyped in any way that they would be handed roles that they often see in the industry. I wanted to give something different, but I also knew in my mind I wanted as many artists as possible to do it, of all different backgrounds, be able to do it and really see the work and for it to be to be able to build um… empathy. Cause a lot of times, when you see something of one cultural group I feel people feel like it’s only for them. So with this piece, I love that, especially this time around with Royal Family that um, there is diversity from front to back, that I’m speaking of. From um… this production it doesn’t matter of race, background, sexual orientation, things of that nature, we have it all here. And that is what I wanted to create and I think with this team that was built here, um, for this production and this incarnation empathy is being built; due to what everybody is learning from different angles, different backgrounds, regardless from where everybody is coming from. So um, I wanted to create a piece for that reason.
Alex: That’s great! Is there anything else you guys would like to add, that you would like me to share with the readers?
Chris: I just, can I just say… the thing I think that has been very interesting for me, as a person who thought that I was enlightened… and I say that very… I shouldn’t say that word enlightened… enlightened isn’t the right word…
Chris: And the things that I’ve learned that I think, there’s two things I have learned. Um… one, I feel like… I don’t think people of… I don’t think many people think about what young black men go through on a daily basis. And I was struck in rehearsal as we were talking about things, about the idea that… (to Keenam) Is this ok to say?
Chris: That…I mean it was devastating to me. That they (the cast), that they were talking about how, I don’t know who it was – I think, was it you that said you couldn’t run? You can’t run down the street?
Keenam: I forgot… I was there.
Chris: So that it was “We can’t run down the street”. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And that the idea of like “We can’t run, because people think that we did something wrong.” And I was gutted, and I called like five or six people and I said: “did you ever think about this?” And nobody had thought about that. And then the sort of like things that keep, you know, that keep, are being brought up to me, which are, you know this idea that if a group of black men walk in a group, they talk about spreading out… because they look… I mean this is, I to me it’s… it’s crazy…that we actually don’t really… This is… This is stuff we don’t talk about. Or I’ve never talked about. And again, as somebody who like thought I was knowledgeable… and it’s something I don’t… I am not aware of. And I certainly recognize, and I also recognize I am a woman, and certainly Keenan doesn’t know what’s it like to be a woman, and there’s that too… but like, but that specific thing of being a POC. And the other thing I realized too, as Artistic Director, that I think is very important, is that I always thought as being diverse, casting diversity, was being… I was a diverse person… like that we were a diverse company.
Chris: And now I am committed, that I am not going to do another, we are not doing plays of… that is written by a white person, except for one a season. Because I don’t think we need to be… I don’t think we need to hear white voices right now. I think we need to hear from people that are not white, and we need to hear other experiences, and I don’t, I think to Keenan’s point, which is like, how can I be part of the solution? And that’s the only way that I can be part of the solution, in a real way, which is I am an artistic director of a theatre… and that’s important. And so what can I… How can I give power… and how can I use what kind of privilege that I have to lift up people… Ehh that’s a terrible way of saying it…
Chris: To bring voices together… to show that there’s (to Keenan) I don’t know, I said it to you…
Keenan: It’s, it is, it was very important for me I think what was great about this process that I will leave you with is like Chris just said, being part of the solution. And I felt, I liked Chris from day one, because like she said earlier, you know the first thing she asked me was how do you feel about a white woman, you know, uh… directing your play? Which, you know, in our society you can’t be more opposite than that, right? A white woman and a black male, um… I felt it was important because what we’re doing is being part of the solution, we’re opening up a dialogue, and people are learning, and empathy is being built. Like Chris says, she’s learning a lot of things, I’m learning a lot of things because just because I’m a young black male, that doesn’t mean another young black man has the same experience as me, just because he’s black. And that’s what I think people feel at times. Um so, so, so doing that in this process has built and opened up a relationship to cause a healing, not saying nobody was hurting each other, but to build an understanding of “Ok, I didn’t think about it like that, I understand that. Now how can I be part of that solution?” So we’re giving this platform, and this opportunity, it’s not only been able to give me a voice on a new platform, but it’s also given other people a voice and a chance to understand something that they wouldn’t have understood before. Not because they didn’t care, uh… I think it comes down to just not being exposed to it, or hearing that viewpoint in a right way. So I think that’s why this, this, opportunity is important, and you know, writing a play really did I ever think a day would come a white woman would even want to direct my play?
Keenan: um, no. But now that the day is here, I appreciate it for, for, what it has opened up for all of us, and it is important that we, that if we truly want equality, then we need to create a situation that looks like equality, right? And not, and not hinder or stop anybody from, from doing anything and initially like I said I created this for all artists…
Jenny: It’s a human play.
Keenan: It’s a human play, you know it’s like, I think we’ve been saying this, it’s from a black lens, but it’s a play, you know, about humility, human existence, we talk about relationships, you know love…
Jenny: The fact that it is all men, which I found was so interesting when I first read it too. All these men and their character names are emotions. Which is exactly the opposite of what we associate men with…
Jenny: …In our society. That’s not what, I think. Women – emotion, men – logic, practicality, whatever. And the fact that all of them are “Depression”, “Despair”, all these important emotions, all that is an incredible way in perspective.
Art like this doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years and years of working on it and rethinking it… etc. “Thoughts of a Colored Man when the Sun Set too Early” is something so beautiful and special. I am honored I got to sit down and chat with these awesome people.
Special thanks to Jess Wu for making this happen. Here’s to changing the world.
For more info on Royal Family Productions please visit their website.
WHAT MIX ARE YOU?
German and African-American
WHERE DO YOU CURRENTLY LIVE?
IS THE COMMUNITY YOU LIVE IN NOW DIVERSE?
Pretty much, yes..
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
Growing Germany wasn’t too diverse. I was the only mixed kid in class, the others were all white. Getting older this changed, due to the change in Germany which happened, we are a far more diverse country.
HOW DID YOUR PARENTS MEET?
They met when my mom was 19 and my dad was 22. My dad was an American soldier and came to Germany because of his work. That’s where they met. Pretty happy he was stationed in the part of Germany my mother lives in ;D.
WERE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT OBSTACLES IN THEIR RELATIONSHIP CORRELATED TO YOUR BACKGROUNDS?
My American grandma wasn’t really happy about my dad marrying a white woman in the first place, and some other things, but other than that not really 🙂
HAS YOUR EXTENDED FAMILY ALWAYS BEEN SUPPORTIVE OF YOU BEING MULTIRACIAL/BIRACIAL?
Mostly. One of my relatives, though, told my mother one day: “Well that thing with the black guy you had was a mistake, we all make mistakes!’’ That was insane.
DID YOU CELEBRATE TRADITIONS FROM BOTH SIDES OF YOUR FAMILY?
I grew up with my mom because my dad died pretty early (when I was 4). So I’m basically 100% German. I don’t really like America that much actually. The country itself I like. The way people are proud of their country, I don’t.
WERE THERE MULTIPLE LANGUAGES SPOKEN IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD?
Kind of. My German is perfect obviously. I do speak English better than most Germans do, I still don’t speak it perfectly. 😀 I speak French too.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR CULTURAL BACKGROUND?
Basically everything (German). I’m proud of my dad and I love him but I don’t really celebrate American stuff (except for the music of course;).
WHAT ACTIONS DID YOUR PARENTS TAKE TO TEACH YOU ABOUT YOUR DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS?
This question doesn’t really work for me , because my dad died when i was 4.
DID YOU TALK ABOUT RACE A LOT IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
Not really, we were just children. I think we discuss this too much. Discussing it all the time, is making it matter. I see the thing about wanting to respect your culture and your background, I do that too!! Nevertheless, always discussing this doesn’t make sense to me.
DO YOU IDENTIFY AS MIXED OR SOMETHING ELSE?
I mostly identify as a black German. People often consider me mixed, but I prefer going with black German. The thing is I got a lot of features from my mom and also a lot of my dad. I’m pretty brown but also have very small lips, people just always struggle to put me in some box.
I’ve had black, black/white, Maori, Indian… and so on. I thought some time about how to consider myself, but in the end I thought it doesn’t matter at all, I am what I am. German and American. That’s it for me. As I said I’m living very German, yet I am American too genetically.
DOES RACE WEIGH INTO WHO YOU CHOOSE TO DATE? OR IF YOU HAVE A PARTNER WHAT RACE ARE THEY?
I don’t care at all. There are so many beautiful people out there, I don’t want to limit myself because of something like excluding someone. I don’t believe in the “taste’’ thing. If it clicks, not if she/he’s white, black, b/w, whatever
WHAT DOES BEING MIXED MEAN TO YOU?
It means that I’m me. I’m no different than a white or black person. We are all the same. (Yet I have to say that it comes with external struggles sometimes ;S)
DO YOU HAVE A LOT OF FRIENDS WHO ARE MIXED?
I don’t unfortunately. My friends are mostly white or Turkish . Most German people are. But I’m always up for new friends;)
ARE THERE ANY COMMENTS YOU ARE REALLY TIRED OF HEARING FROM PEOPLE IN REGARDS TO RACE/CULTURE?
· Are you adopted?
· You are so handsome, you can’t be just black?
· Is your mother only dating black guys?
· You are so handsome for a black guy
· Where are you from?
· No what are you really?
· Can I touch your hair? Or people just touching it without asking
· Wannabe nigger
· You mixed people always try to act black , but you are actually pretty nice (WTF??)
· Imagine having a child with a white girl with blue eyes… omg .. your children would be so cute…. Yeah, right… the whiter the better ????!!
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM FOR THE FUTURE OF AMERICA IN REGARDS TO RACE?
That America understands that it is a country built up by immigration. We are all not just one thing. Just leave this stupid discussion about race and love each other, it shouldn’t matter. Not at all. But I really have to admit, that I think America’s not getting much better concerning this topic.
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