Hey, Johnny! Theatrical Advice - My High School Theatre Director Makes Slightly Racist Comments. What Do I Do?

Hey, Johnny!   Hey, Johnny! Theatrical Advice - My High School Theatre Director Makes Slightly Racist Comments. What Do I Do?
 
Playbill.com's "Hey, Johnny!" theatrical advice column is back this week with a response to a reader asking how to stand up to prejudice from an authority figure in school.
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In our new advice column, "Hey, Johnny!" (as in: stage door Johnny), an anonymous Broadway veteran answers the burning questions that might just be keeping your theatre-loving soul up at night:

Read last week's "Hey, Johnny!" column here.

Have a question for Johnny? Ask Johnny a Question! or tweet to us @Playbill using the hashtag #HeyJohnny.

Here's Johnny's latest round of reader replies. Hey Johnny,

I go to a high school with a really great arts program (we do three shows a year) but I've noticed a problem. Our (white) director keeps making slightly racist comments towards the Asian students (during Avenue Q he referred to our Christmas Eve as "that Asian girl"). Even though a good number of Asian students auditioned for our next show, he didn't even let most of them into the ensemble. We're planning to do Miss Saigon in the spring and he's been heavily implying that he's going to cast white student in the leads, because that's what they did last time they did it. It's been like this all four years, and it's really been making me and the other Asian students feel awful, and we've been doubting if we have a future in the theatre. I've tried to keep positive for us, but even I've fallen into a gloom. Please, what should we do?

Signed,

That Asian Kid

Dear Wonderful Someone,

Sorry, sorry. I know that's not how you signed your letter, but I just can't bring myself to call you That Asian Kid. Racism may be alive and shouting in 2014 — look no further than the nightly news or your nearest Twitter feed — but we each have a choice about how we use our voices. And use yours, you must.

Here's my advice: I think you and the other Asian students, who all feel "awful," should gather and get your stories straight and then go to a trusted adult and share why you feel that way. This trusted adult could be a parent, it could be another teacher or it could be your principal. Hopefully this person can help you navigate the beginning of a conversation about the culture of your school, and particularly the arts department, which you very generously call "really great."

Here's the thing, though: I'd recommend you bring along a few people who don't, well, look like you — friends of all stripe who have also noticed the prejudice, and are made uncomfortable by it. Not because I think you should have to sprinkle your pack with kids of all color, but because the world isn't fair, and I believe you'll have a better chance of creating change (as opposed to staging an attack) if there is a broad section of the student population represented.

Now, if all of this leads to a facilitated talk with your director, he might say any of the following, and you should be prepared for it: "I always cast the best actor possible, no matter his or her skin color." Or: "I haven't even cast the show yet. There's no reason to think I'm going to cast it a certain way when I haven't even seen everyone." Or: "I was totally kidding around, and I make fun of all students equally, and you guys are taking it too hard. The real world is even harder!"

No matter what he says, be prepared for any outcome. For the director to get fired, for the principal to do nothing, for Playbill to do a piece about it… really, for anything. That's not for you to worry about. You are correct that a school is no place for even "jokey" racist comments to fly — but I want you to know that if you choose to speak up, you will be doing something brave that will have its own set of consequences. And I think you should.

That's the first part of my advice: I think you should say something. But the second part has to do with the fact that you're "doubting" you have a future in the theatre, which is actually an entirely different conversation.

Nobody can say with certainty whether any of you — Asian, Caucasian, None of the Above — has a future on Broadway. What I can say is that I was never cast in a role in my hometown shows, and I went on to perform in several big shows. Whether or not you are destined to a profession in the arts should not feel directly correlated to the goings-on in your hometown.

Sometimes you have a Heather Headley, who famously starred as Fanny Brice in her high school musical and seemed like a star-to-be from the get-go. But sometimes you don't. Sometimes you have a Stefani Germanotta, infamously teased for her obsession with theatre and weird makeup — the very qualities that made her grow up to be Lady Gaga. We don't know, yet, whether you're a Heather or a Stefani. We just know you're a you, which is, really, the only thing you can be.

All of this high school talk makes me think about my first trip to New York. My mom took me to see, what else, Miss Saigon. I remember being stunned by the final sequence, when Kim kills herself in order for her child to live a better life than she could. Don't do that, Wonderful Someone — don't do anything irreversible, or needlessly histrionic, to make your point — but do know that after you step forward, you might never get cast in another school musical again, but what you will be doing is making sure the kids who come after you might just have it better than you do, which is quite Kim-like, actually, even if you don't get to play the part.

And know that, no matter what, you'll have to endure similar situations to this no matter what the outcome you get — even in the real world, which is rife with inequities. But that's why we're artists, isn't it? To use our voices in ways that stretch beyond high notes and telling jokes. Break a leg,

Johnny

Send us your theatrical conundrums, and don't be afraid to dive deep. Johnny's got the time. Be warned, however: He talks straight and fast, and he's a little tired. Keep the questions vivid and you're more likely to keep him awake and get picked.

Ask Johnny a question!

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