Toward the end of last month, my mother invited me to see a play with her by Theatre Lila called Lines. Theatre Lila is a performing arts group that seeks “to create inventive new works and bring theatre to life in unexpected ways, to consistently provide a professional level laboratory to rigorously explore original ideas and assist in the development of theatre artists, and to collaborate with community-based organizations to develop educational arts programs enabling the building of bridges and offering cultural exchange within communities.” This play, in particular, brought together the narratives of five women of color though storytelling, poetry, music, and movement that were not altered for a predominantly white audience. I love the idea of theater that expects the audience to meet women of color where they are at instead of asking the actresses to mold and rephrase the dialogue in an effort to educate.
The play began with the various women embodying the stereotypical tropes for their identities – the butch lesbian, the happy Mammy, the mulatto in distress, the sexually promiscuous Latina, the oppressed bomb-throwing Muslim. And in the midst of all this, there is a young girl who has just reached menarche and is learning what it means to be a woman of color in the U.S by these older women of color. The line she says over and over again is, “I have to know all the befores,” as she passes a light to each woman that signifies the beginning of a new vignette highlighting that woman’s narrative, significant life events, and complicated identity.
Touching, funny, and at times painful, Lines is a play that I should have seen when I was an adolescent girl becoming a woman of color in a family, school, and community surrounded by Whiteness. I found myself nodding in solidarity at some of the stories or wincing with disdain and compassion at other experiences shared. I saw much of myself in the pubescent girl soaking up the knowledge and history from her older female guides — only my journey of learning to be a woman of color happened years later in life because I did not have mentors like this when I was her age.
My one critique of this play is the missing Native and Asian voices, an absence I noticed almost immediately. I can’t speak to the Native experience, but I can for the Asian. If this play was about Black girlhood to womanhood, I would not feel the need to insert my identity into the play. Lines, however, was about “all of the befores” of women of color in this country. It was about the “fierce, honest stories of LINES —that separate and connect; that need to be crossed, erased, and drawn again; that are invisible and in-between.”
What about the lines between communities that emerged when White America created Chinatown ghettos because they did not want to live by the Chinese. Or what about the line drawn by our government in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act when this country said we did not want folks who look like me to immigrate here and how this line has morphed and been redrawn for others in perhaps more subtle ways? What about the line intentionally created between the Asian and Black American communities with the “model minority myth” to keep communities of color pitted against each other instead of lifting each other up and the desperate need to erase this line? By leaving out the Asian woman voice from a play about women of color, Theatre Lila, perhaps accidentally, has further marginalized the Asian American woman, leaving her in the invisible place of not being white yet also not being included in discussions around women of color, which reinforces the common misconception that “Asians are almost white” or “white enough.”
Though I enjoyed the one Jackie Chan joke, there was surely room and need for a prominent Asian female character in this play. When the Latina woman talked about how Latina hair is often fetishized, I pictured an Asian actress standing with her snapping her fingers in empathy about having long, dark hair that is also sexualized. The girl recites again and again that she “[has] to know all of the befores,” but a before that included Asian American women was missing from her history on women of color.
Despite the lack of Asian representation in this play, I would encourage people to see Lines and other works by Theatre Lila. And I would encourage Theatre Lila to include an Asian American woman in their cast if they plan to show this play in future seasons. Lines was a brilliant reminder of the power of the arts and of storytelling. And it served as a wonderful example of why it is so important for plays like this that showcase the lived experiences of women of color to be available, so that women of color, like myself, can go to the theater and see works that reflect our identities and struggles, too. And it is equally important for White audiences to support such works, too, so that the arts becomes a place where the value of these stories is treated as a part of the human experience and not something for niche markets alone.