Seeing and Being Seen in Shakespeare

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In Hazlitt, Nicole Chung writes about taking her eight-year-old daughter to see last year’s production of The Winter’s Tale (dir. Desdemona Chiang) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play, which featured a predominantly Asian American cast and creative team, offered Chung an all-too-rare opportunity to give her daughter a chance to see herself in the characters onstage — which happens, Chung estimates, “probably less than one percent” of the time.

In a culture that whitewashes Asian and Asian American characters out of so many stories, Chung hopes that this night out at the theater can create a memory that fuels her daughter’s imagination — and her ability to imagine herself as a protagonist in her own life — for years to come.

As we watched actors of three different generations portray mother, father, daughter, and little son, I tried to remember the last time I saw so many Asian American women in a single work. After a while, though, I realized I was focusing less and less on the fact that they were Asian. It wasn’t that I stopped noticing or caring. But after the initial surprise wears off, seeing so many Asian American actors at once becomes utterly unexceptional. They simply are their characters, as all skilled actors are when performing; their presence makes a perfect kind of sense. As we watched not one but so many Asian American artists command the stage, feuding and scheming and falling in love as great characters do, it made me wonder why something so easy has to be so rare.

Stars shone high above the stage by the time the company took their bows. My sleepy child told me that she didn’t believe Hermione was alive all along, in hiding and pretending to be a statue. She thought the queen had died, and then been revived by magic. “You said this story was kind of like a fairy tale,” she said, “and in fairy tales, magic isn’t strange at all. It’s just normal.”

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