Empathy retreats and acting

I am not an actor except in the grand stage of life, but in junior high and high school, I was involved in a few stage productions, at first as part of the chorus and later as a dancer. I was already pegged as a geek and that was the hole that I was rammed into for many, many years.

There aren’t very many opportunities for minorities especially since even in the 21sth century yellowface is still an acceptable alternative to finding an East Asian actor for the role and the subtleties of casting a heavily accented East Asian national to play an American of East Asian ethnic origin are quite lost on casting directors.

I am a minority in America. People see that and cast me according to their prejudices in their life dramas. Am I the enemy other? The sexually willing and sweetly compliant geisha? The grateful economically struggling whore? Those are roles I’ve been asked to play in the life dramas of many people in the United States.

However, in my brief vacations in Hawaii and my study trips to East Asia, I have been the secret other, the American incognito, and the tables have been turned for the white American. While I take a vacation from being a visible minority, white Americans are on a different journey, an emotional and psychological retreat into the world of cultural and racial minorities. Yet too often, I hear white Americans speak and write disparagingly about the Japanese as if they were so very different from Americans. They talk about people not wanting to sit next to them, or people with sexual agendas wanting to get to know them in a carnal sense. They talk about being refused housing, being overcharged and being stared at.

These are all things I have experienced but not in East Asia. These are things that I have experienced in the United States, a place where I was born and raised and where my parents were born and raised and where I am often considered a foreigner by other Americans.

Merriam-Webster defines a retreat as as “a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study or instruction under a director.” In East Asia, white Americans and even Brits could learn about the life of a minority instead of retreating into their ethnic enclaves and becoming further entrenched in their racial prejudices if they allow the Japanese and their own minorities to direct them. Few are so enlightened from my own admittedly anecdotal experiences. Even those who do some away from the experience with a new appreciation of the daily lives of minorities in the U.S. or the U.K, they cannot fully comprehend the daily grind that often begins with childish shock, transitions into self-hate or adolescent angst and anger and too often ends in elderly resignation without hope and sometimes with too much bitterness.

Casting real minorities, might evoke the kind of exchange that would bring greater understanding. East Asians have seen hope in movies such as the 1961 “Flower Drum Song,” the 1993 “The Joy Luck Club” and the 2000 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Disabled actors have not had such cinematic moments of hope.

My friend Scott Jordan Harris recently wrote about “Abled-Bodied Actors and Disability Drag: Why Disabled Roles Are Only for Disabled Performers.” He compared abled-bodied actors in roles about disabled people to white actors in blackface or yellowface, writing that:

Black and Asian characters were once often played by white actors. In “Tea House of the August Moon”, Marlon Brando plays a Japanese man, with his eyes pulled tight across his face and his skin colored yellow. Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for playing Othello in blackface. And Alec Guinness painted himself brown to play Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia“.

Those actors observed black people and Asian people, and they tried to walk like them and talk like them. They used make-up and prosthetics to imitate their physical characteristics, and took roles that would have been better played by black or Asian actors, two groups for which opportunities were already disproportionately limited. Today, just the idea of this is distasteful to us.

Unfortunately, as I noted in the comments, yellowface is not yet “distasteful” enough as East Asians know from “Cloud Atlas” and “The Last Airbender” and even a recent episode of ABC’s “Castle.”

Yet this thoughtful essay made me think. Harris mentioned “Glee,” the wanna-challenge high school hierarchy drama that easily abandons characterizations of major and minor characters to benefit story lines and hipness. I’ve long ago given up on “Glee” but think of how much could have been learned if Artie had been played by a real physically-disabled actor? The cast , crew, directors and script writers would have had to work around an actor who could not walk instead of a single actor working around the temporary limitations of a role. Imagine how much more aware the Glee crew and the fans could have been. Instead, we have an actor who is on retreat, in a temporary space occupied and lived full-time by others. He can leave that role behind at the end of the day, on tour and during publicity events.

Harris writes that abled-bodied actors as disabled people are convincing only to abled-bodied audiences. I will take his word on that and feel that is reasonable enough. Having seen white American suffer during their temporary retreats as minorities in East Asia, I know they don’t fully understand the heavy and often emotionally crippling effects of racism in America. I know that even as a minority, I can’t fully understand the heavyweight of being African American in the United States. Just listening to black men speak about taxis and racial profiling I know my experience in America as a minority is very very different.

One person who might have given meaningful commentary died in 2002: Harold John Russell. He was one of only two non-professional actors to date who have received an Academy Award for acting (Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor for the 1985 “The Killing Fields”). Russell was a world War II veteran who portrayed the same in director William Wyler’s 1947 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Russell had lost both hands and had hooks to replace them. Following his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role, Russell only appeared in two other movies: the 1980 “Inside Moves” and the 1997 “Dogtown.” He appeared on two TV programs, the 1981 “Trapper John, M.D.” and in two episodes of the 1989 “China Beach.”

There is one other actor I know of who who might be able to respond with authority, but he lives under the murky designation of sex offender: James Stacy. He is now hardly the kind of poster boy or man for any kind of cause. Stacy had been injured by a drunk driver in 1973 while driving a motorcycle. His girlfriend bled to death. He lost an arm and a leg, but people like Kirk Douglas wrote roles for him. Those acting jobs dwindled (his last role was in 1991 as a cyborg), according to People magazine,  as he became unable to manage his alcoholism, and then in 1995 he was convicted of child molestation. Stacy, now 77, is a registered sex offender.

If a physically disabled actor had been cast as Artie in “Glee” perhaps someone would be writing roles for that person right now.

Because too often casting directors don’t consider disabled performers for roles that don’t call for disability, just as they are unlikely to cast non-whites for a “normal” role, minorities and disabled performers aren’t don’t have equal opportunities. Multicultural casting doesn’t usually bring in disabled performers. It is just as likely to exclude them.

That might be different elsewhere. I say this because oddly enough, I find that the U.S. is a better place for wheelchair-bound people to live than Japan. Japan is a better place for the blind (yen bills have indications for blind people to help determine denominations and their crosswalks and public transport stations were more user friendly to the blind sooner than ours). Other countries and cultures might be more progressive.

My father, in his last years of life, was disabled, progressing from walker to wheelchair to bedridden. So I know something about living with a disabled person whose plans, hopes and dreams were crushed. My father had ordinary dreams, and wasn’t to my knowledge bitten by the acting bug. I recently learned that another physically disabled friend who passed away last year, had dreamed of being an actor before an accident placed him in a wheelchair. I know what it is like to be a minority, but I also know that a few hours or even a few years cannot give someone complete understanding of what it is like to be a minority. Likewise, I know that having spent a few hours in a wheelchair as an experiment cannot give me the full range of life experiences that the disabled who depend upon wheelchairs meet each day.

I suspect the same can be said for people who live without a hands or hands or a leg or legs. Watching someone dance with disability makes any complaints I might have seem minor.


Brief retreats into the world of different minorities or life as a minority can create empathy, but not true understanding. So now I have to wonder what subtleties are lost when an abled-bodied take on roles as physically disabled.

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