Moderator Sixto Wagan and panelists Steven Wu, Shih-Hui Chen, Patrick Summers, Pia Agrawal and Ryan Speedo Green at Representation and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts.
Moderator Sixto Wagan and panelists Steven Wu, Shih-Hui Chen, Patrick Summers, Pia Agrawal and Ryan Speedo Green at Representation and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts.
Photo by Natalie de la Garza

Race and Representation In Houston's Arts Community Takes Center Stage

An admittedly angry millennial, who also happens to be a Houston Chronicle arts critic, walks up to the mike at a panel on race and representation that he helped catalyze and…what do you think happens next?

This past Friday, a panel of six gathered together at Asia Society Texas Center for Representation and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts, a free panel presented in collaboration with the Houston Grand Opera on the heels of their January production, Nixon in China.

Chronicle critic Wei-Huan Chen leveled accusations of yellowface at the show, but panel moderator Sixto Wagan, director of the University of Houston’s Center for Art and Social Engagement, prefaced the evening’s discussion by making clear that it would be broad (i.e. not about Nixon in China) and it would not be a debate. “No one wins, no one loses,” he said. “This is a conversation. This is a dialogue. This is a discourse.”

Because so much of the discourse in Houston has been focused on an African-American and white, or Latino and white, lens, Wagan said the evening’s talk would be from an Asian perspective.

The panel started with the concept of representational power which, to Steven Wu, the festival co-director of the Houston Asian American Pacific Islander (HAAPI) Film Festival, is twofold: for young Asian American children, it’s the effects of never seeing someone who looks like you in lead roles saving the day; and for non-Asian audiences, who may not necessarily meet or interact with many Asian-Americans, the ways media can shape their world and perceptions. “It has profound effects beyond just the audience watching that day but also everyone that they interact with in society as a whole,” said Wu.

Pia Agrawal, program director for the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, relayed her own experience with “overwrought clichés of Indians” that, Agrawal stressed, at one point felt good simply because any representation was good representation.

“It felt really good to be like, oh, they’re even considering that Indians live in this country or work in these jobs or exist in this universe,” she said, “and as standards have changed, as we’ve continued to have conversations like this, as we’ve sort of demanded, I think, more of each other and as this country gets more diverse, that has had to evolve.”

As the conversation shifted to conscientious programming, Patrick Summers, HGO’s artistic and music director, stated that HGO is looking to form an advisory panel to “look out for potential cultural sensitivities that we may not be able to predict,” and Wu stressed that consensus and respect would be the key ingredients in any kind of community outreach.

Opera was, unsurprisingly, center stage and Summers spoke in depth of the unique challenges opera presents, from a limited talent pool to performing a majority of works written hundreds of years ago with very different cultural sensibilities. “[W]e have to figure out ways to perform them that are both sensitive to the cultural times now, but are also sensitive to Mozart and to the original intentions of these older operas, and that’s very, very challenging.”

It was Wagan who asked later, “Do you do a classic and why do you do a classic? If only one singer in the entire world can do that, why are you doing it?”

Summers admitted that, while there are different and distinct segments of the opera-going audience, the largest group is drawn to what they know, the familiar.

The conversation remained fairly broad, touching on generational differences and youth engagement, until the floor was opened to audience questions and a woman asked Summers the million dollar question: “What do you say to the gentleman who reviewed Nixon in China for the Chronicle?”

Wagan intercepted the question (right as the woman called the review “very ugly”), to alert everyone that Chen was in fact in the audience and, more importantly, remind everyone what this conversation was supposed to be, beginning one of the evening’s more emotional exchanges.

“This is not just about Nixon in China,” said Wagan. “This is not just [Chen’s] impression about this. It is about what we all – I’m sorry – what I live every day. This is about what some of us live every day and how these aspects of representation are important and resonate.”

Summers did respond, reiterating his practice of casting based on vocals. “I would no more say to [fellow panelist bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green] that he can’t play King Philip in Don Carlo because he doesn’t look Spanish then I would say to an Asian singer who was very gifted I’m sorry you can’t play Carmen because you’re Asian," he said. When he admitted that “we can always be better at being more inclusive and opening the playing field to make the opportunities equal,” the stage was really set for Chen.

So, what did happen when Chen walked up to the mike? He asked several questions: “Why is [Nixon in China] the first time in seven months Chinese culture has been portrayed and why is it like this?” “Why does no one care?” and “Why does it take one younger, angry person to get a bunch of people sitting together and being all happy and nodding together?”

Chen took credit for the evening and “getting the needle moving” on this topic in Houston (though Wagan was quick to point out that this conversation has been going on “for years, and some of us, unfortunately, have been having it even before you were born”) and also accused the panel of justifying yellowface.

For all his righteous indignation, the need for these discussions may have actually been driven home by the next man up. An older Asian man and an engineer he said he saw the Brooklyn premiere of Nixon in China and HGO’s production. He made it clear that he had no problem with the opera’s inclusion of The Red Detachment of Women, the characterization of Pat Nixon, the evil Chinese landlord or the incorrect use of a red armband in the costuming. No, he took issue with a seemingly throwaway moment hidden in the shadows of the third act – Henry Kissinger flirting with Mao’s secretary.

“I think [in America] you’re used to humiliating politicians,” he said. “We heard about Kissinger and his tendency to womanize and so forth, but first of all, I don’t think that enhanced the drama of this opera. [And] two, you have to keep in mind, [Asian people] have an image that American soldiers were in Asia fooling around with Vietnamese girl, Korean girl, Japanese girl. That brings back very bad memories. The bottom line: that’s poor taste.”

Shih-Hui Chen, chair of Music Composition and Theory at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, made a point to note that art is entertainment as much as it is an opportunity to teach. Summers said he believed that empathy is embedded within each respective art form. If so, in a post-Nixon in China Houston, HGO’s advisory panel can’t come along soon enough. The sexual exploitation of Asian women by U.S. military forces is well documented, ignorance the likely culprit for this moment’s inclusion. Only with more discussion, can such moments of “potential cultural sensitivities that we may not be able to predict” be avoided.

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