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Is Your Theater’s Commitment to Diversity Real, or Realistic? (Written by Eric “Pogi” Sumangil)

This post originally appeared on Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s personal blog, Sumangil plays John Jones in The Realistic Joneses, on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until October 16.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

This may not look like much, but it actually means a lot to me. This is one of my costumes for The Realistic Joneses at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It started with a graphic t-shirt that the costume designer picked up at a thrift store. It was army green with a picture of a bicycle and some katakana writing underneath. But most of our set is also green, so the costume designer and director decided to look for a shirt in a different color. Something in a red or maroon. And, since they were already going to make a change, according to the costume designer, the director asked, “Can we make it a Filipino shirt?” The next day, the costume designer came into our dressing room with a few designs on a website pulled up on his laptop. They could have, just as easily, gone back to the thrift store and found the right color and size. They could have saved money instead of ordering a newly printed shirt online. But they made a choice, albeit a simple one, but a choice that acknowledges and honors my culture, and I’m grateful for that.

In my career I’ve played my fair share of Asian characters. And while I continue to believe in the importance of roles that are written by and for artists of Asian descent, I especially appreciate the rare opportunities when I get to play roles that make no mention of my race; roles that reinforce the notion that my face is an American face, that my experience is an American experience. As Asian American representation on stage and screen has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, I feel strongly that it’s important to challenge audiences to see us in a strictly American context. Not foreign, or even foreign-born immigrants, but as Americans whose ethnicity has been on North American soil since 1587.

Good plays that have specific roles for Asian Americans, or Filipino Americans, are already pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. But here’s something even more rare: To have a director and costume designer make a choice to acknowledge your heritage even when it’s not called for in the script. There are plenty of plays out there that make no mention of race or ethnicity, but more often than not, people casting those shows make the easier (perhaps lazier) choice to cast white actors, furthering this notion that whiteness is “normal” and other ethnicities are varying deviations from the norm. When I’m onstage, my culture usually exists in a binary; it’s either essential to the story or completely nonexistent. So to know that my culture is not ignored in the world of this play is an example of a true commitment to diversity. Not only am I the first person of color to play John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (fact checkers, please advise!), but in our production the character is Filipino American, too.

Too often, well meaning people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t see your race,” or “We’re all just humans…” and the only thing I can think is that if you’re not seeing my culture, you’re not seeing some essential things about my life and my experience. Also, I’d be less inclined to cook for you, so it’s you who’ll be missing out, not me.

Thank you to Director Joel Sass and Costume Designer Cole Bylander for their thoughtfulness, and to everyone at Park Square Theatre for their commitment to diversity onstage and backstage.

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