I first heard of Desdemona Chiang when I read "Why The Mikado is Still Problematic: Cultural Appropriation 101," her response to yellowface stagings of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera in Seattle and New York, on the theater website HowlRound. A self-described "Chinese girl who directs"—for such big names as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Chiang is currently directing PlayMakers' production of Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, in which three black and three white characters expose their biases while creating a play about genocide in Namibia. We spoke with Chiang about how race functions in her life, this play, and her work as a whole.
INDY: From what I've read, this seems like a pretty charged piece.
DESDEMONA CHIANG:For sure. We've been talking about race and diversity—at least from where I'm sitting—for a while, so there's a part of me that feels like, "Are we just pounding this over the audience's head with this play?"
But at the same time, it could be that a number of PlayMakers subscribers haven't had these conversations. I actually have no idea how it's going to be received in the South. I know that North Carolina, and Chapel Hill in particular—you're like South Lite, a gateway town. I'm not doing this in Alabama or Mississippi. When it was done in New York and Berkeley, audiences loved it. But we're talking about progressive white liberal academic people who love being punished.
There's no resolution to the piece, and we're used to neat narrative arcs that tie the story up with a nice little bow.
Here's your moral, here's your catharsis, go home. That doesn't happen with this show because there is no answer to the race problem right now. My hope is that the audience will talk about it—maybe not even the play itself, but the things it stirs up inside of them.
How has the half-white, half-black cast navigated that process of self-reflection?
In the first week of rehearsal the stage manager said, "Oh my God, they're turning into their characters." Even on break, the way they naturally engage with each other—it gets under your skin. I was like, "OK, you all need to go out and have a drink as actual people and separate yourselves from the roles you're playing."
So much of the play is about group dynamics and how we're socialized to behave a certain way in public versus private. What happens when you put these six people in a petri dish with this information? Egos happen; passive-aggressiveness happens. And that is also part of how we navigate difficult conversations.
There's this quote from William Burroughs: "The role of the artist is to show the audience what it knows but did not know that it knows." This is the difference between reality and truth. For me, if something is real, it's literal. Unicorns, witches—they're not real. Truth is more intrinsic than fact, and I think theater, through fiction, tries to get at some kind of truth, as opposed to what is factual or real. If theater is a mirror of ourselves, what does it mean when it reflects back something ugly or uncomfortable but also true?
You recently won The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, an award for "immigrant artists"—the label they use. Are there any labels that you actively take on as an artist?
"Artist of color" is the only thing I've actively labeled myself. I talk about my immigrant status a lot in the work that I do because it's so much a part of how I see the world, but I've never actually labeled myself an immigrant. My perspective is having always felt like an outsider. I live here, but the people in the history books didn't look like me. The folks that looked like me built the railroads. That perspective on life—to always be on the outskirts—is probably why I'm good at empathizing with every character in a show. I feel like my ability to tap into other people's points of view is one of my strong suits as a director.
Had you done other roles in the theater before you started directing?
I didn't do theater until I was in college. I was a terrible actor and I couldn't get cast in anything. Looking back, I think this was largely due to my lack of talent, but I also think that it was the narrow scope of the roles available to people who looked like me. We did a lot of very Eurocentric, traditional plays, and fifteen years ago they wouldn't think of casting someone like me. I wonder if it would be the same situation now.
What was it about directing that landed with you?
Initially it was just the idea that I got to make the choices—completely ego-driven and super-shallow. When you start doing it well, you start realizing the power you're able to harness out of a collective of people to make something bigger than you. I also dig the complete nerdiness of problem solving, and directing is like solving a puzzle.
I recognized your name from your yellowface piece.
When that happened I was like, "What? Oh, no. Again? For real?" You can't make people give a shit. Power is the ability to not give a shit. If you're ever in a position of being disempowered, you're always thinking about how those in power must feel, which is why the conversation around white fragility is so potent. In order to be heard, I have to acknowledge their feelings, when in fact they never have to acknowledge this side of it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Outsider Looking In."