With Advice to #UnapologeticAsians
As Told to Britina Cheng
Introducing Asian American Millennial Unite’s #UnapologeticAsian series. At AAMUnite, we believe that building political power among AAPI millennials goes beyond electoral politics. The work of AAPI millennials nationwide demonstrates innovative models of activism to learn from, be a part of, and possibly follow after in our own communities. #UnapologeticAsian highlights up-and-coming civic leaders’ best tips, strategies and lessons learned for creating change in your own communities, wherever you may be. We launch this series with an interview with the first Asian American to play Aaron Burr, King George III, and Laurens/Philip in Hamilton, Jin Ha.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical debuted in 2015 and has been a landmark production that has seeped into the web of public consciousness with almost universal acclaim. With its record setting accolades, that is, being nominated for 16 Tony’s and going on to win 11 of them, Hamilton has been a deeply coveted musical since its inception. However, the esteem has not been without controversy. With such a wide reach, the production was betrothed a deep responsibility, given the show’s immigrant-story line and defiant call for non-white actors. In November, the Hamilton cast had some unscripted lines for Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended the show: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
The production has commenced their national tour in March of this year and debuted their production in Chicago in September 2016. We were able to speak to cast member, Jin Ha about his Broadway debut in Hamilton as an understudy, just a year out of school. He has played the likes of Aaron Burr and King George III and on June 11th, his final show, Ha played Hamilton himself. Alongside Joseph Morales, Ha is only one of two Asian Americans who have landed this venerable role. We caught up with Ha to get a few key pieces of advice from his experience as an activist and artist (bold subheadings are synthesized by me):
The Catch-22 of Hamilton
“Ultimately, perhaps the biggest catch of Hamilton is that, despite the progressive nature of the casting and the storytelling in terms of the rap and hip hop that's involved, it is ultimately still a story about dead white men. In spite of that truth-- it is still a narrative of an immigrant coming to mainland America. An orphan, somebody who grew up in poverty and very much forged his own path out of sheer force and will and determination.”
It’s Healthy to Learn to Empathize with Characters Who Do Not Look Like You
“I don't know if anything boils my blood more [than casting white people in Asian roles]. [Production companies] worry that the white audiences will fail to understand or empathize with that character or with that actor. And they fail to realize that it’s what people of color have been doing for decades. Hundreds of years. We extend our empathy to characters and people who don't look like us; white people can also do the same thing. In fact, it's healthy to do that, in my opinion. It's something I've had to do all the time in grad school in playing these white characters, or today, in Hamilton. Or in watching TV or plays.”
On Whitewashing in Hollywood and the Burden of Representation
“I'm speculating, but I'm sure there were conference room discussions [for The Great Wall] of, this is going to be a Chinese story and it's going to be shot in China with a lot of Chinese actors, but how do we sell this to Hollywood? How do we sell this to the American viewership? And I think that's where the disconnect and the mistake was made. Not dissimilar to neocolonialism, it's a misunderstanding of East Asian companies and creative teams believing that they need a white face in order to sell this movie. And I think that's the mistake because box office returns are proving time and time again, it won't make it. There is more power now as consumers to make a statement of protest. Despite the millions of dollars that you pump into Ghost in the Shell for its production value, it just won't do well because you ripped that story from the hearts of so many Asian Americans who had loved that story. Or who love the manga or the anime growing up. It's so frustrating because as PoC in the art world, there are so few of our works out there in a mainstream sense that each one bears so much weight and responsibility. Wholly unlike every other white or predominantly white film that comes out. I doubt that the highly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians film based on Kevin Kwan's satirical trilogy would be so easily picked up for sequels if it performs to the same scale as [for example] Thor in the box office--partly because it's the first major motion picture featuring an entirely Asian cast in a long while. Every time there's an "Asian" film or a "Black" film that comes out, there's so much responsibility that, if this fails, then we won't see another one of those films for another couple of years.
My Job As An Actor is to Understand Other People
“Ultimately, my job as an actor is to understand other people. Less than being other people, or becoming other people, it's more just understanding. It's changing my perspective and that is also pertinent for studying history, for studying languages, for studying literature. And also, frankly, the job of an actor which I kind of love is that I'm just constantly learning. Whatever my next role will be, I will have to become a temporary expert in that field or in that world. It's a different kind of schooling.”
My Dream Role Has Yet to Be Written
I don't really have a dream role because I'd like to believe that my dream role is being written or has yet to be written. I'm always interested in telling these stories. Especially now that there're so many people in our generation creating, writing narratives for ourselves. And for our communities. I want to be a part of that movement. The King and I or Miss Saigon, I think are horrible musicals and I think don't ever need to be done or revived again. It's complicated, obviously, because it's giving a lot of Asian American people and people of color jobs, which is important and I don't blame the actors at all for taking those jobs, but the narrative is Orientalist and detrimental and so two-dimensional. And just because the music is good or because it's American musical theater tradition, it doesn't justify it. Unless you're gonna revamp it and really change the story, I'm not interested in seeing that.
“I identify as an activist first, and an artist second”
“I stole that from Harry Belafonte. The activism, for me, has been an anchor because it's bigger than myself. It's bigger than my one career. It's bigger than my one job. I'm a part of a larger movement. I mean, your organization is an example of that. Our generation is louder, is bolder, is more unapologetic in speaking for ourselves and our experiences. And that kind of carries me through and that kind of guides me, I'm hoping, I'm still early in my career, but [my activism] guides me in the decisions I'll make going forward in terms of jobs that I want to try or stories I want to tell. In terms of what I've been keeping an eye on myself, I mean it's personal tied in with the global. I'm always trying to learn because as 'woke' as I may be, I remember only a few years ago when I knew a quarter, or I understood a quarter of what I do now.
Intersectionality. Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw- her term 'intersectionality' is so useful for me to grasp how I view myself as an advocate and as an activist because, yes, I'm a person of color, yes I'm an immigrant. Yes, I don't fit into the gender performances of what masculinity "looks like" or "should look like." But at the same time, I'm a cis-gendered man. I am heterosexual. And I'm not differently-abled. Physically or mentally. And there are privileges that I have that I always need to remind myself of, which I think is so easy for people to forget or get lost in. I've also just been in those conversations as well where my partner will call me out, I did or said something that was sexist. And my first reaction, because I'm a human being, is defensiveness. ‘Actually, no, wait, what do you- I'm absolutely a feminist. And I blah, blah, blah.’ But because I have a healthy relationship with my partner, I'm able to shut up and listen to what she's trying to tell me. And recognize that, Oh, yes, despite all of my efforts, and my continuing efforts to be a feminist and to be as supportive and as strong of an ally as I can, I am still a man and there are ways in which I was raised and conditioned that run quite deep. The patriarchy runs quite deep in my upbringing. Coming from a patriarchal Korean society, but also growing up in America, obviously. And it's always reminding myself, it's always checking myself.”
And know when to shut up. Know when to show up and shut up. Especially as a man, that's very important. We talk a lot. We talk over a lot of people a lot of the time and it's not helping anybody.
Recognizing AAPI Privilege and the Myth of the Model Minority
It's important for us as API activists and allies to recognize our privilege in this white supremacist socio-political system. The "model minority" is a myth historically created by the white powers that be in order to use our "example" as tools of further oppression for black and brown folks: basically, "they picked themselves up by the bootstraps, why can't you?"--which utterly ignores hundreds of years of the American slave trade (as usual), the exploitation of the American and immigrant work force, and the long term effects of exclusionary immigration policies targeting Asian immigrants, while also glazing over the lived realities of many Asian immigrant/refugee populations in America who are in the lowest income and education-level brackets today. I digress.
Oppression is Oppression is Oppression
My point is that oppression is oppression is oppression, but I do not share the lived experiences of my black, brown, or Muslim peers. I am not consistently perceived by people and authorities as a threat, because I am breathing. I do not see my image or my cousin's image or my parent's image or my aunt's image reflected in the news over and over again, because they were murdered by police brutality. I am not immediately tagged as a possible threat or terrorist, because of my facial hair or any visible signifier of my religion. That is to say, I, as an Asian-American cishet immigrant man who had the opportunity and means to pursue higher education in a non-labor profession, must understand when and how I can and must be of help for my sisters and brothers who are currently being targeted, banned, ostracized, shot, and murdered systematically more than I. When do I show up. When do I give space. When do I speak up. When do I shut up. When do I lift up. When do I protect. And to reiterate, when do I shut up.
There is no shortage of hate and oppressive language and action today. And POC are certainly not responsible for enlightening folks on their struggle or pain. It's hard enough to live it. So sometimes, if I am emotionally and spiritually available, I have found my small part in the movement to be walking/guiding certain willing newcomers into the fray of the larger discussion and movement of recognizing and resisting the patriarchy, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, ableism, and queerphobia today.
On Acting: I’ve Come to Learn to Love Failure
“Why did I want this career? Because there are so many pot holes. There's so much failure and rejection. Which I've come to learn to love failure, because it's where I learn the most. But asking myself why: why am I doing this? Because there are some times where I feel very dejected and I entertain the idea of dropping out and just going to law school or going into politics or getting into medicine, somehow more tangibly seeing the effects of my work benefiting other people. Because the beautiful thing about art is the effect is intangible. It's kind of ephemeral. But it's powerful and it's there. And so it's trusting my work, in this show.”
On Social Media and Like-Minded Bubbles:
In those small spaces, what's interesting is, on my Instagram, which is my main social media channel, that’s where I have the most access to people who are not from a big city and did not grow up in diverse communities and don't share my sociopolitical opinions. I don't often engage because Instagram is not the most appropriate place for that kind of discussion. [But once], I posted a photo in support of Planned Parenthood, and [the pushback was often from] 13-year-old boys and girls with conservative views. And I found myself taking a breath and being like, "Ok, I can dismiss this person; I can berate them.” Or if I can reach just one person that I engage with, who is outside of my bubble, that is a step. If I can take the time to hear what these kids are saying, and try to explain where I'm coming from without being insulting, perhaps I can change this person's mind. Or have them, for a moment, understand where I'm coming from and why I believe that and why I am a staunch pro-choice supporter. So, that's my advice: notice your bubble. Notice where you can and can't step out of that bubble.
Read. And Listen. To Multiple Sources.
And read as much as you can. Read as much or listen, I listen to a lot of podcasts, mostly for my news, but, read as much and read as many multiple sources as you can. Especially with this administration. There's no shortage of bullshit that's out there.
And also self-care. We can't burn ourselves out. I'm talking to myself now. We can't burn ourselves out and there are so many things to fight for and fight against. And the fire's always going to be there, but sometimes, you just have to look at a puppy. And sometimes you just gotta look at a cat wearing a shark costume, sitting on a Roomba. Those are a part of us. Because we entertain ourselves and we let ourselves laugh or spend time with friends or whatever makes us happy, just because we do that, doesn't mean we care less about the issues at hand or feel less urgent about it. It's just that we're human beings and we need to live as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.