“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

Can Shakespeare be ‘timeless’ and hegemonic at the same time? …Let’s hope not?

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”

But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature.  Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:

This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…

I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,

In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”

Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.

Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?

‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’

– Denis Salter, ‘Acting Shakespeare in Postcolonial Space’

Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.

Calling all ‘self-professed egalitarians’…

Tamar Szabo Gendler (Yale University) and Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University, Blindspot) discuss the Implicit Association Test, which I highly recommend taking. I took this test for the first time when I was in high school (I discovered that I was incredibly racist, to my embarrassment). They also look at how one can address these implicit biases and discuss how attitudes are and aren’t changing across age groups. bloggingheads1 WordPress and bloggingheads.tv appear to be frenemies, so apologies for not being able to fully embed the video. You can either click the image above or go here. This ain’t a short clip, but really good and super important, especially if you are interested in exploring your own implicit biases when it comes to identity locations (psssst: you should be interested!). Also, bloggingheads.tv does that cool thing where you can jump to different parts of the video based on topics discussed.

After describing the background of the IAT and how it works, Gendler and Banaji discuss the difference between explicit and implicit bias and how implicit bias can impact those around us in quotidian situations. Banaji points out

…You and I are teachers- Who we call on in a classroom, how we might judge a paper- these are all possible instances in which our beliefs about groups of people can enter into our assessments of them.

She’s even had her classes audited where someone counts the instances she calls on students based on gender, and her implicit biases still show. Banaji seems to get a bit frustrated when she discusses how many studies have been done with regards to the IAT and yet there is still resistance. She says,

To me, what’s amazing is that each group refuses to be persuaded that they are capable of making these errors until a study is done with their population of people. And that itself to me is interesting  that somehow if I know that lawyers or judges or [inaudible] say “I can’t believe that it could be me. I have to be shown that it is my group that is doing this or I am doing this.

Which makes me wonder when someone will specifically research IAT within the context of drama conservatoire/BFA program faculty and staff. Will that be necessary?

Gendler and Banaji discuss some effective ways to combat implicit biases. One of them is to view images and other forms of media that contain anti-stereotypical messages. Banaji challenges us to take full advantage of our choices:

And of course, the question for person, especially a young person, is, now that the world is at your feet, now that you can listen to Mongolian children making rap music – what will you choose to listen to? What now? – It’s not the three TV stations anymore and the one newspaper at your doorstep…

The conversation closes with this lovely nugget, a point raised by Banaji:

In modern minds like ours, discrimination does not unfold by harming the out-group. But rather, that discrimination has its effects by helping the in-group.

What a concise, clear way to explain privilege. Mmmmmm.

I urge you to take some of the tests over at the IAT website. You might feel really gross afterwards (like I did) but as these two professors discuss, awareness is really the only way to start addressing bias. As ‘self-professed egalitarians,’ we owe it to our students to continually examine our more implicit biases.

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, how are youuuuuuu?

I’ve heard a few voice teachers, particularly accent coaches, bemoan technology such as texting and chatting and how it’s clearly the dearth of good speech. We often present a foundational binary to our students, that vowels are emotion and consonants add sense to speech. And those whippersnappers these days, are sending texts like, ” r u gtg 2 the prT?,”  which is sucking all the feeling and emotion out of written speech and negatively affecting spoken trends.

In her article, “Why Drag It Out?,” Jen Doll explores the linguistic phenomenon of the written text elongation through the adding of extra vowels (and sometimes consonants). She writes,

But why is anyone adding extra letters in the first place? Blame our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message. Perhaps, suggests Michael Erard, a linguist and the author of Babel No More, we’re simply trying to incorporate aspects of verbal speech into our digital communications. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways,” he told me. “There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”

My emphasis. A desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely sounds pretty great to me. It sounds like something I am working towards in all my voice students/clients. I think there some legitimacy to the narrative that texting/chatting is has a potentially negative impact on our speech (especially if these young thangs are trying to work with something as challenging as heightened text). However, it’s important to also see that people are using also technology to explore intonation and other verbal nuance. They are finding ways to put that shit back in.

The reference to extra vowels in texting is a great way to practice vowel explorations with students. Some of them might even benefit from examples or seeing them typed out. Henry Giroux encourages teachers to include popular culture (like texting) within a student’s learning experience. He warns,

“By ignoring the cultural and social forms that are both authorized by youth and simultaneously serve to empower to disempower them, educators run the risk of complicity in silencing and negating their students. This is unwittingly accomplished by educators’ refusing to recognize the important of these sites and social practices outside of schools that actively shape student experiences and through which students often define and construct their sense of identity, politics, and culture. The issue at stake is not one of relevance but of empowerment.” (2005, 159)

I’m aware of the implications of my point here. It might sound a bit dramatic to equate the poo-pooing of texting to the disempowerment of students. But if texting and chatting is something I do all the time and is embedded within my view and experience of popular culture, I might be more motivated to learn voice work if the teacher is finding positive examples within said popular culture example. Doll’s article is a nice reminder that there are such positive and dimensional things about our interactions with speech and technology and that our spoken cultural norms continue to evolve as a result. Yesssssssssss!

Why blog?

After 2 decades of playing Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, my first role as a Korean-American. photo by Jeanne Modderman

After 2 decades of playing Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, my first role as a Korean-American. photo by Jeanne Modderman

I’ve started this blog for a number of reasons.

  1. I like to share stuff. Like good poems. And avocado recipes.
  2. After years of collecting internet bits and bobs, it will be helpful for my research for me to have them all in one place.
  3. Talking about race, identity, and privilege is hard. There is still an outdated belief that if you bring these things up, you are racist yourself. So instead, as educators and those working in the theatre industry, we stay silent, we don’t engage. If we are teaching our students to use their literal and figurative voices, shouldn’t we be using ours to pursue our epistemological curiosities?
  4. I’ve found that teachers and those in the creative arts can actually be the most resistant to examining privilege in their own practice. Working in theatre or working in higher education can give someone a grand sense of progressiveness that can convince us that we are the ‘good guys’ when it comes to horrible things like cultural marginalization. After all, we are smart and we are artsy! I’ve been guilty of this in the past, myself. This can be incredibly insidious and therefore, much harder to address and examine. I hope that some readers will be able to reflect on their own practice within some of the contexts I present or in light of some of the questions I raise. And I invite you to engage and call me on my own bullshit. Because this is still a process for me, and I openly and happily admit that I know very, very little.
  5. If I am to support and nurture my students in a way that encourages them to use their own voices in a truthful way, I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that I must assimilate my own figurative voice for a still very conservative academic context. If I want to write for a journal or give a presentation, I often need to adhere to specific guidelines in order to legitimize myself academically (there are some enclaves of academics and creatives who are getting together to revolutionize this! More on that soon!) I know I’ll need to assimilate at times, but this blog allows me to write in a way that is free from such constrictions. And perhaps there I will be able to experiment with other ways to legitimately express oneself academically while still being creative, unconventional, and myself.
  6. bell hooks was devastated when her White teachers told her that people who looked like her didn’t have much to offer when it came to good writing. I hope to post lots of amazing text, voicework, and poetry from all over the world. This begs the question, however, of cultural appropriation in our classrooms and when/how it is okay to use something from another place. I’m looking forward to this discussion!

You will probably dig this blog if you:

  • are a voice teacher. Or if you just are interested in the voice. Or sociolinguistics. Or accents. I  will post loads of voicey things and good poems to use in your classes that are hopefully not mostly written by White, dead, men (maybe some, though. I do love me some Jack Gilbert. And he is newly dead, so).
  • are interested in exploring your own identity and relationship to privilege.
  • are an English language teacher and are concerned with your role within an international context. Are you empowering or disempowering your students by continuing to teach English as a tool for success?
  • are someone with a pluralistic background and are interested to see how identity and voice intersect. I’m interested in this myself. It’s pretty much my jam.
  • like interculturalism. Or if you really hate the term ‘interculturalism’ because it connotes that cultures can manifest some sort of authentic essentialism and borders (pssst: I don’t think they can).
  • are a pedagogue who is interested in ways to be more inclusive to diverse student bodies.
  • aren’t too easily offended. My household is full of New York/Glasgwegian cussin’.
  • like avocados as much as me. If that’s the case, we’re pretty much BFFs already.

Soooooo enjoy. And engage. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.