As soon as Derek “Duck” Washington sent an email inviting me to see Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales (I’ll just call it Pandas from here on out), I knew I had to see it. Duck wrote the show to share his experiences growing up half black and half white, which isn’t something I’ve come across in my theater adventures. While Duck obviously has different experiences than me, we have many parallels. My mom is Korean (actually from Korea… South Korea… the “good one,” as people often like to clarify) and my dad is white.
I mainly identified as white as a kid. I grew up in Lakeville, MN, a very white Twin Cities suburb, so most of my friends were white and I “felt” white. Eventually in my Throwback Thursday posts I’ll even share an entry where I mention that I wish my mom wasn’t Korean because I just wanted to fit in and not be different. Things changed during college. All of a sudden, I was Asian! I joined the Asian American Student Organization, I made lots of new Asian friends… I “felt” Asian. Once I entered my later 20s and now that I’m in my 30s, I finally feel more of a balance between these two worlds and proudly identify with both. I’ll be the first to tell someone that mixed race people are the future.
Pandas is laid out in 5 sections (with a couple asides) to address various situations Duck encountered growing up. It all starts with How I Learned to Hate Mariah Carey. Mariah Carey is played by Ted Femrite. A very white male. Naturally. This is one of my favorite aspects of the show: males play females, whites play blacks; really anything goes because in the end, people are just people.
Now take a moment to picture a white male wearing a blonde wig and a shiny dress (perhaps refer to the picture below) to help you realize that Pandas is full of humor. When addressing a topic as serious as race, writers like Duck are smart to include humor to make the ignorance easier to digest. There are many times when you’ll feel like it’s wrong to laugh, but don’t worry, the oath you take at the beginning makes you promise to laugh when something is funny. Like the hyper-intelligent pandas who have an affinity for Caucasian blood. They’re funny.
Duck includes times when people have tried to force him to pick a side: black or white. Or when they’ve asked him to do different things to help themselves decide if he’s more black or white. That’s the most interesting aspect of all of this, in my opinion. That just because I’ve come to terms with just being me, I still have to deal with the fact that other people will project their own perceptions onto me. This theme of society’s perceptions pops up throughout the show. He’s been told he “doesn’t sound that black” and he struggles with the boxes to check when asked for race in the section appropriately titled “Checking ‘Other.'” If I’m allowed to check more than one box, I check Asian and white. If I can only check one, I check “other.” But let’s be honest, that doesn’t feel all that great because by having actual race options, I’m shown that race matters, as much as I don’t want it to. There’s also the, “What are you?” question, or “What’s your nationality?”
In the post-show talk back, Suzanne Cross, who’s half black and half white, brought up dealing with ignorance and sometimes needing to take a step back to determine where people are coming from. Are they coming from a place of naivete or a place of malice? Yes, it’s ignorant regardless, but it can definitely affect how we respond to people. I know that, typically, when people ask me what I am, they want to know my racial background so I nicely share. When I’m asked about my nationality, you can sure as hell bet that I tell them I’m American and that they’re probably looking for the word “ethnicity.”
When I was in sixth grade, I had an interaction with a boy I had a crush on. I was trying to talk to him on the playground, and he ended up saying something mean, including calling me a Jap. I’m pretty sure I never tried to talk to him again. Just as Duck recalls a defining moment with a bigoted old man, this interaction was one of my defining moments. The boy was not white; he was of Middle Eastern decent, and I felt a little stunned as I realized that racism isn’t just whites versus “others.” A few years ago, I was buying something at an airport, and the employee told me she liked my “little Chinese eyes” and even made a motion with her hands to demonstrate. She was a black woman, and I know she meant well and I just smiled and nodded and went on my way. But obviously it still sticks out in my mind if I’m bringing it up.
So there’s something else new to consider, which goes back to the casting choices for the show – there are many kinds of interracial racism. Director Jena Young is lucky to have found herself a cast with such great chemistry and spot-on comedic timing to tackle such a sensitive subject: Duck, Ted, Suzanne, Kirsten Wade, and Matthew Kassen play off of each other so well. Pandas covers some serious ground when it comes to the topic of race, but the comedy balances it out and turns it into a truly all-around excellent show.
Sharing such personal stories can’t be easy, and I commend Duck for his grace, his humor, and his vulnerability. Being different has led to times of loneliness and helplessness, and I thank him for giving me something to connect to because it doesn’t happen often, and I find it pretty refreshing.
**See Pandas at the Minnesota Fringe Festival August 4-14, 2016. Click here for show info and tickets.
Click here to purchase tickets to Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales, brought to you by Fearless Comedy Productions. It’s playing at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater Nov 14, 20 and 21. Also check out Rob Callahan’s review on American Underground.
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