Margaret Cho’s mother.

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Margaret Cho came to perform at my alma mater, Wellesley, when I was a senior. She was incredible. It was one of the times in my life I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. She talked about her mother, whom she impersonated onstage, with a thick Korean accent. It’s a bit she uses often (see here for an example).

Afterwards, during a Q&A session, a student—also East Asian, if I remember correctly—challenged her about using an accent for comic effect.

Margaret said, “But this is what my mother sounds like. I’m not impersonating her. She takes over me; I actually leave the room.”

The student said, “But you’re still deliberately making a choice to channel her for comic effect.”

Margaret said, “But you’re the ones laughing.”

…Neither gave ground. It was a painful exchange, but one that keeps coming back to me as I write Tarantino. I’m white, my ancestors lived in the US for at least three generations back, and I speak with a Standard American accent, and so I benefit from all the privileges that those positions incur. But the play I’m writing is a satire featuring thirteen Olympians from countries all over the world. When we held auditions, we told everyone to go for broke, including in accents. It was fucking hilarious. But I have really mixed feelings about that. How do I write text that I know will be spoken in an accent, knowing it’ll likely have a comic effect?

The only useful “rule” I can think of, going forward, is to make my actors co-creators in their characters. I feel like this is necessary whenever a playwright is writing outside of her experience, especially when that realm of experience is demarcated by privilege. But if any fellow theatre artists have dealt with this issue, and artists of color in particular, I’d love to hear from you. Thank you.


8 Comments on “Margaret Cho’s mother.”

  1. Diana says:

    You need ethnic-specific casting, in my opinion. Margaret was channeling her mother. I would put on a Miami “chonga” accent to channel my friends and family. It has to come from an authentic experience.

    • I hear that, Diana. We already did casting, so it’s too late to change, but this is a really good thing to keep in mind for the future. And even now, I can keep channels of communication open with the actors about how they’re feeling throughout the process.

  2. Fascinating subject and a very lucid discussion of it. As a playwright it’s a question I seem to run into with more and more frequency — which I guess is gonna happen unless you’re writing plays populated entirely by people who are all just like you. In my most recently produced play I got pushback from some critics because I didn’t give enough of a voice to a character who was neither American nor in a position of power. I did that for a variety of thematic and theatrical reasons but if I’m completely honest I admit it probably grew in part from uneasiness on my part over being too presumptuous about ventriloquizing someone so far outside my experience.

    That said, you’re absolutely right — relying on the contributions of one’s collaborators, especially if they’re smart and sensitive and come from assorted backgrounds, make a huge difference. It’s not an absolute guarantee against missteps — I know well that we can be clueless in groups as well as individually — but it’s a valuable tactic that, say, fiction writers and comic artists and prose satirists generally lack, and I lean heavily on it.

    • Yeah. There’s no way to “inoculate” against offense, and that’s not the point. It seems to me the only way to proceed is to work on an individual level—what are each actors’ comfort levels, lines in the sand, etc., and then work from their truth.

  3. Joe Jones says:

    write whats true.

  4. I can see both sides of it.

    On Ms. Cho’s side, she really is channeling her mother, and that’s what her mother really sounds like. She isn’t putting on an exaggerated racist idea of an Asian accent–it’s her mother’s actual real Korean accent.

    On the other hand, I get what the student’s saying. Even if Ms. Cho’s coming from the right place, and even if the student herself is laughing, there are definitely (probably mostly White) audience members who may be laughing for the wrong reasons.

    Comedy can never be sociologically perfect, but I’ve watched, read, listened to enough of Ms. Cho to forgive her whatever small damage her shows may cause. There are far, far worse (from a sociological standpoint) comedic acts out there. No reason to attack one of the very few well-known Asian American stand-up comedians.

    • Thanks, A. Y. Yeah, I saw both sides too. I came down slightly on the side of Ms. Cho, but then I thought, “Is that just because I was laughing so hard, and I like laughing…?” and then I just end up in the same pickle.


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