Student artists of color talk stereotypes and navigating challenges in the arts, from comedy to set design

May 1, 2023

Communication freshman Nic Lam said he considers himself the black sheep in his family. While most of his family members pursued STEM-focused careers and wanted him to do the same, he fell in love with the art of theatre instead. 

“There’s an attractiveness to the societal prestige that being a doctor, or being an engineer or being a lawyer has,” Lam said. “(But) the arts are vital to humanity and to what makes us as a society so well-progressed.” 

Lam added that Asian American immigrants like his direct relatives, who were Vietnam War refugees, often stigmatize careers in the arts as being less financially stable relative to STEM-based careers. 

Due to generational and familial pressures to pursue STEM, Lam said it can be difficult to deviate from his family’s expectations. This environment of scrutiny makes artistic visibility and representation difficult to engage with, he said. 

“What (the stereotype) has naturally caused is that the older generations — (who) are currently on Broadway (or) in films on the big stage — that kids are supposed to look up to are sadly not Asian because they’re elsewhere,” Lam said. “Their pursuits of the arts were not supported well enough for them to go after it.” 

Like Lam, Communication freshman Sequina King is also from a family of immigrants. He said pursuing the Radio, Television and Film major was a decision he struggled with, partly since he originally planned to study aerospace engineering. While his family was cautious about the switch, they remained supportive, he said.

King said they knew they were going to have to work harder than their peers because of barriers artists of color face in white-dominated industries like film. 

“(My family said:) ‘Believe in your talent,’ but at the same time: ‘This world is not made for people of color, or especially people of color who are poor, to succeed.’” King said.

A study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that female representation in the hundred most successful films released between 2007 and 2022 fell short of U.S. census benchmarks. The same study revealed that 29% of movies in the study featured a person of color as a lead or co-lead, even though 40.7% of people in the U.S. are non-white, according to the 2022 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

During her time at NU, King said she’s often been the only or one of two Black students in her RTVF classes. While King added she hasn’t experienced discrimination in her classes, she said she has had uncomfortable experiences with peers’ reactions to screenplays she has written. 

“They say my stories are valuable, quote-unquote, or special in a sense, maybe because the industry is so dominated by white people,” he said. “It’s weird because all stories should be special.”

For King, this reception from white people to their work only highlights the need for more people of color to work behind the scenes in the film industry. Without them, they said, people of color can easily be typecast or included only to “make a white person shine better,” citing the “white savior” trope as an example. 

Similarly, Communication freshman Jasmine Rao, a member of the NU multicultural comedy club Out Da Box, said she strives to cultivate the voices of people who have diverse experiences as people of color in comedy. 

Rao said her main goal as a comedian of color is to stay true to herself. She added that she ultimately hopes people will resonate with her jokes and experiences.  

But Rao, who is South Asian, said she can struggle to improvise jokes about her culture when she is with a set partner who is not also a person of color.

“When they’re trying to be raunchy, there’s a line sometimes,” Rao said. “They toe that line and it’s when it gets a little uncomfortable and you don’t know whether you’re supposed to laugh.”

It can be difficult, however, to tread the line between true representation and tokenism, Lam said. He also said theatre disproportionately tells stories about trauma that people of color experience. 

To combat these disparities, artists and distributors alike should also be telling stories that celebrate Asian culture, Lam said. 

“The progression wave that hit America is having a lot of people try and pull out stories from people from the marginalized communities,” Lam said. “But oftentimes, I think sometimes marginalized communities aren’t ready for it, or the type of stories that people are asking for are not what they want to be told.” 

But Lam still expressed optimism for future generations of artists. He said it has always been important to find a “diamond in the rough,” or an artist who subverted all societal pressures and succeeded.

For example, Tony-nominated Broadway performer Philippa Soo and film and television actress Michelle Yeoh, who won an Academy Award in March, changed Lam’s perception of being Asian in art. 

“I’m really excited for the younger generation, like my nephews, like 6 and 7 years old, for what they will be able to see on screen. because it’s vastly changing,” Lam said. 

For King, this “diamond in the rough” concept is exemplified in the upcoming live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which will feature Black actor and singer Halle Bailey cast as its lead. 

King said he was excited to see reactions to the film’s official trailer from little girls who see themselves in Bailey’s performance, but added he asked himself why Black girls could not see themselves as princesses, even in the modern age. This drives King to keep telling stories, she said. 

“I want to start conversations again about topics that America usually — or at least ‘soft America’ — doesn’t really get to talk about a lot, or at least show the viewpoints of people that are not often shown in Hollywood,” they said. 

Although mainstream media and rehearsal spaces at Northwestern are often white-dominated, Weinberg freshman Anand Choudhary said his experience in theatre and a cappella has been positive overall. 

Choudhary said fellow student artists of color he has seen at NU have empowered him to pursue the arts. 

“It’s really easy to be kind of discouraged from trying these things when you first get here,” Choudhary said. “Because you don’t see anyone that looks like you or even has a similar upbringing as you.”

While he knew he wanted to explore the arts scene through extracurriculars, additional reinforcement from other artists of color keeps him motivated, Choudhary said. 

“I’ve had a lot of people of color around me who have also been involved in a lot of arts,” Choudhary said. “Even though it is predominately white, it hasn’t felt predominately white to me.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @beatricedvilla

Related Stories:

‘The value of collective action’: diversity in Northwestern’s film curriculum

Students and faculty address lack of racial diversity in Northwestern theatre, discuss potential solutions to challenges

Typhoon Dance Troupe blends popular dancing with traditional Chinese culture, showcases ethnic diversity