"What Shades did is to speak for all POC while actually ignoring the fact that there is a more nuanced power dynamic within this larger and most often generalized minority group. And we don’t think, in this case, they are representative of our international students’ own voices and needs. Therefore I think, however the size of Indonesian society is (and other international societies), it is and probably will continue to be ignored because of the little agency and voice it has even within this minority group. The point here is that we don't want to be generalized into the larger and so-called POC group because that leads to the situation we are facing now: our voices are ignored and covered when the people who ignored our voices think they are speaking FOR us."
-An undergraduate performer of Islands
We, the Indonesian Society at Wesleyan, regret the exclusion of the Indonesian voices on campus in Second Shades’ statement in response to the Spring 2017 Theatre Production, Islands, a production set in Indonesia and directed by Professor Ronald Jenkins.
Although we support Second Shades for speaking out on the racial and colonialist problems in this production, we believe that their statement should have included the insights of Indonesian students such as those who worked directly with Professor Jenkins. We think that Shades, in their statement, contributed to the misrepresentation of Indonesian voices in a similar way that Islands did, in spite of their commitment to “increasing the visibility of people of color in the Wesleyan theater scene” as stated on their Orgsync profile. Shades attempted to launch a larger conversation of racism within the Theatre Department without our voices, which resulted in several inaccurate characterizations of the problems associated with the production. Although we agree and praise many points in Shades’ statement, we feel that it lacks some basic understanding of Indonesian culture. We feel that Indonesian culture and history were used merely as a prop to further push the agenda of a generalized oppression (that of the “People of Color”). This evokes similar circumstances of white feminists speaking over women of color in their activism. Our oppression manifests in different ways, and it is a setback to gloss over those differences for the sake of “solidarity”. As a group mainly consisting of international students, the experiences of Indonesian students tend to get lost in the greater dynamics of the movement for American People of Color. Just as Shades argues that it is difficult to use Rhun Island as a springboard to discuss global experiences of colonialism and oppression, we argue that it is hard to use an Indonesian experience to spur discussions of racism and oppression across groups of color in the Theatre Department.
Having expressed our disappointment towards Shades’ actions, we would like to clarify the inaccuracies found in the “Justice Shall be Demanded” article that Shades wrote for The Ankh. We wish to steer the discussion in a better direction to promote rightfully productive actions and to finally make our voices heard.
First, Shades’ criticism of the production’s lack of effort to find Indonesian actors shows their limited understanding of the Indonesian community at Wesleyan and in the United States. At least on campus, there are very little Indonesian undergraduate students to begin with, let alone Indonesian students interested in performance arts. In the Fall 2016 semester, there were 6 undergraduate students and 1 visiting artist from Indonesia. Out of these 6 students, 1 student was a performer in the production and 2 students were Jenkin’s research assistants before the Spring 2017 semester. Besides including half of the community, Jenkins has long been in communication with the Indonesian students on campus and made an effort to email and ask the interest of the members of our community regarding his project long before the Spring 2017 semester. Similarly, the Indonesian community is small in number in the U.S. and finding pockets of American-Indonesian performers can be very difficult. Despite this, Jenkins managed to find 3 guest artists of Indonesian descent: Dinny Aletheiani, Nyoman Catra Ph.D. '05 and Novirela Minangsari. Jenkins has been interested in collaborating with these guest artists since the beginning, signaling his desire to incorporate the participation of these guest artists and the undergraduates at Wesleyan. Our aim to point this out is not to let the mistakes that occurred in the production to be pardoned. But rather, we think that the Shade’s criticism on this matter was inaccurate, and such a mistake could’ve been avoided if they have contacted us in composing their statement.
Second, we feel that the anger towards the production’s lack of students of color should be directed specifically at how Jenkins handled the racially sensitive subject and how this then led to a production that disturbed many students of of color watching it. The problems in his production had already manifested in the Fall 2016 semester when almost half of the students dropped out of his Performing Indonesia course, which was designated to prepare for the Spring 2017 Production. Several students who dropped the class saw problems in Jenkins as a professor in how he dealt with the students in his classes. Therefore, the casting was not the result of active whitewashing. For example, the reason Enrique’s understudy was a white student was due to the resignation of many students of color. Consequently, the only person that remained in the production to be the understudy was the Assistant Stage Manager, who happened to be a white student. Before jumping to the conclusion that the production team didn’t look for enough student of color actors, Shades should have spoken with students of color who worked directly in the production. We believe the bigger problem in Jenkins’ production was how he dealt with the sensitive subjects in the play, namely rape and colonialism, rather than his casting effort.
Third, we agree that the use of white actors in Indonesian traditional spaces is placing a colonialist body in a space of colonialism, but we think that the bigger problem is the way that these traditional rites are portrayed. Due to increased commodification and glorification of Indonesia’s traditional rites in the tourism industry, these rites have been conveyed globally in an exotified and condensed manner. Expatriates (who are most often white) exotify these traditions within Indonesia too, and it is a reflection of what Indonesian culture has come to in many spaces: as a spectacle for tourists. The traditional dances depicted in the production are a portrayal of this phenomenon. To say that by using a white actor as a colonialist figure in the play is an act that “asks for the audience to embrace him as part of the Indonesian community depicted” is misinterpreting. The only white character in the play is clearly antagonized and estranged from the rest of the community and is in no way depicted in a way that integrates him with the rest of the cast. This opposes the depiction of the white woman dancer, however, though her costume was made in order to homogenize her with the rest of the dance ensemble. Describing her costume as being “more colorful” is inaccurate, as her costume fit with the color scheme of the rest of the dancers’ costumes. There was also never an attempt to draw the audience’s attention towards her, as the lighting and movements were uniform throughout the first sequence in which she dances on a higher level compared to the other dancers. Her presence in this sequence was simply to fill up more stage space for what had previously been a three-person dance on one level.
Fourth, aside from the casting issue, we also think that Second Shades made mistakes in criticizing the production’s portrayal of the people of Rhun Island and their relationship to the nutmeg. Shades criticizes a “nutmeg joke” in the production for setting “the predicate for the misogyny and hypersexualization of Asian women present in the play.” The actual line in the production goes like this: “In fact, some linguists speculate that the spice got its name from its ability to enhance sexual potency. Nutmeg. Nut Meg. Nuts Mega. It makes your nuts mega.” Here, the joke was more of a poorly written line rather than something that reflects the misogyny and hypersexualization of Asian women because nutmeg is considered to be an aphrodisiac in Indonesia. Shades then makes an inaccurate connection between another scene in the production regarding nutmeg usage with this “nutmeg joke.” In this second scene, an Indonesian woman character “describes sucking on a nutmeg to relieve her insomnia,” which Shades criticized as a sexual innuendo that is insensitive to the “horrific sex trafficking of young Asian girls that occurs in real life.” Though we can see how Shades made this connection, their interpretation leaves out the important cultural and traditional role of spices in Indonesia. Nutmeg is also traditionally used for insomnia relief along many other medicinal usages (including as an aphrodisiac). Therefore, the lines in both scenes had factual basis, rather than mere sexualization of nutmegs or Indonesian women. These misunderstandings could have been avoided if Shades had reached us before composing their demand for justice.
Having said all that, this statement is not a condemnation of Second Shades as an organization. We acknowledge the apology Second Shades sent to one of our members so quickly after we expressed our disappointment. We also recognize their efforts for further discussions about this particular issue and larger issues of racism and administration in the Theatre Department. We appreciate the important work that the student-led theatre group has done in providing spaces and showcases for students of color aspiring in the theatre scene to develop their craft.
We are, however, disappointed with Second Shades for ignoring a minority voice within the larger POC community on campus. This is a call for better sensitivity, accuracy, and justice when dealing with cultures that one is not familiar with or cultures that are not part of the mainstream discourse of race. We hope that this mistake will be a source of further contemplation for Shades to have more sensitivity in dealing with issues that involve other minority groups and to see how they, as an organization, can avoid furthering the problem of minority erasure.
The Indonesian Society at Wesleyan