Orlando

This is important for you to know and for me to say: I am Will Dao. I am a gay, Asian American cisgender male raised Buddhist and broke.

At home, I grew up with a lot of older brothers so it was a sausage fest from day one. While they’ve since changed, my immediate and extended family picked on me intensely for being too feminine throughout most of my childhood and teenage years. I’ve been called “gay” for as long as I can remember and definitely not always in an endearing way. Outside my house, I was verbally and physically assaulted for being Asian in my predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood. As a a kid, I figured if I couldn’t hide my Asian-ness then god damn it, no one would ever find out that I was gay, too. If my family was that critical of me acting the way I did, what would strangers do? So I learned at a very, very young age how not to be me. I built myself a Mariah Carey-worthy walk-in closet that I could stay in forever. I became a caricature of what a kid might think a straight guy is: I learned to speak a little deeper, avoided overly “feminine” gestures, swaggered instead of strutted, nodded in agreement at how hot Paula Abdul was when my heart belonged to 4 out of the 5 New Kids on the Block. When family and friends wondered aloud if I was gay, I’d give them the answer I thought they wanted to hear: “NO.”

I learned to hide. To stay silent. To never draw attention to myself in public spaces ever for fear of getting insulted or worse, beat up or killed. I watch the news. I know what can happen.

I knew from an early age I was some sort of queer, but denied this through elementary school, through middle school, through high school, opened up a little bit in college, opened up a little bit more post-graduation, opened up a lot more when I moved to San Francisco where I met the love my life, and in what I thought was the ultimate act of self-acceptance, opened the whole fucking closet door and came out to my mom over a bowl of noodles this past Christmas at age 35. THIRTY. FIVE. You can’t be more out than that, right? Well…

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I have been with MGS for almost seven years now. He is an amazing man. He is the most generous, intelligent, and kind person I know. He’s spontaneous. He’s fun. He’s shameless. He’s loved me for who I am from Day One and has helped me become more open and honest to myself and in turn, everyone else around me. I cannot imagine life without him. I love him I love him I love him.

Just last Thursday or Friday, we were walking towards downtown Ashland, and he reached his arm out and looped it around mine. Instinctually, my whole body grew tense.

This has happened before. He would hold my hand or kiss me or say “I love you” out in the open and I would get nervous, look straight ahead, pull away, or walk as quickly as possible to our destination. Only when I’m sure we’re not being watched or when we’re walking in the dark or when we’re surrounded by close friends would I ever dare to show any sign of affection to him in public. But I had never spoken to him about my anxiety. I had never told him, “I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want to be insulted. I don’t want to get beat up. I don’t want to die for loving you.”

Instead this time, I brushed him off and told him, “Honey – I don’t like PDA.”

He wears his heart on his sleeve. I saw what those words did to him.

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Two days ago we learned about Orlando and the unraveling story of shooter Omar Mateen, a potentially closeted, gay man who purchased a ginormous, dangerous, lethal weapon COMPLETELY legally, and who targeted a gay Latino nightclub and its patrons to slaughter. For the next day and a half after the incident, I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy. Was it the sheer number of people killed? Was it because they were gay? Was it because they were so tragically murdered in a location that’s supposed to be a safe space for LGBTQ of color?

I decided to attend a vigil organized by my amazing colleagues at OSF. MGS, my friend and cast mate PT, and I walked over together from a fried chicken dinner we all attended. It takes a lot for me to walk away from fried chicken and booze, but I needed to be around other LGBTQ and allies at that moment. There was a large crowd assembled on the Bricks around the Green Show stage. As we settled in our spots for the tail end of CHY’s moving cover of “Man in the Mirror,” I scanned the crowd. Lots of hugging, lots of holding hands. I stood with my hands in my pockets and put on my hat. I didn’t want to be noticed.

TB took to the stage. He opened with a story about a train ride he took where he spotted a straight, cisgendered couple doing what straight, cisgendered people do without a second thought: publicly flaunt the privilege of public affection. In contrast were two males sitting across from him, staring straight ahead, with a bag between them. Nothing special except that beneath the bag, they were holding one another’s hands clandestinely.

That was the trigger. The story hit me hard. Tears poured out. As much as I didn’t want us to be, we had become that couple. This melancholia I was feeling was actually a deep feeling of shame, even as an “out” gay man. It was a feeling of regret for not walking down the street proudly with MGS in my arms. It was the pain of his reaction when I brushed him aside.It was guilt for the awful things I said and did as a closeted man because I hated myself so much that I treated others like jerks. It was the burden of fearing that at any moment, some asshole who doesn’t give a fuck about me, who only sees a faggot homosexual, can kill me because of one piece of my identity that he — and it’s most often and likely HE — dislikes. It was feeling like I wasn’t doing enough for the LGBTQ community, not being as vocal for them as I have been for the APA community, not speaking out against all the hate crimes that have been targeted at us, especially as of late.

It’s said we are most apathetic when we don’t have a personal investment in a situation that will incite us into action. I am writing this entry in a very public forum so you know who I really am and to get you personally invested.

Orlando has been San Francisco has been New York could be anywhere could be MGS could be me. If you love me, help me. I need my family and friends to stand with me so that I am not alone because I am so so so tired and scared and angry. So please help me. I’m especially addressing you straight, cisgendered people, especially if you’re white, who have it so fucking easy you don’t even know:

Speak out against homophobia and against racism, write your representatives to enact stricter gun control laws NOW, love your kids, family, and friends for who they are, teach your children not to be assholes. Help me build a world where my nieces and nephews, your kids, and my children don’t have to live with hate, fear, shame, and repression. It sucks. Whatever beautiful beings they grow into, I want them to be happy about who they are and live openly without worry about being hated or harmed for whatever insane reason.

Help me, PLEASE. Help me, NOW.

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The vigil continued with more poetry, a candle lighting ceremony, and ended with CHY and CC singing, “True Colors.”

And I’ll see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow

The song ended and the crowd blew out their candles. We all turned to hug our neighbors. I felt a release. Love is a strong antidote and even stronger ammunition. MGS and I walked home, my hand in his out in the open.

 

Why We Do What We Do

“As an Asian kid, it feels like the world tells me to be weak, seeing Vietgone however made me feel strong.”

That was an email that Qui Nguyen, the playwright of VIETGONE, received.

I bawled.

“As an Asian kid, it feels like the world tells me to be weak…”

Adults are just saggier versions of their kid-selves. I am forever that kid who got harassed on the daily in my hood with ching-chong nonsense; called Bruce Lee for lack of any other options; and picked on for looking the way I did — which was Asian.

School wasn’t any better, and if anything, worse. Instead of the blatant, give-no-shit New Yorker street racism I faced on home turf, school consisted of a series of micro-aggressions that left me feeling like a pretty worthless student. I sucked at all that I was supposed to excel at which was math and science — and really academics in general — and the teachers and students let me know with their side-eye and passive aggressive comments.

But I had theater.

My bowl cut and I walked into auditions for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS in eighth grade not because I wanted to act, but because I wanted to sing. My brothers were varsity athletes. I had none of that talent, but I could SANG. I had so much fun in my tights as Sir Harry, that I decided the next year to audition for the high school musical: ANYTHING GOES. More than a few jaws dropped, mine the lowest, when the cast list was posted and my name was next to BILLY CROCKER. The short, awkward, Chinese kid was cast as the romantic lead that’s traditionally played by a white dude who in the play pretends to be a Chinese dude. Meta much?

Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “And I’ve said this a million times, but it bears repeating: high school’s the ONE CHANCE YOU GET, as an actor, to play any role you want, before the world tells you what ‘type’ you are. The audience is going to suspend disbelief: they’re there to see their kids, whom they already love, in a play. Honor that sacred time as educators, and use it change their lives. You’ll be glad you did.”

I think it was with ANYTHING GOES that my mantra in life became, “Don’t Suck. Don’t be a disgrace.” Just kidding. That’s every Asian kids mantra from day one.  Point being, I wanted to rep my people – the poor, the short, the Asian – and if I sucked, I would let down entire communities. You cannot fuck up this role in a classic musical theater show. CANNOT. I played it, I played it well, I brought truth to Billy without falling into too many racist cliches (I think?), and the show was awesome. I rocked that white dude. And it rubbed off on me offstage: I was a little more confident, a little more outgoing, a little sexier. I don’t fit into a box. I’m not traditional so don’t try to cast me traditionally. Did people see me differently? Who cares. I felt good and doing theater pulled me out of depression and made me feel part of something greater.

But I’m way beyond high school now and let’s just say I haven’t booked many Billy Crockers since, BUT the roles I am getting are equally and maybe even more satisfying: Aidan, Jian Wan, and now, Nhan and Khue. People that are meant to look like me. Multi-dimensional Asian characters that cannot be pigeon-holed, whose stories we’re finally seeing on the American stage. Characters that people of color can relate to on a deeper, cultural, historical, and personal level. There was a time when I couldn’t play these roles because they straight up weren’t available, but now, playwrights — Asian American or otherwise — are bringing our voices and our faces onstage.

I struggle with this business on the daily. I’m constantly thinking, “What am I doing with my life? Is this sustainable? How is this helping the world AT ALL?” When kids get shot at school by mass murdering gun fanatics, when bombs are being dropped on innocent lives, when tap water is knowingly allowed to be tainted with lead, when earthquakes kill hundreds, when it’s an election year, when homeless camps get bigger off the 101 in SF, when people think reverse racism is a thing, when diseases are ignored and allowed to decimate communities, when women don’t have rights to make decisions about their own bodies, when religious zealots ruin it for everyone, when a transgender person can’t use the bathroom, when Black Lives Matter is questioned… WHAT AM I DOING OF VALUE?!

When we get emails like the one Qui received, it reminds me that theater is of TREMENDOUS value. A great piece of theater can make us think and act upon all of those issues. It’s a catalyst, a bacteria that infects our soul and the only way to cure it is to take ACTION. Theater can and does change lives and empower people. Why did I ever doubt that when theater changed MY life in the most wonderful way, too?!  I dream of winning the EGOT, but hearing that our work has affected someone in such a positive way trumps all that metal.

“… seeing Vietgone however made me feel strong.”

THAT’S why we do what we do.

VIETGONE is Here

And we have opened! Come check out VIETGONE at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival running through October 29, 2016!Vietgone1

Ice Cream is Universal

The other night at the theater, I was seated next to an older, white lady who kept glancing over at me. She proceeded to lean over and asked, “May I ask you a personal question?” Oh boy. “Sure,” I replied. “Are you Chinese,” she asked. Good lord. “Yes.” She pointed at her entourage of two, middle-aged white men oblivious to our conversation (or my interrogation?). “They were saying that there’s no dessert in China. I don’t think that’s true. Is there dessert in China?” Seriously? “Uh. Yes.” “That’s what I thought,” she said and then in a hushed voice, “So what kind of desserts do you have?” MOTHER LOVER. “WELL, I’m Chinese AMERICAN…” “Right, of course, of course…” “But yes they have desserts in China. And we live in a pretty united, global world now in the 21st century so I imagine that whatever we have here, it’s likely you can get there depending where you are.” “Yes, yes,” she replied, relieved that I proved her correct, but oblivious to how I’m squirming in my seat. I had already turned my phone off and didn’t pick up a program so could only stare straight ahead at the stage in hopes the conversation would end. “Do they have ice cream,” she asked. I chortled. My mouth replied, “Yes,” but I’m pretty sure my face read, “I am done with you.” “Yes,” she said, “I suppose ice cream is pretty universal these days.” ******** You know what sucks about these situations?  Everything. On a personal level, I hated the way the conversation made me feel. As trivial as her question was, I wanted to scream in her face, “Go read a cookbook, go to a Chinese restaurant, or GO TO CHINA! It’s not my job to be the expert on my root country for you.” Why do I have to entertain such a stupid question? I just wanted to see some theater and be another face in the crowd! But as a person of color in this country, I am always aware of my Asian-ness and situations like these remind me that in most parts of the country, it would be impossible for me not to stick out. On a broader level, I couldn’t help but connect moments like these to greater movements like what’s happening in Baltimore. What is our understanding of Baltimore and the communities living there? How can one community be so misunderstood, oppressed for GENERATIONS, and yet, the protestors and activists fighting for change are now the ones labeled as the aggressors? The word that keeps popping up in my brain is, “insularity”: Divisions upon divisions upon divisions are created in this country as a means of oppression whether it be through race, class, sexual preference, education, and so on. On the surface, these divisions are based on commonalities, but really they are meant to preserve a certain way of life, isolate a certain group of people, and protect the influence of outsiders. It’s through this insularity that myths of “the Other” are formed: Black people act this way, Asians eat this food, gays do these things, poor folks buy this stuff. After all, in these insular communities, how many Black, Asian, gay, poor or “Other” folks do they actually know and interact with on a day-to-day basis? These divisions are defensive tactics, where mainstream media becomes the main source of offensive combat. The media is feeding these insular communities all the knowledge they think they need to know. Worse, most people are lazy and content enough not to want to know. After all, why bake something for an hour when you can microwave it for 30 seconds? So back to my conversation with that lady. I didn’t want to be her teacher. But I couldn’t help but feel that if I had taken a moment longer to engage her in a deeper conversation about desserts and where the hell her entourage got such a stupid idea, I could have reached a more meaningful connection. I could have opened the door to another conversation — maybe about foie gras, pudding, red bean, Baltimore, SCOTUS rulings on gay marriage, etc. Ice cream IS universal. We could’ve started from there. I don’t really know what I’m writing about anymore. I have a lot on my mind these last few days. My heart aches for Baltimore and my friends and family who face harassment on a daily basis. There are days I find my role as an artist is for naught — that I should be on the front lines of the protests. But movements have been built out of art and I have to remember that even my face on stage is a huge statement in and of itself. Still — there’s got to be more that I can do. Stay strong, y’all. Stay strong.

Returning Stateside

Amazingly, I slept straight through from 9PM to 8:30AM this morning. Returning to the rainy skies here might not help my jetlag, but I’m glad I didn’t wake up as early as MGS. Then again, he’s a the gym and I am just … sitting here.

The trip itself was fantastic! It was nice to return to Barcelona having already seen the majority of the touristy sites the last time I was in town. This visit allowed me to sink into the rhythm of Spanish life. I’d get up late, grab a coffee and pastry for breakfast (under $3!!!), wander, eat lunch as the main meal of the day, wander again with a pit-stop for beer or another coffee, and grabbed dinner sometime past 9pm. I spent a few days with my great friend KM who moved to Barcelona for grad school and is now based in Sweden. I always love reuniting with friends when it feels like no time has passed at all, when in reality we haven’t seen each other in a few years.

MGS and I also took a side trip to Amsterdam. We bought an I Amsterdam card which gave us free or discounted entry to a variety of museums. The arts & cultural scene there is amazing, as is the scenery. Every turn is a postcard moment. We lucked out with the weather, which was freezing, but at least we were only snowed/rained on once the morning before we had to leave.

It is such a comforting feeling being back in our apartment. I love stepping in and seeing my books, bed, dishes — everything arranged as I left it — and being able to drop back into a familiar routine (for better or for worse). I was pretty ready to return to SF towards the end of my trip, not because I wasn’t enjoying Europe, but because my time here in the Bay is ticking away and I wanted more time to spend with friends and fam. Soon, “coming home” will be considered a “vacation” once my base moves to Oregon so I’m trying to enjoy it here as much as I can. So friends reading this: Call you soon!

Heathrow

Jetlag feels like a head cold. I’m a bit congested. Everything seems to move in slow-mo. My ears filter and dampen sound like I’m in a rehearsal room at the Oberlin Conservatory eavesdropping on my neighbor practicing.

I’m not really understanding how Heathrow is set-up. This airport is obviously enormous and after a 10 minute bus ride just to get to the correct terminal, I’m now in a waiting lounge staring at a screen that keeps blinking, “Gate shown at 15:45.” I’m surrounded by shops so maybe this is all a strategy to get people to spend.

Often when I travel, I look for the Asians (is this just an Asian thing?!). Now is no different. I see … 2. Potentially 3 out of a room of over 200. COME ON LONDON! You can do better!

Making It Work

In yesterday’s adventures in funemployment, my good friend treated me to lunch in the Rincon Center, a former post office turned into a fancy food court. One entrance still retains the original art deco decor. It’s beautiful to witness, especially the series of murals that run along the perimeter of the upper-walls that depict the history of California. I remember the first time I actually looked at the murals, I tried to locate all the Asian faces. You’d think we’d be in a good majority of them, but we’re relegated to mostly one and a half panels. Oh, how history rewrites itself, even in art.

My friend — one of those who’s blessed with looks, smarts, and talent — had a lot weighing heavily on her mind. Primarily, we discussed the artist’s path to becoming an artist full-time. She’s a musician, but also a lawyer. She wants to be the former, but the latter provides greater stability.

BOY could I empathize.

I didn’t really have much advice to give, except to believe in yourself as an artist and just do it. I shared how often we are fearful of failure, but in some ways, we’re also more scared of success and the work that needs to be done to get it. It took me the longest time to identify as an “actor” when strangers asked me what my profession was because I never felt good enough or didn’t feel like I had done enough. It was safer to say that I worked a 9-5 because that’s what was stable and what made the money and what I was “good at” according to my year end reviews.

Fuck that. I am an actor. I am a singer. I am a dance floor warrior. GRRRRR…

I also shared that it is dangerous to start asking people what they think of her music. There’s a pretty thin line between constructive criticism and subjective opinions so asking that question to just anybody opens way too many doors for the haters. We agreed that there are some things that you can objectively weigh like your proficiency at an instrument or vocal technique (to a degree), but there is only one YOU. You got to do you and trust that what you’re offering to this world is truly, wholly unique.

Now. Time to take my own advice.