How I’ve Given Up Real Life For Lent To Be An Actor. But Just For 45 Days Or So.

L: Emil Guillermo as Gabriel Noitallde. R: Laura Robards as newscaster Hedda Duckbill. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

by Emil Guillermo

“Bloody Sunday,” the day of the 1965 Selma march for voting rights and social justice and the violent response to it by white Southerners, was publicly commemorated over the weekend.

But this year, the actual date, March 7 falls on a Tuesday this year. So we get to linger with the history into the week, giving us time to appreciate our role on that day.

It isn’t talked about much, but let the record show, Asian Americans were there marching for civil rights alongside African Americans on that historic date.

AAPIs were in coalition with African Americans.

Vincent Wu was one of MLK’s bodyguards that day and was arrested at Selma. It’s a little-known bit of Asian American history.

But that’s just it.

There’s a lot in history that isn’t widely known, which is why you should see Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor.” It’s playing now off-Broadway at Theater for the New City through March 26.

But even if you’re in California, Hawaii, Europe, or the Northern Marianas Islands, you can still get a livestream ticket and watch the latest from the MacArthur genius award-winning novelist, poet, essayist and playwright who turns in a Shavian tour de force. (You can get tickets at https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-conductor-2023/.)

It’s the second project I’m doing since mid-February. The first being my one-man show “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host…” also in New York City.

I tell my friends for Lent, I gave up my life to be an actor.

It just made sense to stay to be in Reed’s play too, though admittedly, I have my biases.

I have known Ishmael Reed for more than 40 years and have a small comic part in the play. When I was in a creative writing MFA program, Reed was the visiting professor. When one teacher told me to stop writing about Filipino characters, Reed told me to stick them back in.

That’s what Ishmael Reed’s life has been about: imagining stories of inclusion, where we matter and count. All of us. Asians, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans. All of us.

Ishmael Reed was woke when others were walking around happily playing dead.

Now being anti-woke is a thing. And they are portraying “wokeness” as the problem.

In “The Conductor,” Reed takes a satirical swing at the rise of anti-wokeness by taking a recent news story, last year’s recall of progressive school board members in “liberal” San Francisco, and then imagining an outrageous scenario.

There’s a fictional mad Indian prime minister who shoots down a U.S. spy plane.

Indians in America come under attack and are victims of xenophobic hate.

A Fugitive Indian Act is being debated in Congress, and in anticipation of its passage, Indian Americans flee to Canada where they can seek refuge by taking a flight back to India.

It is a crisis and Indian Americans are seeking refuge through a new underground railroad to get to Canada.

Hence, the need for “The Conductor.”

Far-fetched? We just had the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed for the incarceration of Japanese Americans was never formally overturned.

The precedent is still there. Think it can’t happen again? Considering the conditions of the current court, nothing appears to be “settled law.”

You’ll think of the Japanese American experience, even though Reed’s play focuses on Indian Americans. But why stop there? Considering the recent news stories of espionage balloons and China’s current courtship of Russia, there’s an eerie feeling when one of the characters in “The Conductor” boldly states, “The fate of immigrants is tied to their countries of origin.”

Reed’s satirical vision can almost seem too plausible and not exaggerated enough.

The play blends the international scene with the local San Francisco school board recall, which gave the anti-woke movement a national boost.

If you haven’t noticed, the culture wars are being fought most vigorously at the grassroots level with education as the focus.

Issues like admissions to elite high schools, as well as curriculum debates over history that’s critical of America’s missteps of the past.

The movement’s prime proponents are people like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is on a mission to cleanse the schools of real history in favor of a glorifying and patriotic, U.S. history. A happy history. The critical be damned. To DeSantis, the problem is “the woke mind virus that’s infected the left and all these other institutions.”

But of course, we increasingly have those amongst us in the AAPI community who sound just like DeSantis. Nikki Haley speaks of anti-wokeness and the need for generational change. She also wants to be president.

So does Vivek Ramaswamy, a much younger Indian American with Ivy League credentials, who doesn’t mind pushing out Haley. Ramaswamy is more anti-woke than even any right-wing white zealot.

You can see their ilk in “The Conductor,” played by me. In my small part, I am a Pacific Islander who has just won the Manhattan Institute’s “Anglo of the Month Award.”

Now that’s funny.

Amid the satire, “The Conductor” is chock full of history, specifically Asian American history, the parts that aren’t taught currently in schools. You’ll learn about the writer Frank Chin, a key member of the Chinese American avant-garde, hardly known to Chinese Americans but studied by scholars in China and Japan.

You’ll learn about the Indian caste system and Dalits, and how immigrants have brought that cultural racism into America to the point where new laws are needed to ban caste-based discrimination. Seattle became the first city to pass such a law just last month.

It’s all sprinkled throughout in a satirical portrayal of exactly where we are in modern American race history.

And where’s that?

We’re 58 years away from “Bloody Sunday” and still have a long way to go.

Get tickets to see “The Conductor” in person in NYC, or livestreamed at https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-conductor-2023/.

EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator.  A former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” he worked in Hawaii as a columnist for the Star-Bulletin and an editorial board member for the Advertiser. He vlogs at www.amok.com.


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