Mary McHenry and Jared Ortaliza came up with the idea for the show “Visible People” while eating dishes of pad thai and pad see ew.
McHenry, a third-year ethnomusicology student and Ortaliza, a second-year pre-human biology and society student, had both been thinking independently about putting together a showcase of Asian-American and Pacific Islander artists. But it wasn’t until a mutual friend introduced them that they finally met at Mr. Noodle in Westwood and began to actualize their ideas.
Together, they planned a showcase titled “Visible People” that would create a platform for AAPI inclusion and representation and help expand the dominant narratives of underrepresentation and erasure in pop culture. The showcase, which includes dance, musical performances, poetry and comedy, will take place Tuesday in the Northwest Campus Auditorium.
“We localized it here at UCLA because … the best way to create mass change is to go to micro from macro,” Ortaliza said. “If an institution like UCLA can recognize the event and celebrate it, then I’m sure other institutions will follow.”
Although both students are pursuing minors in Asian American studies, Ortaliza said they used their distinct backgrounds to organize the event. Ortaliza, who has worked for the Student Committee for the Arts, secured funding and dealt with the administrative aspects, while McHenry’s experience as an ethnomusicology student helped her get in contact with many AAPI artists.
To find performers for the showcase, McHenry and Ortaliza put up flyers for auditions in various art departments’ buildings, posted on social media and reached out through emails within the Asian American studies department. Through their outreach, they assembled a group of 13 artists who vary in both ethnicity and art form experience. Performances at the showcase will range from Hindustani tabla music to spoken word poetry about the gentrification of Historic Filipinotown. McHenry said the widespread representation of cultures within the AAPI community fits in with the showcase’s objective of dispelling the commonly held homogenous image of its people.
“One of our other goals aside from just creating this platform is really trying to create a representative image of the AAPI community,” McHenry said. “It’s easy to come up with a singular image of what ‘Asian’ is when it’s actually AAPI and we’re very diverse,” McHenry said.
Ortaliza said the diversity of the performers showcases the narratives of different AAPI identities. The wide range of acts also speaks to the underrepresentation of these narratives and the prevalence of the practice of casting people of color as non-race specific characters in the entertainment industry. Although colorblind casting can increase visibility for the community as a whole, Ortaliza said it strips away the cultural significance and experience of the AAPI people on screen, so they aimed to combat such casting practices with their own show.
“For me, it’s kind of ignorant just to colorblind cast somebody,” Ortaliza said. “If you’re not properly presenting the stories with the people, then in a way, you’re still invalidating the community because you’re ignoring what had actually happened in all their tragedies and all their accomplishments.”
The variety of story types also extends to the participants‘ levels of artistic experience. Some have been performing their art weekly, while others, like second-year English student Jenny Tan, chose to experiment with a new humor-based art form for the first time for “Visible People.” In putting together her premiere comedy act, Tan drew inspiration from prominent Asian-American women in the stand-up comedy industry, like comedian and alumna Ali Wong, she said.
“(Wong) really inspired me because she’s really bold and brash and she leaves everything out there,” Tan said. “She includes a lot of disastrous details that I wouldn’t necessarily want to give to the public, but I thought it’s actually really funny and, if anything, it helps me connect to the audience more.”
Tan spent the past month writing and rewriting her comedic storytelling piece, which she will perform at “Visible People.” Her routine explores the varying moments that characterize her tumultuous relationship with her mother, she said. Although Tan said the story should resonate with people of all races, it isn’t necessarily a narrative that she believes she would have had access to when she was younger, because AAPI narratives and characters are often limited or stereotyped in media depictions.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me on the big screen that wasn’t made fun of or portrayed as some sort of caricature,” Tan said. “And seeing (these stories) in different mediums like spoken word, storytelling, music, dance, composition – it really showcases the wide range of Asian-American talent that this campus has to offer.”
Although this is only the first year of the showcase, McHenry and Ortaliza both said they hope they’re laying the foundation for future generations of students to continue the performance in order to perpetuate positive and diverse AAPI representation. Although representation in entertainment may seem like a minimal problem, McHenry said lack of visibility can lead to bigger issues, like difficulties with self-acceptance and racial prejudice.
“I think this was our grass-roots baby-step movement to create platforms and opportunities,” McHenry said. “It’s all very organic and real and no one can deny you of your art.”