How one actor turned her brush with street harassment into a raucous, emotional concert.

Three years ago, Diana Oh was followed down the street and viciously catcalled by a group of men in an SUV.

In the wake of that incident, the New York City-based actor and musician sat down in Times Square in her lingerie in front of a stack of paper bags arranged on a soapbox.

One bag read, "The world bends over backward to make excuses for male violence." She stood there, silent, for hours, as passersby stared, applauded, jeered, and, occasionally, joined in.


Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

That installation, titled {my lingerie play}, garnered a raft of national media attention (in Upworthy and elsewhere) and spawned nine further installments, which eventually came together in a raucous storytelling concert that follows Oh's struggle to assert her voice and exist without fear of abuse as a queer woman of color in America.

Now remounted at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York after two years of development, the concert seesaws between tales from Oh's childhood and life in New York City and its anthemic songs, laid down by a hugely talented, synced-up band (full disclosure: Oh and I once collaborated together on a theatrical project). Where the piece truly transcends are in its audacious — and plentiful — moments of audience participation, including an on-stage haircut and an electric make-out session (more on that later). Audience members are encouraged to write their own messages on paper bags before the show and take one home at the end, either their own or someone else's.  

Oh, who grew up the child of working-class immigrant parents in Southern California, is a magnetic, open-hearted, and funny performer. She transforms the show's wrenching subject matter into a celebration of life, difference, and voice. She considers the stage show, with its message of joyful resistance and predominately performer-of-color cast, a radical statement.

"We do what we want," Oh says. "I do what I want on that stage. And that is a revolutionary act, to see a queer woman of color who is Korean-American get to be ... doing what I want on that stage."

As the Harvey Weinstein scandal sinks toward an unknown bottom, and #MeToo stories continue to spread, I sat down with Oh to discuss the performance, its call to arms, her belief that white critics frequently get art made by people of color wrong, how much work putting together a diverse team required, and why that work feels worth it.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There's a moment, late in the concert, where you talk about the frightening experience you had on the street and how it led to the genesis of {my lingerie play}. What was the moment like when you decided, "I'm going to stand on a soapbox in my underwear in Times Square"?

My roommate was like, "Do you want this thing someone is throwing away outside? It's a soapbox." I remember I saw it, and it was turned over, so it looked like an open box, and then I turned it upside down, and it was like, "Oh my God. A soapbox. I know what soapboxes are. People used to use them. They used to stand up on them and talk about their feelings." And I was like, "OK, I think this is something. And then that was it. Before I even knew, like knew, what a soapbox was, I primally knew what a soapbox was. My memory, my previous life or something like that. It was like a spiritual something, where it was just like, my spirit knows that I have to be with this thing.

I knew that I wanted it to be silent. I knew that I just wanted to stand there and make a point, and I wasn't going to yell, and I wasn't going to be frantic.

How did you choose the location?

It was the most public location I could think of, and it was like the center of the universe, and anywhere else would have been too subtle. I was done being subtle. I don't want to be subtle anymore.

Diana Oh. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

I was already writing this piece [for the stage]. And then eventually, I was like, "This is crap." Because all the people who know not to treat people like shit are going to come to the theater and be like, "I'm doing so great." It came out of being frustrated that I was choosing a bubble — that my art form was actually a bubble. Knowing the things I had to say, I wanted it blasted to the universe. So that's where the street installations came in.

It's very bold, obviously. You're standing there and you know that the people walking by you — it's not necessarily safe. What was the experience you expected to have?

I don't even know. It was like I blacked out. It was like something came over me. I didn't even have an expectation. I just knew that I had to. I had zero expectations.

"Every step of the way, I feel like, I always have agency. Always. And that is the power behind this piece." — Diana Oh

Being out there, it was a mix. A lot of people were like, "Thank you," and a lot of other people were like, "I don't understand? Why are we seeing more women in their underwear. I just don't get it."  

In thinking about the stage show, and selling it, was there something you came up with that was like, "This is how we're going to get people in who wouldn't ordinarily come?"

I'm a theater nerd at heart. And I believe in collecting people in a room together and having a powerful, spiritual experience. And that's a gift that only theater can give. So that's what I knew. In terms of marketing or selling it in any way, it was less about that than about "join in." The revolution can't be bought. I cannot sell the revolution. I don't own the revolution, so it's not mine to sell. But I can join the revolution, and you can join with me. And you can give your time and your support, and that's it.

In terms of this year, 2017, with this concert, the thing I keep rubbing up against right now is this concert is for the people and by the people. I can sense that there's a great chasm in between the people and theater culture and the theater critic world.

What sort of divide?

The divide I sense is in what we're doing. And I believe the people who come to it believe in it. And I believe the people of color who are in the audience are a direct result of us making sure that people of color are making the work. The culture of the room needs to be right for the culture of the room. And I wish you could write down this dance move.

I'll write down what you're doing.

[Oh does a breaststroke in the air, as if releasing, then corralling, a litter of puppies.]

The chasm I find is — I call it the "theater helmet." When people put on their theater helmet, that's like, "Ah-ha. I know how to take this work in because I am incredibly educated. I come from a lot of privilege. I studied many many things. And I come from a very certain socioeconomic background. And now I am deemed as a professional thinker in the arts. I know what good art is." But when it gets to be the same people with the same backgrounds commenting on what good art is, you can feel that commentary. You can feel the difference in experience an audience member is having versus a theater critic who has had a lot of schooling.

Guitarist Matt Park. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

One of the things that I connect with is that many people of color have grown up in messy households. And I find that to be very true. Even if we're wealthy, even if we're becoming doctors or whatnot, there's a certain mess to our households by virtue of us straddling this dual citizenship in the world. And I think it's this messiness that our educated theater critic cohort don't quite know and understand. Understandably — because why would they? They didn't grow up in these messy households. So there's a certain hunger that I feel from them to have neatness.

Do you think there's a solution? Do you think there's something these critics and theater professionals can do to put in the work to come to a better understanding, or do you think it really has to be a change in personnel?

Does it have to be a change of personnel? Sure. Absolutely. Do I want to see more of my artist-of-color friends being reviewed by writers of color? Absolutely. Because I feel like we would feel more seen. It wouldn't feel so dimming. It would just feel like, "Oh my gosh, you see me. Thank you."

I think part of the nature of the game is, "I dispense my wisdom from up on this perch," and that in itself creates a resistance to listening. Because you get so many people telling you, from angles, who are mad at you for giving their shows a bad review, so I wonder if part of it is, you create this wall.

That sounds like a terrible life. I don't know why anyone would choose it.

The night I was there, at least, you had a very young audience, very diverse, all genders and ethnicities and ages. Not the typical profile of a theater audience. What does that feel like, that you made that happen?

That feels like we did the work. That feels like, I fucking fought for that. I'm done with subtlety, and I'm done with being silent. And if I'm feeling an instinct, I'm feeling an instinct. If these young people need to be reached out to, they need to be reached out to. And our collaborators need to represent the houses that we want. We have a big problem if the majority of our group is white or cisgender or straight. We've got a really big, big problem. And so we have to queer our room so that we can queer our room.

You spent five months looking for a female bassist of color. Was it important to you to have a woman of color in that specific role, or was it because you didn't have that represented already in the band?

Oh (L) with bassist Rocky Vega (R). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It just was really important that it extended beyond parity, that it extended beyond equality, that it was more about just representing my upbringing. I wanted more than one Asian person because I was tired of being the token Asian. I wanted that there, and I knew the bassist had to be a person of color, and I didn't want to be the only woman or non-binary or queer person in the band.

People often talk about, "If you're really committed to find full representation, you just have to look harder." What was that process like for you?

It was exactly that. So much digging, so many emails, so much asking friends of friends. And even with bass player Rocky Vega, we found her, we found this spirit, we found a voice, we found her politics, everything. And we still had to be like, "Let's teach you the instrument." Because we could find all these capable bassists, but also the ability to sing and do harmony and stand up on stage with us in their underwear and be liberated.

Where did you find her?

Guitarist Matt Park had done "Peer Gynt" with her, and he was like, "Rocky is so awesome." And for a long time, we were like, "Oh my gosh, but she doesn't play bass, so we can't." And then eventually it got down to the end of five months, and it was like, if we don't find someone, I'll be so sad, and we can't do it. So we just asked her, and Ryan got in a room with her alone to play bass, and he was like, "She can do this. She can learn this." And she's incredible.

There are two big moments in the show where you engage in fairly intimate audience interaction. There's one where you shave someone's head and one where you make out with an audience member as part of a consent workshop. And I'm wondering how you went about creating those moments — and the guardrails around them.

There was a lot of work that went into it, into framing it, into how to word it perfectly so that we are naming enthusiastic consent. So that we know that we are making sure it feels like an invitation and not like hazing. So that it feels like a gift for an audience member and not like they're a prop. And every night, it changes. I usually share my head-shaving story. And some nights, I don't want to share it when I'm shaving a person's head. I just want to honor it and be with them. And then I'll share my stuff later. And it's just about being really present.

The make-out workshop came out of so many rewrites and so many things being thrown away, being like, "We can't do this. We can't do this. It's not working." There was a point where there was a version of this concert where there was so much trauma in it that it was like, we're not here to exploit trauma. And the make-out session was born out of a conversation that our dramaturg Mei Ann Teo [note: a dramaturg is essentially a theatrical editor, though the scope of the role varies from production to production.] and the director Orion Johnstone had. I think they were having a conversation about the text, and they came to me the next day and were like, "We have a proposal for you. What if you make out with an audience member on stage." And I was like, done. Yes.

You were super enthusiastic about that from the beginning?

Yes. Huge. I was just like, life of my dreams. Let's freaking do it. We're done with subtlety. Orion, Mei Ann, and me were all aligned in the belief that our sexual liberation is so intertwined with social justice. Oftentimes, the shame or the hiding or the silence or the questions or the anxiety that surrounds my sexual expression, it wasn't born out of nowhere. And I wasn't born with all of that. And it's something that I feel like was piled on me as I have lived my life through this world, identifying the way I do sexually.

I don't want to feel shame in the streets. I don't want to feel shame in the bed. And I find that to be true of so many people. To think of how much hiding we do, of the kind of intimacy that we want and who we want to have it with and all this stuff, and all the hiding that we do, and all the breath-holding that we do, and how that's actually intertwined with, "Well, if you would just let us be who we are, maybe we wouldn't close in so much."

The night I was there, two people volunteered really quickly to make out with you. Do you ever have a moment where you felt uncomfortable during that part of the show? Where you had to be, like, this is not working for me at this moment?

This is why working with a sex and relationships coach [director Orion Johnstone] on your art is amazing because they literally had to tell me, "Take your time to choose." I have been conditioned to be like, "Make a choice. You have to love it. I'm so into it. Yeah. Do whatever you want." Where it's like, "No no no, we're going to disrupt that and be like, 'let me take this in and see who it is that I actually want to share this moment with.'"

From there, I have that time to sit with them in the Super Sexy Hot Enthusiastic Consent workshop to be like, "How is it that I want to kiss you as I'm looking at you?" And some nights I want to, like, make out with the person. And some night it's like, I want to give them a really soft, welcoming kiss. And some nights, it's like, I want to kiss you everywhere but the mouth. But every step of the way, I feel like, I always have agency. Always. And that is the power behind this piece. And that's something the dramaturg has given voice to. That the night is actually about watching you, about agency in the room.

You're performing this at a moment where these issues are exploding into public life in an unfortunate way — with previous accusations against the president of the United States and, of course, more recently in your industry, with Harvey Weinstein. What sort of tools do you hope people walk away from the show with?

My hope is that people walk away feeling like they have complete and total agency to act and speak out and honor themselves and honor their truth and honor their power. That any time they feel that urge to be like, "I feel like I can do something but I don't know if it's like this, and I don't know," that it's like, "You can. You can and you will. And you must." You just have to put one foot in front of the other to do it.

You said you're preparing one more installation?

Drummer Ryan McCurdy (L), Oh (C) and Vega (R). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

On Oct. 28, at a to-be-disclosed location, at 4 p.m., we are going to be inviting all the past audience members of the show to stand outside together with the paper bag they left with. And if you don't have a brown paper bag, we'll give you one of the leftover ones that we have with the hopes that between now and then you will have given some thought to how we can make this thing possible in whatever small and big way. And it's just a chance for us to stand outside together, be together, meet each other.

I think that community is built by shared experience, and we will have shared this experience. And every night is so different.

In the meantime, we want everyone to see the show because we believe in it so much. We believe in the spell of it , that it's really using our civic duty.

{my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS. The Final Installation runs through Oct. 28 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York City. Tickets can be found here.

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Tyler Perry says instead of fighting for a seat at the table, build your own

There's a lot to be said for paving your own path, and Tyler Perry said it all when he accepted the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET Awards. Perry received his award for making movies that were, Perry feels, subconsciously about "wanting her [his mother] to know that she was worthy—wanting black women to know you're worthy, you're special, you're powerful, you're amazing." Perry's inspirational acceptance speech has enough motivation to get you going for years. He spoke to the power of helping others while simultaneously carving out your own destiny.

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Inclusivity

Anyone who's done yard work on a hot day can tell you that it can be just as good of a workout as playing a team sport.

You're down on your knees pulling weeds, up on a ladder lopping off errant tree branches, and pushing a heavy lawnmower that never seems to start on the first try.

Unfortunately, because lawn work is so physically intense and not everyone can afford a gardner, the elderly and disabled sometimes have to let their lawns and backyards grow wild.

An alternative learning center in Dubuque, Iowa is helping its kids stay physically fit while helping out their community with a new program that gives them high school PE credit for doing yard work for the elderly and disabled.

The Alternative Learning Center is for high school juniors and seniors who are at risk of dropping out of school.
As part of the program, the teens visit homes of the elderly and disabled and help out by raking leaves, pulling weeds, cutting grass, and cleaning gutters.



Teacher Tim Hitzler created the program because it helps the students get involved in the community while helping those who need it most.

"The students aren't typically too excited at the beginning but once they get involved and start doing the yard work they become more motivated," Hitzler told KWWL. "What they really like is A: helping people. They really like giving back to people and meeting the person."

Nick Colsn, a 17-year-old student at the learning center, told NPR that the program allows him to meet people he wouldn't have otherwise. "I'm more of like go-to-school-go-to-work-home-repeat kind of guy," he said. "So to me, I probably would not have met any of these people."

The end-of-year program has been so successful, Hitzler hopes to expand it next year. "You know, in education, a lot of times, there's so many different gimmicks and curriculum packages you can buy and things like that," he told NPR. "And something like this all you need is a few garden tools. You know, I mean, it just makes sense. It's so simple. And it works."

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If you're a white supremacist, I imagine drinking beer (or any other alcoholic beverage) is a nice way to relax and tune out the fact that you're a terrible person who's helping set human progress back at a rate the bubonic plague would be proud of. But for some self-professed white supremacists, it wasn't quite so easy on a June weekend in Germany.

According to Newsweek, the hundreds of neo-nazis who flocked to the "Shield and Sword Festival" in Ostritz found themselves uncomfortably dry when a court imposed a liquor ban at their gathering of hateful bigots who also like to listen to awful music together. The ban's aim was to prevent any violence that might erupt (you know it would...) and the police confiscated more than a thousand gallons of alcohol from those attending the weekend-long event. They even posted pictures on Twitter of the alcohol they'd removed from participants.



But that's only half the story.

Residents of the town of Ostritz, who've had to deal with the bigots before (they threw the same festival last year on Hitler's birthday), knew that the ban wouldn't stop the festival-goers from trying to obtain more alcohol while in town. So the townspeople got together a week before the festival and devised a plan which would truly make the white supremacists focus on how terrible neo-nazi music is: They bought up the entire town's beer supply.

"We wanted to dry the Nazis out," Georg Salditt, a local activist, told reporters. "We thought, if an alcohol ban is coming, we'll empty the shelves at the Penny [supermarket]."

"For us it's important to send the message from Ostritz that there are people here who won't tolerate this, who say 'we have different values here, we're setting an example..." an unidentified local woman told ZDF Television.

At the same time the festival was going on, residents also staged two counter-protests and put on a "Peace Festival" to drive home the point that bigotry wasn't welcome. If the festival is held in the same town again next year, ticket-buyers should be aware that Ostritz isn't playing around when it says that white supremacists aren't welcome.

There's some good news, too: Aside from the fact that residents aren't afraid to send the message that they're intolerant of intolerance, attendance to the far-right music festival has drastically decreased in the past year. In 2018, 1,200 people attended, according to the BBC. This year? Approximately 500-600. Here's hoping the festival won't have a return engagement next year.

Culture

I sent both of my children on a bus on Tuesday. I knew where they were going.

The morning started rainy, buggy, and too early. To be fair, it always feels too early.

My husband and I waved from across the street as the buses pulled away, our kids, along with a hundred or so others, behind tinted glass. We waved like we were excited. Our son was likely not looking. Our daughter may have been, but she also could have not been paying attention until the bus started into motion. We won't know for sure if she saw us waving until she returns.

Returns.

Every day when I leave the house, I expect to return.

That's the default.

It's so much the default that realizing it is actually stunning. We run our lives as though anything else other than what's in our head, our routine, our privilege, is what will take place. There's that little truism that a worrier shines like a pebble in the hand: you're more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Yet we are much more likely to be worried about flying because it is out of our routine. Being out of your routine awakens you to the precariousness we completely shut out in our day-to-day lives.

I put my children on a bus. My oldest will be gone four weeks, my youngest, two.

What should be normal: sending your kids to sleep away camp. What feels wholly unnatural: sending your Jewish kids to a Jewish sleep away camp in the world we're living in now. Even writing those words: JEWISH SLEEP AWAY CAMP make my fingers seize at the knuckles. I don't want you to know there are such things as Jewish sleep away camps. Even having others know that they exist feels like a danger.

I'm used to my feelings and my instincts seeming like hyperbole to others. I'm emotional. I'm tuned in. I'm hyperreactive. I have a hair trigger. I have anxiety and depression.

I also come from a genetic and cultural history of people who ended up in this country because we were hunted and pursued and needed to escape. Over and over and over again. The cells that have come to build the tissues and structures of my body and my brain have been organized by UNSAFETY.

In "normal" suburban upper-class life, this can be a huge detriment. A handicap. It can manifest in the most unhelpful and frankly, startlingly blind ways. I've spent so much of my life reacting and feeling and then trying to understand what makes me tick. I've spent so much time learning to train and control and ignore and channel.

I wasn't made for easy times. I was made for survival. I was made, like an animal, to intuit danger and get the hell out, fast. I was made in the image of fight or flight. I do both better than most people. It's not something I brag about, because it doesn't feel like a good thing most of the time.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp. Because when my husband and I got married (I'm Jewish, he's not), our pact was this: if our children live in a world where historically they could be targeted and threatened because of their Jewishness (regardless of their actual observance of religion or customs), they deserved to know that being a Jew is not negative. We should give them every opportunity to be proud and happy about their Jewishness. Their belonging should help them to feel good about themselves and the world. It should help them seek connection and understanding of the human condition. They should know songs. They should sing full-throated. They should feel comfort in our traditions when they are useful to them, but never feel threatened or unnecessarily constrained by them.

Research funded by Jewish institutions and communities suggests that the number one way to help ground kids in their Jewish identity is to send them to Jewish sleep away camp. It's the glue.

And yet.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp at a time when our government is putting migrant children into concentration camps.

I bought all the supplies on the list. I washed and labeled and sorted and packed. I zipped up those bags to accompany my children. And then I dropped my children off and couldn't see if they were waving back as the buses drove away.

Of course, the camp I'm sending them to has a stellar reputation. Every day they post updates on a special web site, along with hundreds of pictures of the kids in action. I send emails to the kids which are printed out and given to them. I send packages with stickers and trading cards and all sorts of goofiness so that they know they are loved.

Migrants from central America have made their way to our border with just what they could carry. (My children's bags were so heavy that neither of them could carry them. Likely at least 1/4 of what I sent will come back unused or untouched.) Migrants are following the rules of asylum seeking. They are fleeing violence and intimidation and abuse far greater than I will allow myself to imagine. They are separated from their children by a government that has no business doing so.

I, an upper-class white woman, expect my voice to be heard. I expect to be able to vote and call and hold my elected officials accountable. I know what to say to get my point across. I've given money to candidates and I know how to threaten that support in the future. I also have the privilege of time and energy with which to do it. My underlying expectation is that there are very few problems that I don't have some redress for.

Asylum-seekers, in good faith, and following the rules, have nothing left to lose. They are coming here seeking something less life-threatening than what they're fleeing. They're seeking some good will. Or, at the very least, safety. Or relative safety.

I put my children on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp knowing that in my daughter's cabin of 8 girls, there are 4 young adult counselors who are there to make sure that she's safe, happy, and her needs are being met.

I also know that last year, an asshole white supremacist antisemite decided to go to a synagogue on shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and turn it into a bloodbath. Well before that ever happened, well before the era of mass shootings and Columbine, Jewish institutions like synagogues and preschools and JCCs have needed extra surveillance. We've had police guard our religious services and social gatherings. Even (and perhaps especially) seeking out Jewish belonging, Jewish joy, has always been a reckoning with danger and threat.

After I sent my children on that bus—the one I knew where it was going—the one where I'd shoveled their overpacked duffle bags into the bowels of the bus—I came home to a house strewn with the remnants from packing. Laundry bins with unneeded t-shirts and shorts and single socks. The cat—he normally comes to greet me when he hears the garage door open—was nowhere to be seen. I called for him. He still did not come. I came upstairs and looked in my son's room. No cat. I looked in my daughter's room—with its orange and pink somewhat darkened by the rainy skies—and there he was, tucked into a furry circle in an eddy of her duvet. I laid down next to him and lost control. The control I never really had.

Twitter this week has erupted in a jagged back-and-forth between politicians and pundits and opinion-havers about whether or not it is appropriate to call the migrant detention centers run by ICE and our government "concentration camps." I, and most other Jews I follow and know, agree they should be called exactly what they are.

Non-Jews (and, to be fair, some Jews as well), like to tiptoe around the Holocaust and any words or imagery which may in any way encroach upon the historical accuracy or singular legacy of that horrible period. To a degree, I might agree when the comparisons are used flippantly or improperly.

But the legacy of the Holocaust, we are all reminded, is NEVER AGAIN. And NEVER AGAIN means that we don't wait until something worse happens. What's happening RIGHT NOW in the United States shares that DNA.

In the same way I understood or had an inkling in my bones that the election might go a way I didn't want it to, I know this same thing: we are not ok. This is not just the start. This is halfway down the road to the place where we lose not just perceived control, but real control. For all the current administration's lies and purposeful incapabilities, know this: the cruelty that comes out of the mouth of our president and those who continue to support him in the government and in the populace is not a lie. It is predictive. They're telling us in advance what they intend to do. And then they are doing it.

In a world where I still have the ability to put my daughter and son on a bus with all their toiletries and know that they will likely arrive at their destination, I also know that our government argued for the legal right to deny soap and toothbrushes to migrant children. When anyone's children are denied such basics—human basics—no one is safe.

I know it will sound like hyperbole. I know that those who so easily dismissed my concerns early on—before this administration even took office—will still attempt to dismiss my warnings now. But do so at your own peril.

I was not built for normal times. I was built for times like these. And I haven't been wrong yet.

This post originally appeared on Outside Voice. You can read it here.

Inclusivity