I was sitting with Chris in the outdoor courtyard of the abbey
, a tony coffeeshop cum bar in West Hollywood
frowning down at the earthenware
mug that was wafting tendrils of steam
directly before me -- they had put frothy steamed milk in my cafe au lait
, not scalded -- when Chris looked over at me and said, "You know, you're really exotic
." I'm sure he meant this as a compliment. This freckle-faced
with his wide, open
smile would probably have no trouble being cast as the football
hero or the boy-next-door
. Our eyes met, his cornflower
blue eyes wide and guileless, my already narrow dark brown eyes becoming slits and my mouth drawing tight as I remembered the last time I was called "exotic
" and how it was anything but a compliment.
The audition. My college had an annual summer theater festival and they were planning on doing The Tempest. I read for Ariel, a part I'd already played and felt comfortable with. After my audition, the director took me aside and told me with all seriousness that I had done a terrific job, but he had decided that he needed someone more "all-american" to play the part of Ariel and that I was too exotic, he then offered me the part of Caliban. I chafed at this. How could you get more All-american than me? I was descended from people who had set up shop in New Orleans long before the Louisiana Purchase, I was descended from people who had lived in what is now the Southern United States before Christopher Columbus ever named Hispañola. I am as much America as any flaxen-haired farmboy tilling fields of corn in Nebraska, but here I was being called "exotic", as if I were some sort of unusual flower that only grew under the tender ministrations of Buddhist nuns in a small temple in the deepest jungles of Burma. In Los Angeles, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, I was being called exotic. I did not take the role of Caliban. Under other circumstances, I probably would have, Caliban is an interesting character, controlled by his passions, both childlike and lustful. But The Tempest reads like imperialist propaganda, and Caliban is the savage, brutal native of the Brave New World, and I am no more a savage than the director's "all-american", even though I have brown skin and narrow dark eyes.
I smiled wanly at Chris, who looked positively befuddled at my sour look after he had paid me what he thought was a compliment. I decided not to take out on this poor boy years of frustration at complete strangers accosting me on the street to ask, "What are you?" as if I were some sort rubbery-skinned multiple-limbed space invader. I decided not to blame him for every time I was asked, "are you mixed?" out of the blue, or for every "oreo" and "zebra" name I suffered through. I simply said, "thank you", to this all-american boy, who had come to america for the first time twelve years ago from Norway. The irony of the first generation immigrant calling the ninth generation american, "exotic" struck me and I began to laugh. I am America. When you prattle on about melting pots, don't be surprised when I am what you get once things are cast.