I’d like to preface my comments by saying I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to watch our production of “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi” as someone of American Indian descent. I have the utmost respect for those brave and courageous California natives who came out and saw the production and spoke at the performance-related discussions. I’m so sorry that some people were reduced to tears and had to leave.
But I do not apologize for being part of this show.
I’m not as strong as my fellow production-mates who have taken sweeping and seemingly ubiquitous criticisms with dignified silence. Going into the performance talks, I knew some people would be upset. I knew some would say things that would be hard to hear. And, above all, I knew people would not change their minds. But I didn’t expect to be so directly affected — so hurt — by what some of our critics had to say.
It is certainly one thing to react to the creative, artistic liberties taken with Ishi’s story, of which so little is actually known — I don’t feel that questions of artistic license and interpretation have black-and-white answers, so I won’t address them here. But it is quite another thing to lampoon those involved with the production, indicating that we developed this show in a manner deliberately disrespectful toward California natives and/or willfully ignorant of history.
Personally speaking — and I can only speak for myself — I found the insinuation that I didn’t care to research Ishi, the man as he actually existed, particularly egregious. After learning I’d landed the role, I read up on Ishi, watched documentaries, studied pictures, looked at translations of Yahi stories and shared the information I learned with my comrades. As the rehearsal process began, I saw that much of my research didn’t reconcile itself with the artistic direction of the play. Just because I didn’t externalize all that I learned doesn’t mean I hadn’t taken the time to learn it. And who has the right to label me, someone you don’t know in the slightest, as willfully ignorant?
For that matter, who has the right to tell me what roles I shouldn’t be able to play because of my ethnic background? There were actors who auditioned who looked more American Indian — more like Ishi — than I do, but I worked my ass off to beat them out for the role. I worked my ass off after I landed the role. I work my ass off still so I can play other roles in the future. But I am attacked for playing Ishi because I am not an American Indian, because I don’t know his pain?
That mentality, repeated several times, hurt me deeply. To say that you know his fear better than I do because your grandparents ran as Ishi did is absurd. You are not your grandparents. I’m not mine. After years of oppression under Japanese rule, my Korean grandfather had to flee as a refugee from what is now North Korea. But I don’t know the terrors he endured just by proxy. Not having lived that life, I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like. You don’t either. You don’t even know what it’s like to be me. How could you? I’ve dealt with depression. I’ve felt loss and loneliness. I’ve witnessed the ephemerality of beauty. As a largely private person, I don’t like to talk about these things, but they all went into my characterization of Ishi. And, as someone who finds it really hard to take pride in his own work, it really pains me that this character I was actually proud of landing and crafting — my first starring role — was the target of so much grief and that this beautiful work of art, which many wonderful, talented people worked to create, was so disparagingly attacked and nearly canceled.
You saw your friends leave the theater crying and spoke out. But when you spoke out, did you see my friends as they were reduced to tears, as they had to leave? You could walk out of the dialogues without being judged.
But when you got angry at me for leaving before that first talk-back was over, did you see me — sick from landing on stage too hard — swallow back down my vomit so that I couldhear the Winnemem Wintu Tribe chief finish her comments before I really had to run outside and throw up? I respect your dedication, your piety and your bravery. I really do. I don’t intend any of my comments to be an attack and apologize if they appear as such. I don’t want to be seen as a lightning rod of criticism and racial bigotry. I have many more plays to do, many more stories to tell that I hope you can appreciate much more than this. But if you don’t, please show me respect, too. Look at the work for what it actually is, and then we can be proactive. We can make art that does what art is intended to do: make people think and progress.
Intae Kim is a sophomore at UC Berkeley and played Ishi in the UC Berkeley department of theater, dance and performance studies’ production of “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi.”