Bea Kiyohara is well-known for co-founding the Northwest Asian American Theatre and its earlier iterations in the 1970s, and served as its artistic director for 15 years. After her concentration in drama at the University of Washington, she went back and got her education degree, resulting in a dual interest in education and the arts. She was instrumental in raising funds for the Theater Off Jackson, chaired the King County Arts Commission and the Seattle Coalition for Educational Equity, and served as a counselor and vice president of student services at Seattle Central Community College, from 1982 to 2008.
What happened in your personal life that inspired your work in the arts?
Kiyohara: When I was in college, I wasn’t able to be cast in a theater production — even though it was a requirement for my degree — because they couldn’t see past this face and this color. This personal experience, combined with my getting more involved in the civil rights movement after the Chicago Democratic convention, inspired my work. The idea that it was not acceptable for Asians to be in the media got me so angry. I was fortunate to have a passion for performing, and got involved with a group of UW students — we all had the same desire to see more Asian faces in the media. We wanted to promote, train and get more Asian youth involved in media, theater, the arts and writing.
What was one of the big needs for the Asian American theater scene?
Kiyohara: The biggest need was to provide a place to give APIs training and experience to be writers, directors and actors. We needed a place to tell our stories — so the theater served as a voice for Asian Americans.
Do you feel that your job is done, or is there a lot more work to do?
Kiyohara: In some sense, I feel that we’ve done our job — there are a lot more Asians in the media, from newscasters to television roles — there are a lot of parts. Where we’ve fallen short is trying to give a voice to more recent immigrants and have scripts and ways in which we can tell their story.
What is one of the great things you’ve learned from your work?
Kiyohara: It really truly is my feeling that because we’re multi-ethnic as far as Asian actors, we learned so much about each other’s cultures. When we did a Korean, Japanese or Filipino play, we all learned about the cultures that we were playing. That really helped people realize that in America there is a whole process of assimilation that people go through, and as times change, other people have gone through it before you, and you can learn from that. At least amongst ourselves, we could talk to each other and not perpetuate the racism and judgment we were experiencing.
What’s one of the biggest problems facing the arts today?
Kiyohara: Racial profiling still happens in casting, and it’s going to continue if we don’t have people in the Hollywood establishment who make decisions on behalf of APIs, because movies are about making money. Some great API films can’t even find distributors because there aren’t enough people on the business side and the money side who are in positions to make a difference. I’ve seen fabulous movies at film festivals that can’t get distributed because no one will pick them up.
What motivated you to keep moving forward?
Kiyohara: I used my theater to politicize. I could not find scripts that I wanted to do, but believed that people needed to hear the Asian experience. And I realized that what motivated me was to use theater as a vehicle for how I felt and what I wanted to do.