While the 86th Academy Awards are now behind us, one of the lingering issues the annual event broached had to do with Hollywood’s hiring practices, i.e., diversity among the nominees.
That was because among the top acting categories, it was an all-white lineup, with not one person who was black, Latino or Asian. (Native Americans don’t even make the cut when listing the usual suspects among passed-over minorities!)
I’m not one of those people who insist that the nominees in every awards show be completely reflective of America’s diversity; in the case of the Oscars, because it honors the movies that got made in a particular year, it’s perfectly plausible that in any given year there might not have been any movies made that had a cast with a diverse pool from which to pick the nominees who weren’t of the Caucasian persuasion. In 50 years, it may be the reverse, if the nation’s demographics continue to trend the same direction they are now.
This year, however, it was particularly glaring since “Selma” had a cast with many black actors and the movie probably should have garnered at least one acting nomination, namely David Oyelowo for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. In the directing category, meantime, many also felt that “Selma’s” director, Ava DuVernay, should have received a best director bid.
Those examples of the Oscars seemingly snubbing, in this case, black acting (and directing) talent, was what sparked all the debate.
(As an aside, many industry observers believe it was “Selma’s” distributor, Paramount Pictures, that actually dropped the ball because it reportedly didn’t get DVD screeners of “Selma” to Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences members in time to make a difference in the voting. Not all AMPAS members see the movies in theaters, it turns out. It also means that some of the uproar over diversity may not have been so much about Hollywood’s institutional racism as it was circumstances and poor planning. Yeah.)
Whether the source of the problem regarding diversity in movie casting is by design or just benign, it can be said that commercial television has been ahead of its older cousin in diversity in hiring, behind and in front of the camera, for quite some time now.
Although far from perfect, compared with motion pictures, TV beats movies thanks to its more compressed production schedule and the sheer number of TV shows that need to be produced to fill blocks of programming.
The different nature of TV affords the small screen more opportunities to hire not just actors but also writers, producers and directors who are black, Latin, Asian, et al. Fox’s “Empire” and ABC’s “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” are some of the most recent examples of shows with casts (and writers and creators) that are predominately non-white. You might even say that in TV now, the timing is right if you ain’t white.
Consider the case of Brooke Ishibashi. Entertainment industry website Deadline.com last week reported the following: “Brooke Ishibashi has been cast as one of the leads in another NBC comedy pilot, ‘People Are Talking,’ from Uni TV and Will Packer Prods. It is about two couples and examines sex and race, among other things. Ishibashi, repped by Judy Boals and Schreck Rose, will play half of one of the couples, a wife who aptly balances being a loving mom and a tough-as-nails attorney.”
I spoke with the New York City-based Ishibashi about this auspicious development. For more than 10 years, she has been going to school (and graduating), then living and working in NYC as a singer, songwriter, actor and writer. As you read this, she’s still working a “survival gig” job at a wine bar, but is now tying up some loose ends before returning to her home state of California for a few weeks to shoot the aforementioned pilot in March and April.
Asked if she considered this her “big break,” Ishibashi said, “Oh, absolutely! This is essentially what I’ve been working toward. I grew up doing theater as a kid with my two sisters.”
Stop right there. If you recognized the name “Ishibashi,” then yes, Brooke is a member of the Lisa and Gerald Ishibashi brood of Orange, Calif. Gerald Ishibashi runs Stonebridge Entertainment, and, is the namesake of the band Stonebridge.
According to Brooke, her parents met when her mom auditioned to sing for the band. Brooke is the youngest of that joint venture; the sisters she mentioned are second-oldest sister Brianna and eldest Brittany. (Gerald Ishibashi, incidentally, produced “The Great Nisei Reunion” concert that occurred back in November.) The three sisters are separated by just a few years in age. Asked whether they get along, Brooke answered, “We’re best friends! My parents kind of instilled that in us since we were little kids.”
Brooke Ishibashi said Brianna and she followed the trail blazed by Brittany, doing choir and drama in middle and high school. They all had the same theater mentors in high school, Roy Diaz, and his partner, John Wirtz, both of whom helped guide the sisters in the world of theater.
So, it’s pretty safe to say the Lisa and Gerald Ishibashi, with their music and entertainment background, break the stereotype of Asian parents who made sure their kids stick to “safe” professional career paths that led to medicine, law, accounting or engineering. (To take it back even further, Lisa’s mother is Mary Kageyama Nomura, a.k.a. the Songbird of Manzanar.)
Furthermore, Brooke Ishibashi said she is also inspired by the career of Nisei vocalist Pat Suzuki. “I’m actually developing a one-woman show based on the life and music of Pat Suzuki,” she said. “She has been an incredible influence to me because she was a nontraditional, unconventional example of what an Asian was in the ’50s and ’60s.”
While Ishibashi’s role in “People Are Talking” is, without a doubt, a huge career break, the truth is most pilots don’t see the light of day, and even when a pilot gets greenlighted, surviving cancellation is another hurdle. Even great shows die because they don’t find an audience or get a bad time slot.
Still, Ishibashi realizes that being in a pilot means her name and face will become recognized by more casting directors and other people of influence. “I consider this an opening of a door for me so that I can be in a place of bigger visibility. More people will know who I am than before. I am going to use it as a springboard because I’ve always wanted to direct, I’ve always been writing and developing my own projects.
“My sisters and I want to start developing our own projects together, so if anything, it’s an opportunity to meet more people who are of higher influence, who have a little more power, who can maybe give us a little more money to do the kinds of projects we want to do.”
As for the show, Ishibashi said it’s about an ethics professor named Mitch. His wife, to be played by Brooke, is an attorney. They are friends with another couple, who are black, making Mitch the only white person in the foursome. It’s kind of based on creator DJ Nash’s life and how they navigate their lives.
Interestingly, Ishibashi said her character was originally written to be of Korean heritage but with her casting, the character is now specifically Japanese American. That may make her character TV’s only explicitly Japanese American role.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun to do,” Ishibashi said of the pilot. “No matter what happens, I get to work with these TV comedy luminaries. … I’m really excited!”
HBOAccess Writing Fellowship Dept.: If you’re inspired by the preceding example of Brooke Ishibashi’s adventures in show business, read on. According to Dan Mayeda of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, premium cable channel HBO is now accepting applications for its HBOAccess Writing Fellowship, effective March 4.
It will give emerging writers from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to attend a week of master classes held at the HBO campus in Santa Monica and then enter an eight-month writing phase while paired with an HBO development exec.
However, having checked the site, it may already be late, with all 1,000 spots taken already — or the site may be malfunctioning.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.