Una Aya Osato has been a performer all her life. But she didn’t become a writer until she realized that she had to become one. Unhappy with the limited roles available for women of color and specifically Asian women, Osato decided to write her own shows and own roles. The rest, as they say, is history, and over the last nine years, Una has written, performed and toured internationally with five one-woman-shows. Oh, yeah, and she’s also won awards and received critical acclaim. So there’s that, too!
Una is also a member of the Brown Girls Burlesque troupe, an all women of color burlesque company. And in her latest show, ExHOTic Other, directed by Brown Girl Burlesque founder DawN Crandell, Una blends political burlesque pieces with personal and political stories from her life. She uses Burlesque and spoken story telling to explore, among other themes, gentrification, the silencing of dissent, racial profiling, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, Zionist propaganda. Osato looks at her own identity as a native New Yorker; as the daughter of a Jewish-American mother and Japanese immigrant father, who deals with Asian stereotypes on the one hand and is called a self-loathing Jew on the other. She examines love and loss. And she manages to do it while wearing pasties and underwear!
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Una Aya Osato:
KH: What is ExHOTic Other?
Una Aya Osato: Well ExHOTic Other is a burlesque character who dances with Brown Girls Burlesque and she is created from dreams and fantasies and lives in a more glittery reality. The show ExHOTic Other is a mix of burlesque and storytelling, more spoken story telling because I see burlesque as storytelling as well, a more full bodied version of that. I find burlesque to be an art form where I can use my body in telling a story. People usually think of burlesque as just songs and stripping but it actually has its origins in political satire. And getting back to the politics is what I’m interested in. So, the show highlights a number of my burlesque pieces and then I look at the context of how the pieces were created through my own personal journey and through politics and my own body and where they meet.
KH: Do people ever criticize what you’re doing as objectifying women’s bodies?
UAO: Totally. I think for me what’s interesting and exciting about the art is the opportunity to be the object and subject at the same time and to play with that relationship, of being aware that people are looking at me. It’s one of the few opportunities I’m able to have when I can flip the mirror and say, Oh you’re looking at me, I’m looking at you as well! A lot of the ways that I’m objectified as a woman and as an Asian woman specifically in the rest of my life–with burlesque I have the opportunity to say, OK, these are your perceptions of me, I’m gonna play off those, I’m gonna hype them up and then strip them away and at the end hopefully we’re looking at ourselves and our relationship a little differently, in a fun sexy-ish way.
KH: How do these objectifications of you as an Asian woman manifest in the real world?
UAO: In the past men had a perception of me as being hypersexual in a very two dimensional corny way. It felt like I was put into the role of an Asian temptress. I was also seeing it in the roles that i was being offered as an actor. I could either be this hypersexualized Asian temptress or I could be this nerdy seen-but-not-heard Asian character. There are only limited roles for people of color in the acting industry and I was really seeing that early on in my acting career, in college even. That’s what made me start writing. I hated writing, actually, but I started writing because I knew that the parts would be there for me only if I started creating roles and telling stories that mattered to me. Burlesque has been one place where it’s possible to create other worlds and to tell other stories, different from the narrow view of what an Asian woman is or can be.
KH: Thank God for limited roles, it turned you into a writer….Do you think burlesque is inherently feminist?
UAO: What I do is definitely feminist. To me, feminism is all about challenging the status quo and that’s what I try to do. Just opening up what people’s perceptions might be by becoming what’s true for me. As long as I’m able to hold my truth on stage, as long as I’m not trying to be or do what somebody else wants me to do, that is challenging the status quo. If we’re telling what our truth is, that is breaking down barriers of what we are told we are. In this day and age, when there’s such a battle for control over bodies, especially female bodies, uncovering shame and becoming proud of my body have been really important spaces for me. And I think another reason it’s important for people to see my show is to be able to appreciate another person’s body.
KH: When did you begin to identify as feminist?
UAO: Since as early as I’ve had thoughts.
KH: What, in your opinion, is feminism’s greatest challenge?
UAO: feminism needs to be able to expand and not stick to a narrow view of just visual representation. Feminism doesn’t just equal girls being able to play, which is of course extremely important, but there’s so much beyond that. We need to continue evolving and embracing all the different critiques and we need to keep growing what feminism is.
KH: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
UAO: Chihiro from Spirited Away. And in real life Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, my sister. So many people in my life who inspire me every day.
KH: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
KH:UAO: Bread, I love bread. Seltzer, and probably you Katie Halper, because you make me laugh. No, no, no. It would be my sister.
KH: Ouch. Just kidding. Your show deals with standards of beauty. Can you discuss how you’ve dealt with that?
UAO: Growing up as a female-bodied person in the world, there’s no way that we can avoid being influenced by the power of society around us and what it’s telling us we should be. And it’s a daily struggle for me to embrace who I am right now and not who I want to be. On stage is one of the places I feel able to be myself the most. It’s a place where I don’t judge myself whereas during the rest of my day I’m internalizing all the stuff about what my body should look like. It’s been kind of amazing finding a place through burlesque to say, This is who i am right now. I get to appreciate my body and to be my own object and subject and to appreciate myself. We don’t all have the same body and that’s what’s so beautiful and incredible about everyone and this art form. I think it’s really important that we see people who reflect what we look like.
KH: And has this courage carried over to your self confidence off the stage?
UAO: Some days yes, some days no. Every time I go to a burlesque show, I leave having a whole new appreciation for bodies. Like wow, everyone has such a different body and they’re so beautiful in their own different ways and my body is part of that narrative and that’s amazing.
KH: Were you embarrassed the first time you did burlesque at all? Wearing just pasties and underpants?
UAO: It wasn’t that i was embarrassed. The first time i did it I didn’t understand the idea of tease, so I just took off all my clothes within the first minute and was just standing there. Other people in my group were like, You have to tease them, like take it slowly, you have a whole song to take your clothes off. The idea of telling a story and not just getting naked was important. The level of comfort for me has more to do with the subject matter of the piece and less to do with the amount of body that I’m showing. My parents come to my shows, and most people in my life know that i do this.
KH: How do your parents respond?
UAO: My parents are so supportive. Both my sister and I do burlesque so they come and they’re proud to see their daughters on stage and in their own bodies and feeling empowered. They’re proud parents.
KH: “Take it off, take it off.”
UAO: My dad is always like, “It’s such a beautiful art. I’s so much more than just stripping, it’s art.”
KH: Probably the one dad who says that. How long have you been doing burlesque?
UAO: Five years. I’ve been a performer my whole life. When I first saw Brown Girl Burlesque’s first show ever, something spoke to me, the playfulness and the storytelling. That I could use all my different training, theater, comedy, dance, and mix it all together. I guess one of the hardest things for me has been learning how to sew. Everyone makes their own outfits themselves–that’s a very big part of the culture. Until you’re really rich and famous and you have other people making your stuff. I’m pretty undomesticated but I had to learn how to sew. That gives me more anxiety than taking off my clothes.
KH: What do you hope people take away from ExHOTic Other?
UAO: I hope they have fun. I hope it’s a moment to reflect on their own lives. That they leave feeling inspired to be free in their own lives.
KH: You speak a lot about truth. Any other truths you want to share?
UAO: Just that I love Feministing. It’s truly a breath of fresh air.