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From LOST to Claire Trevor: Leslie Ishii Fights Racism in Clybourne Park

LOST actress Leslie Ishii crossed the color line when she and her family became the first Asian-Americans to settle in an all-white Seattle neighborhood in 1959. Now, over 4 decades later, Ishii continues to defy the status quo as the first woman of color to direct a major production of “Clybourne Park” — at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts from Jan. 30 to Feb. 7.

In the play, 406 Clybourne Park becomes a battleground in a world of shifting racial tensions. The home switches hands in each act of the play, and both a Black and white family experience the hostility of a highly politicized and demographically shifting Chicago suburb.

“[“Clybourne Park”] brings up issues of race, prejudice, gentrification — how neighborhoods change … the color line, when some of the first people of color may cross over into a neighborhood that’s been historically white. I think it touches on all these issues that have been around for eons,” said Ishii.

The emotionally charged racial problems “Clybourne Park” address particularly affect the Black community, and the decision to bring an Asian-American director on board raises the question of how a non-Black director can understand and authentically portray the oppressive experience of those within the Black community.

Though Ishii is of Japanese descent, and experienced these themes from a different point of view, Clybourne Park’s narrative directly parallels Ishii’s own experiences facing prejudice and discrimination in an all-white neighborhood growing up.

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Leslie Ishii, known for her time on the ABC show LOST, is the first woman of color to direct a major production of “Clybourne Park,” a play about gentrification and race relations and tensions in Chicago.

“My parents crossed the color line, they were the first in their neighborhood, and experienced hate crime to the point of vandalizing the house, spray painting, ‘No Japs Allowed.’ My mom would get threats daily on the phone,” she said while also noting her mother organized and fought against gentrification and race zoning as a result. In a sense, Ishii is best able to understand the narrative because she lived it.

Ishii draws on these experiences to help student-actors understand the issues through diverse viewpoints.

“Everyone has different entry points. There’s different stages of how you come along in your understanding of how society works, the truth of inequity, the truth of how some folks have privilege and some don’t,” she said, “and the cast has been very courageous in looking deeply at the issues of the play from their individual vantage points.”

When considering Drama-Chair Gary Busby’s offer to direct the production, Ishii was partially motivated by the complete absence of directors of color in any major production of Clybourne Park, and very few women as well.

“I did a little research, and I haven’t detected any person of color who’s directed this piece … Usually it’s a white person, a white male, there’s one or two white women as well. I thought how interesting it might be to come from the point of view of a woman of color who experienced crossing the color line.”

The director kept the details of just how her experience as a woman of color will ultimately impact and help shape the play a secret. She iterated that she’s not afraid of a challenge, however, and for an artist deeply rooted in equality and justice, Ishii has undoubtedly set the bar high for herself.

When asked which character from the play she relates to the most, Ishii said, “I probably relate most with Lena, who’s in act 2. Someone who is a community activist, thinking about history, thinking about historical context all the time. Thinking about what’s best for people. How can we all thrive?”

While that’s a question asked often with no definitive answer, “Clybourne Park” may offer valuable insight into the systemic problems in society when it premiers this Thursday. In spite of it all, director Leslie Ishii holds onto her characteristic optimism for a better future — a future to believe in.

“Ultimately, [my work is] so rewarding, because you see people reclaiming liberation, and that gives me hope.”