In eighth grade, Karina L. Cowperthwaite ’23 was what she affectionately referred to as “a little Delta Nu” throughout her high school production “Legally Blonde”. Now, seven years later, she is the production manager for the musical at Harvard, one month before opening night. This time around, she has the power to stage the show in a new way: with an all-pan-Asian cast, acting on a stage coded for Asian identities.
Cowperthwaite was heavily involved in the arts from her early days at Harvard, performing in several productions and eventually overseeing the freshman art program. She was delighted to find that college theater allowed her to explore her own artistic vision and learn from the ideas of her peers. “In high school our drama teacher was the director, we had a professional decorator… and the students were right in there,” Cowperthwaite said. “Compared to here, the students run the show.”
University has also allowed her to further explore the intersection between her art and her identity, notably through the Asian Student Arts Project at Harvard, of which she is now co-chair. “I never used to put my identity and my theater together,” said Cowperthwaite. “I kind of separated them, because a lot of theater isn’t written for people like me.” Now, she believes that uniting the two aspects of her identity is crucial: “As I meet other people who are passionate about theater professionally, I have realized that your identity and what makes you different is actually very powerful, and [art] is inextricably linked with identity.
One of the ways ASAP connects theater and identity is by sponsoring productions every year on campus. But choosing a show is no easy task. When Cowperthwaite and his team sat down to pick a musical, they were immediately faced with the frustrating reality of being pan-Asian in the theater: seemingly limited options. “There are a lot of shows that present Asian Americans in a pretty racist light, and in the mainstream culture we don’t see a lot of depictions of Asian stories,” she explained. “It’s really tough when you’re sitting down and you’re like, ‘I really want to put on a musical this semester,’ but there isn’t really a contemporary, original American identity-centric musical. Asian… and is a fun Broadway musical that everyone knows.
The choice of “Legally Blonde” was born out of a brainstorming session. “Like a joke, [my friend] It was like, ‘How about we do High School Musical, but all Asian? Or legally blonde, but all Asian? ‘ Everyone was sort of laughing, because the idea was so ridiculous.
“But what if? What if we take this seriously? Cowperthwaite remembered thinking. She noted that in the wider theater community, reimagining traditionally white stories is becoming more and more popular.” So I thought, what if we do this at Harvard? ”
From there, Cowperthwaite’s creativity and curiosity took off. As Production Manager, her goal of creating an authentically Asian space goes far beyond casting. She imagined the Delta Nus, but now sings music inspired by BLACKPINK. She redesigned Elle’s iconic handbag, now adorned with a Hello Kitty motif. Paulette’s salon is now located in Chinatown. “All of a sudden the story is completely different just by changing the way we racialize the bodies on stage and the spaces we explore – and we haven’t even touched the text of the show,” said Cowperthwaite.
Interestingly, as Cowperthwaite pointed out, the Legally Blonde script never states that She (or any character) must be white: “It just says She must be blonde.” She leaned forward and smiled, as if she had a secret. “And in this contemporary culture, anyone can dye their hair blonde.”
Even though the script is not written for a specific racial identity, when performed by an all-Asian cast the context behind the words is very different. In one of the admissions official’s lines, for example, he disparagingly calls Elle’s dance an “ethnic movement”. “That front line might have gone over people’s heads, but all of a sudden when She’s Asian… you’re like, ‘Ooh, that line is so sharp now,’” Cowperthwaite explained enthusiastically.
When the cast is pan-Asian, plot points also become more relevant to other identities. “Legally Blonde” follows Elle Woods on her journey to and through Harvard Law School, trying to prove her critics wrong as everyone doubts her right to be there. Cowperthwaite thinks Elle’s story is not only relevant to white audiences: “I think the story of Elle Woods coming to a school and feeling like she doesn’t belong is a story that people colors can understand, ”she said.
Cowperthwaite has high hopes not only for the performance itself, but also for its role in a larger effort to bring Asian voices to mainstream theater at Harvard and the world at large. Yet she recognizes that truly fair representation will not happen overnight. “I think the ultimate and true portrayal in theater and the arts is to have Asian American stories portrayed on stage,” Cowperthwaite said. She believes this process is layered and complicated, and requires Asian American work to be established, funded, and normalized into mainstream theater culture.
“Right now we don’t have access to this job yet,” she said. “I hope we’re the generation that writes and does these new shows, but until then we have this collection of fantastic musicals that are so fun, but often seem inaccessible to people of color because they have it. feel that the characters weren’t written for their identities.
As this next generation of theater makers begins to move towards permanent change, Cowperthwaite believes his community shouldn’t wait for performance. “Then I just think of the performance in another way. What if you take popular contemporary musicals and ask yourself this: what if we question the idea that these musicals, if not race specific, should be coded for white space? “
She pauses and smiles. “Enter ‘Legally blonde’. “