The lights go up. Max and Leo meet at the centre of the stage and start to discuss an idea the former has had for a hit Broadway show. This may be a recognisable scene to those familiar with the Tony-winning Broadway musical The Producers but, on this occasion, the two protagonists look Asian – and instead of plotting to produce a sham show as part of an elaborate swindle, they are talking about a production in which only Asians appear.
“If we can’t find a concert hall full of fabulous Asian-American actors, director-slash-choreographers and a musical director to perform some of our favourite songs from some of our favourite musicals in the next 90 minutes, I’ll eat my hat!” vows Max, played by Eurasian actor Herman Sebek.
“But Max, you’re not even wearing a hat!” quips Leo, played by Korean-American Raymond Lee. The audience laughs. The music starts. Max begins to sing We Can Do It, a hit song that has never before been sung by an Asian actor on a Broadway stage.
Changing the Stats: Asian Americans on Broadway was staged in November at Symphony Space, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in New York. Over 90 minutes, the audience enjoyed a mosaic of Broadway numbers, including The Light in the Piazza, Company and Gypsy, all performed by actors and actresses who are rarely cast for such “mainstream” roles.
The title of the show came from a survey conducted by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) in 2012. It found that in the previous five years, Asians had been cast in only 3 per cent of all roles on Broadway and in major nonprofit theatres in New York. Asians, then, accounted for 12 per cent of the population of the city. But when the curtain rose on Changing the Stats, the title sounded more like a factual statement than an expression of hope. Another survey is expected to be released in the spring but it is already clear that Asians have been getting a lot more work on New York stages in the past couple of years.
It’s hard to pinpoint when things began to change. In the summer of 2011, when David Henry Hwang’s bilingual comedy Chinglish hit Broadway, Singaporean actress Angela Lin was amazed by the make up of the cast and called it “a rare opportunity on Broadway that made me feel like I had come home”.
At the beginning of last year, however, the bitterness from being long ignored was still palpable. In February, when The World of Extreme Happiness, by young Eurasian playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, opened at New York’s City Centre Stage with a completely Asian cast, one of its actors, Chinese-American Francis Jue, joked, “I am glad there is a play out there in which someone like me doesn’t have to turn into a snake. For me, that is very usual.”
“When I graduated from Yale I found most shows were not for Asians, and my white friends had auditions two to three times more than I did,” says Jennifer Lim, the lead actress in Chinglish and The World of Extreme Happiness. Lim grew up in Hong Kong and received a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama in 2004. “After Chinglish, things really have changed. Now, sometimes I go out on auditions three or four times a week. It is 100 per cent better than when I just got out of school.”
Yu Lu concurs. “In the old days, you rarely saw Asians in any audition,” says the Taiwan-born actor, who worked for leisure and entertainment group Cathay Organisation in Hong Kong for a few years before he settled in New York, in the early 1970s. “Lately, so many Asians have joined the performance field, including some friends of mine who only started to perform when they retired. They still get cast.”
“What’s been great about the past two seasons is that we’ve seen an increase in stories on Broadway that have Asian-American [parts]. That’s why there has been more employment for Asians on Broadway,” says Christine Toy Johnson, a Chinese-American actress and playwright who co-founded advocacy organisation AAPAC in 2011 and co-directed Changing the Stats.
Last year saw the most progress. Here Lies Love, an off-Broadway musical about former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos that boasted many Asian roles, ended a successful run last January. A few weeks later, The World of Extreme Happiness, a story about an ill-fated rural girl in China, opened. In April, the revival of the classic musical The King and I opened on Broadway and two of its Asian performers, Ken Watanabe and Ruthie Ann Miles, were nominated for Tony awards (the Oscars of the theatre world). Miles, who also played Marcos in Here Lies Love, became the second Asian actress to win a Tony – as best featured actress – 24 years after Lea Salonga won hers for playing Kim, in Miss Saigon.
Perhaps the most noteworthy new show last year was Allegiance, a musical based on the life of veteran Japanese-American actor George Takei, who was locked up in an internment camp for Japanese during the second world war. It opened in the Longacre Theatre in October and is set to close on February 14; a modest run but not a failure. It has been pioneering on Broadway for its portrayal of Asians as US citizens, not as foreigners, and as heroes of the nation rather than racial stereotypes.
“We have talented people,” says Takei, when we meet at Sardi’s restaurant, in Manhattan. “We created roles to show how talented we are. Now people can’t say that Asians can’t act.”
Takei, who became famous as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek, made his Broadway debut in Allegiance at the age of 78.
“Our Time Now, which is the title of one of the songs in Allegiance, is happening, and Allegiance is taking a leadership position in that,” he says.
And there has been more. In August, the Lincoln Centre hosted the world premiere of Pearl, a production featuring more than 30 dancers from China and the United States that is based on the life of Pearl Buck, the Nobel Prize-winning American writer who spent many years in China, where she was known by the name Sai Zhenzhu. And in November, Double It, a modern circus-style show created by Chinese-American director Chen Shi-zheng with a cast of 12 Chinese acrobats and martial arts performers, had its world premiere at the Baruch Performing Arts Centre.
“We will look back 10 years from now and we will be able to say 2015 was such an exciting year in theatre,” says Telly Leung, a 36-year-old Chinese-American actor. Leung has reason to be optimistic. After playing a leading role in The World of Extreme Happiness, he landed a major role in Allegiance. In between, his second album, Songs for You, was released and he celebrated with a sold-out concert at Joe’s Pub, in The Public Theatre.
Indeed, since Leung decided to pursue acting as a career, when he was a student at New York’s top high school, Stuyvesant, the son of a blue-collar immigrant couple from Guangdong says he has been “lucky”. He made his Broadway debut in the revival of Flower Drum Song, in 2002, when he was still at college. He came back to Broadway for Rent in 2006 and the revival of Godspell, in 2011, in roles that were not specifically for Asians. When he isn’t on Broadway, he writes and performs his songs, appears in TV shows and has even become a producer.
“You have to do all of it,” says Leung. “If you are like, Chen Shi-zheng Actress Tisa Chang Leung in the musical Allegiance, which is playing at the Longacre Theatre, New York, until February 14. ‘I am only an actor, and only interested in this kind of acting,’ you’ll close yourself off to many opportunities.”
Part of Leung’s luck, however, clearly relates to the era in which he’s come of age. Once, there were only a handful of Asian stories in theatres in the US, most written by white playwrights. The handful of roles open to Asian actors were mostly one-dimensional, and white actors were sometimes coloured yellow and cast in Asian parts. There were not many opportunities for genuine “yellow-face” talent.
“Those parts always seemed to exoticise or stereotype Asians,” says actress Tisa Chang, who was born in Chongqing and moved to the US in the 1940s, when her father, diplomat Ping-hsun Chang, was posted to the country. “For women, it was always a beautiful girl in a not-so-reputable profession. I played more prostitutes and Vietnamese bargirls than any other roles.”
Her father loved acting, too, and had been in school plays with Zhou Enlai, the People’s Republic of China’s first premier, when the two were students at Nankai University. But when faced with the stark reality in theatres in the US, the younger Chang decided to tie her own career to a broader mission. In 1977, after playing yet another Vietnamese bargirl, in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Chang invested the money she made on Broadway in her own Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, a place for Asian talent.
Her theatre has produced numerous Asian stories, from the classical Teahouse and Joy Luck Club to A Dream of Red Pavilions, which is currently playing at the Clurman Theatre, on Theatre Row. Many Asian playwrights, from Hwang to Philip Kan Gotanda, have had their early work produced by the Pan Asian, and the many actors who have been given an early boost by the theatre have included Lucy Liu (Ally McBeal, Charlie’s Angels, Elementary) and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, the new Hawaii Five-O series).
As a pioneer in its field, the theatre has inspired many similar efforts, such as the National Asian American Theatre, founded in 1989, and the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, co-founded in 1992 by Joanna Chan, former artistic director of the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. The National Asian Artists Project was co-founded five years ago by the Chinatown-born Baayork Lee, who made her Broadway debut in 1951, at the age of five, as Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original production of The King and I.
“We have so many more people in the mix of performers, writers, designers, directors,” says Chang. “The work is good, bad, sometimes excellent, sometimes a failure. But it’s very interesting to have this kind of energy.”
The energy itself, however, may not have been capable of achieving much without being welded to collective power. Ethnic minorities now make up almost 40 per cent of the population in the US, compared with 25 per cent in 1990. And they are almost completely responsible for the population growth in the country; white numbers have been stagnant for years. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2044, minorities will be in the majority.
Broadway has begun to shift with the demographic changes and nowhere is this more evident than at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, which is currently showing Hamilton. The musical tells the story of a founding father of the US through hip hop and boasts a heavily minority cast, with the Puerto Rican- American Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Alexander Hamilton, Chinese- American Phillipa Soo playing his wife and the likes of US presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson portrayed by people of colour. When it opened in June, after a successful run off-Broadway, Hamilton immediately became one of the hottest shows in town, with US President Barack Obama and the first lady taking in an early performance.
“The world has become diverse. And a show with an all-white cast feels so dated now,” says Lim.
The rapid growth of the Asian population has also been a catalyst. That demographic makes up nearly 6 per cent of the nation’s population and is the fastest growing ethnic group. By 2055, Asian immigrants are expected to surpass their Hispanic counterpart in number, to become the largest foreign-born group in the US.
And economics can’t be ignored. The purchasing power of Asian- Americans jumped to US$770 billion in 2014, a 7 per cent increase from the previous year. And it is expected to reach US$1 trillion by 2018, according to a recent report by Nielsen. Add in high-spending Asian tourists, who are arriving in ever larger numbers, and the featuring of more Asians in everything from TV shows to theatre and advertisements makes financial sense.
“There are some very good shows beginning to use Asians as leads. The bottom line is the dollar,” says Los Angeles-based Nancy Kwan, the Hong Kong-born actress who won worldwide fame in 1960 by playing the protagonist in The World of Suzie Wong. “There are so many more Asians settling in this country. They bring in business.”
However, to Asian theatre professionals, the increasing influence of their own kind brings with it a new set of frustrations.
Part of the challenge comes from China’s growing influence in US show business. The rising number of Chinese students and tourists coming to the US as well as the 1.3-billion-strong mainland market have created significant opportunities for the American entertainment industry. Writers who have the emotional connections, such as Hwang, have increasingly written Chinese themes into their drama. Among the works Hwang is developing are a series for American cable-TV network Bravo that has been described as “Sex & the City set in Shanghai” and a play about US-China relations, set in the future.
And those who have both emotional and physical connections to China are even more thrilled.
“I once felt such despair when I saw the struggles of Asian-American theatre artists,” says Fan Chongren, the assistant director of The World of Extreme Happiness, who came to New York from Shanghai to study theatre in 2011. “A major reason that keeps me hopeful is that I know I can be the bridge between the theatre industries in the US and in China. I have more options than Asian-Americans.” (At the end of 2003, Fan helped organise a China tour for Broadway Rox.)
The Chinese, though, are not necessarily interested in shows created by Asian-Americans.
“When Chinese tourists come to see a Broadway show, they want to see something they consider to be American. When they think of America – they are a little behind – they tend to think of white America,” says Hwang.
Deep-pocketed Chinese are increasingly investing in Broadway shows – but rarely in Asian stories, let alone productions by Asian-American companies.
“Broadway is a risky business. When the Chinese come here to invest, they want something to be a sure win,” says Lily Fan, a Broadway producer from Hong Kong who co-produced the dark comedy Hand to God, which attracted investment from Shanghai-based China Media Capital. “That means either you have a major star or a major creative who has won Tony awards. Does that end up landing them in more mainstream shows? Yes.”
If the Chinese in China are not to be relied upon, Asians who have settled in the US are proving to be even more disappointing. Many don’t go to the theatre at all.
“The shows I did in the US were all Asian stories. I thought there would be a lot of Asians in the audience. Every time, I was wrong,” says Chen, who is best known for his productions of The Peony Pavilion and Monkey: Journey to The West.
“Asian people work hard,” says Lily Fan. “They are not necessarily available at 7.30pm to go to a show. But unless our own people come out to support [us] and buy the tickets, it’s hard for us to argue that Broadway needs to increase its Asian representation.”
The challenges don’t end when you do manage to get Asians through the door. Asian audiences tend to be sensitive to their own image on the stage and often disagree with the portrayal – even when it is by those of the same ethnicity.
The Japanese American Citizens League criticised the producers of Allegiance for using the real names of the organisation and its former national secretary, Mike Masaoka, as the show mixed fiction with reality. When a production of Miss Saigon opened at the Ordway Theatre, in Minnesota, in 2013, Vietnamese-Americans organised protests and criticised the show for affirming stereotypes. And, in 2010, when the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre staged Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, it drew vehement criticism from older Chinese who were appalled to see the derogatory words in the title of a show, despite the obvious satire.
Jeremy Tiang, a young playwright from Singapore, believes such resistance is “a consequence of not enough representation. Because there were so few Asian shows on the stage, the expectation is that each play has to represent everything about this community.
“If [Asian shows] happen more often, there won’t be so much pressure,” says Tiang, who wrote the script for Pan Asian’s A Dream of Red Pavilions.
The process is further complicated by the fact the American performing arts are not yet as post-racial as the trend on Broadway may have us believe. Since last January: Dallas Summer Musicals cast a Caucasian as King Mongkut in its production of The King and I before switching to an Asian actor after a stern letter from AAPAC; British actress Tilda Swinton was chosen to play the Ancient One, a Tibetan mystic, in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, prompting an outcry from Asians against the Hollywood “whitewash”; and the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players cancelled its winter production of The Mikado after the white-for-Japanese casting triggered protests. Furthermore, for the second year in a row, Academy Award nominations have all gone to white actors.
To Hwang, who played a substantial role in the protest in 1991 against the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon, these developments represent a disturbing undercurrent.
“After Miss Saigon, I felt it’d stopped for maybe 10 or 15 years. In the past few years, I have actually started to see [racial exclusion] coming back,” says Hwang. “A lot of people are feeling like we are in this ‘post racial age’: if an African-American can play George Washington in Hamilton, doesn’t that mean white actors can now play minority characters, too?”
Like most of those interviewed by Post Magazine for this story, Hwang doesn’t buy that argument. He points out that the proportion of minorities on the stages of Broadway is still much lower than that in the general population.
“The bottom-line issue is equal opportunity in casting,” he says. “The goal is to increase minority casting.” And that, despite the progress, may still be a long way off.
Kwan, however, remains positive.
“I don’t know why we are made in different colours. There must be a reason,” says the Hong Kong star. “There will always be bias and racism; it’s part of human nature. But America really is a melting pot. For anyone here, if they work hard, they get lucky and the timing is good, they can make it.”