Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Colorblind Casting Controversy Continues

This was posted by my friend and fellow actor Eliza Shin on her own blog recently in response to the casting controversy over at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) due to their, ahem, modest use of Asian actors in their production of the Chinese play The Orphan of ZhaoApparently, the RSC has cast only three out of 17 parts with actors of East Asian heritage, and those have gone to characters including two dogs and a maid.  Just like the situation with The Nightingale over at La Jolla Playhouse, the news has gone viral, covered in various places such as Angry Asian Man.  What is it about Asians (and Asian culture) that non-Asian folks in the arts and entertainment world seem to believe that this level of appropriation and exclusion should be acceptable in this day and age?  

Anyway, onto Eliza's post.  Thanks for giving us all a shout out.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Another Face of Love: A Case for My Asian Brothers in Theater

There is a habit being perpetuated in theater around the world.  Asian males are not being allowed to play Asian male Leads.  Sometimes they get to play donkeys or dogs.  Often times, they are a side character: grocer, editor, doctor, etc.  But when the Lead calls for an Asian male, my Asian brothers are not being cast.
The tragedy in this race-bending casting is not readily seen by the wider world.  The illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company and the La Jolla Playhouse are as blind to their racism as are many non-Equity Chicago theaters.  I have spoken and written about this topic in reference to Lifeline Theatre’s upcoming production of “Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was” by Barry Hughart.  My words have not always been pleasant, but I ask for leeway since there is pain on all sides.  Here I wish to share my vision and the reasoning behind my words, posts, outrage and tears.
The Lead in “Bridge of Birds” is Chinese scholar Master Li Kao who unfailingly introduces himself as a man with “a slight flaw in my character.”  For almost 300 pages, the humble Master Li and his side-kick Number Ten Ox traipse through China in hopes of finding the Great Root of Power.  The children of the village have fallen comatose, and the Root is their only cure.  From page to page, Master Li’s ingenuity, humor and lucidity pull them through predicament after predicament.
Toward the beginning of the book, they cross paths with Miser Shen, one of the greediest men alive.  He has spent his life foreclosing peasants and squeezing money from the poorest of the poor.  However, along the way, Miser Shen has a conversion experience, sees the error of his ways and joins forces with Master Li and Number Ten Ox.  Unfortunately, one of their adventures proves deadly, and Miser Shen is fatally wounded.  On his deathbed, Master Li reassures the dying man that the Yama Kings will surely reincarnate him as a tree and “... for miles around the poor peasants will know you as Old Generosity.” 
The Hero of a play is the person with the greatest heart.  Consequently, it is there that the audience rests their hearts.  For an actor, how thrilling it is to embody the vessel of integrity and bravura!  It is the chance to display and amplify their nobility, no matter the banalities of their “real life.”  Playing the Lead calls upon the best in an actor, and for two hours (or so) a night, that actor gets to distill themselves into their brightest essence.
The Lead, however, is also of paramount importance to the audience.  Played appropriately, we grow to trust them.   Our emotions follow them.  As the action builds, we look to the Lead to shepherd us through this ritual of theater.  We, the audience, get to fall in love anew.
When Master Li assures the dying Miser Shen of his arboreal legacy, the audience is reminded of the refreshment in forgiveness.  As Master Li designs a flying bamboo basket, we get to float aloft on the currents of ingenuity.  We live through the Lead.  We feel relief through the Lead.  An audience of strangers binds their hearts together through the Lead.
The beauty of theater is its ability to enchant disparate audiences through Leads of varying facades.  “Jitney” at Court Theatre is an example.   I’m not African-American.  I’m not from Philadelphia.  I have no experience in driving a cab.  Yet I loved them all for the span of the play. 
I wish so passionately for my Asian brothers to be able to play the Lead because they deserve to have audiences love them, too.  They are worthy of the opportunity to display high-minded versions of themselves.  Also, we, the general public, subconsciously thirst for the chance to surrender and be lead by one of them.  How do I know this?  Because we all want to know the many faces of love. 
My heart can attach to the Lead whether they be homosexual or Jew, female or deaf, colored or amputated.  Increasing the types and shapes of Leads in our plays, reiterates the foundational Truth that by simply being human, we are each capable of being Heroic.  And isn’t that the light we wish to bring to the world through our craft called Theater?


Monday, October 8, 2012

In non-acting news, I recently took my test for sandan (third degree black belt) in the martial art of Aikido.   It'll take several months for the actual paperwork to be processed in Japan and to receive my certificate, but until then, I did receive a copy of the test video from the folks at Milwaukee Aikido Club (the hosts for the event where my test took place). 

Seems like ages since I first started as an exchange student in Japan at Waseda University with the Waseda University Aikido-Kai.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Looking back at the cold and uncomfortable shoot of Red Dawn back in December 2009.
Here's me standing by my trailer door (first time I ever had one of those).  Courtesy of my scene partner Cindy Chu
My stay in Detroit was longer than expected, resulting in me actually being around for the wrap party and being able to go.  It was a bit surreal, hanging out with Asian guys from the stunt team who played the various Chinese (later North Korean) cannon fodder for the film's all-American heroes.  Saw Jeffrey Dean Morgan walking about and even chatted briefly with Chris "Thor" Hemsworth, who gave me a compliment about my playing drunk in our scene together. 
However, though there was a party, it wasn't really the wrap.  The shoot was already way over schedule, but I guess all the arrangements had been made.  So the party went on as planned, but my actual final shoot date was afterward.  Didn't have a car of my own available so I was largely stuck at the hotel during my non-shooting hours.  Can't say I was that fond of hotel life after a while, my schedule largely consisting of checking e-mails, meals in the hotel restaurant, working out in the hotel gym and fitting in a few freelance translation jobs. 

Well, I guess the remake of Red Dawn has finally been screened and the first reviews are out.  Truth be told, I really wasn't expecting much.  Most of the recent Hollywood remakes have been mediocre.  In fact, they've been so innocuous I don't think they'll have any effect on memories of their older, better antecedents (Nightmare on Elm Street, Total Recall, Fright Night among others).  What I saw of the script during shooting didn't exactly impress me.

I have very mixed feelings about being part of this.  I first heard about the Red Dawn remake when it was announced in 2008 or 2009, and had read that the Soviet threat of the 80s original were being replaced with China.  I thought it was an awful, offensive idea then, and still do.  Then I later read actor Roger Fan's great blog post about his experience being asked to be part of a script reading of the remake.

It was literally days after reading Roger's post that my agent called me up to say that they had feature film audition for me.  I was initially excited until she said it was for a film called Red Dawn.  My heart sunk.  What should I do?  After reading Roger's post I had actually raised a fist and gave a big "Right on!"  to the air.  I finally rationalized that I had already audition for all sorts of movies in the past that had not led to anything (Barber Shop 2, Roll Bounce and Formosa Betrayed to name a few).  And, I was relatively new to my current talent agent and felt that I should do my best to make a good impression.  So, I received my sides via e-mail, went into my agent's office, taped the audition, and thought that I'd be done with it.

To my surprise, the next day over lunch at a local bibimbop joint with my buddies Andy Vitale and David Babbitt, I received a call from my agent saying, "How soon can you be in Detroit?  They need you tomorrow."

It was all very surreal.  I felt a deep seated conflict between the professional opportunity and my own views of Asian representation in the media.  I remembered a conversation with actor Andre Ing I had had years prior where he said it was important that we (Asian Americans) did not take roles that demean or disgrace us.

There were other factors to consider though.  I generally support myself as a freelance Japanese translator, and work had started to slow to a trickle with the bad economy in 2009 (this was December).  My wife had been laid off from her job and nothing had come in as yet.  Plus, we were planning on getting married the following year and worried about the expenses.  So, I said yes, and next thing I know I was whisked off by car and plane to Detroit for what ended up being two weeks of being on location (though they really only used me for two day's shooting).

It's such a tricky situation, this profession.  When I was younger and simply a film fanboy, it was so easy to get irate about films that I thought were racist, and to get on my high horse about the actors who accept roles I thought were harmful to the image of our community.  Now, faced with practicalities of trying to be a working actor, I've discovered the decision-making process to be much more complicated.  God knows if it was the right decision long-term.  But I did it, and have to live with it.  I did run into person in the Chicago Asian American community last year who knew I was an actor and gave me a dismissive and dirty look when I mentioned that I had worked on the Red Dawn movie.  There was part of me that wanted to get worked up, angry at being judged in such a knee-jerk fashion.  But another part of me asked, was he right?  Who knows?

Well, thanks to the hard work of local author and my doppleganger-in-name-only Dwight Okita, my actor's reel is finally complete and up and running.  It's up on Youtube and also on the video section of my webpage.  Thanks Dwight O!
I recently had the pleasure of being asked to audition for Chicago's acclaimed Goodman Theatre for their upcoming workshop production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig.  It's part of their New Stages Amplified festival of new plays program.  I had auditioned at the Goodman for their generals a couple of times, but this was the first time I was being brought in for something specific.  The script is simply amazing: a stark, emotionally wrenching story of a girl from rural China who makes the journey to the city to seek her fortune as a factory worker.  It's the first play I've ever read that deals with the dark underbelly of China's newfound economic success (I enjoyed David Henry Hwang's Chinglish,, but that dealt more with people at the managerial level, and focused on U.S.-China relations.).  This is one play that I truly hope receives a full production some day.  And regardless if I get a chance to be part of its development, I'm going to push folks to check it out.

The play's characters are all Chinese, and it was refreshing to see that the Goodman was aiming to aim for a fully Asian cast.  It's been a few weeks since the initial auditions and callbacks.  No word, though two of the female roles have been set.  Given that the Asian American acting community in Chicago is small, there's definitely been chatter amongst its members speculating on who might get what.  Some actresses already received release notices, but I haven't heard anything from my agent (or the grapevine) so I have my fingers crossed.  That being said, I'm just glad I made callbacks, and given that the competition includes some very talented folks, I'd be honored to lose out to such esteemed company.  
Here's some great news.  I will be in the cast of the upcoming play Bridge of Birds at Chicago's Lifeline Theatre, running next year from June 13 to July 31.  The show is based on the book Bridge of Birds: A Tale of an Ancient China That Never Was by writer Barry Hughart.  It's an ensemble role, so I'll have the opportunity to duck in and out of various characters and guises.  Great chance to stretch the muscles and show some range.  I've been an admirer of Lifeline's work over the years (and have auditioned for a couple of shows).  They're specialty is original, homegrown adaptations of literary works.  I particularly liked their adaptation of Neil Gaiman's early novel Neverwhere, which featured some very ingenious staging to bring to life Gaiman's fantasy world of London Below, its numerous environs and fantastic beasties.   Here's to 2013!