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Asian? It's a Spectrum! (Part One)

Ran Xia considers the lack of Asian American representation on stage. logo

Illustration of Godspell
(© Ran Xia)
I've always been fond of abstract art: a whole spectrum of colors and a wide variety of shapes twirling and swirling into beautiful shades of dreams…everything is open to interpretation and nothing is labeled according to race, gender or class. So when I first encountered the notion of discrimination, it was almost incomprehensible. Yes, I know I know… ignorance leads to fear, and fear evokes hatred -- when we refuse to appreciate the beauty of difference, the consequences can be destructive.

How extraordinary that our ancestors developed a variety of features adapting to climates. Continents float apart and the world turns…evolution stirs up the palate of humanity and makes it as colorful as imagination can be.

New York City is such a place: at an ordinary Sunday brunch table, you would find four girlfriends tasting one another's food; they would be black, white, yellow and brown, their hairs straight, curly, dark and blonde; they speak English, but of four distinct accents and nobody would think there's anything wrong. We say that similarities bring people together, yet those similarities are unseen and not decided by physical appearances.

Speaking of physical appearances, the stereotypical Asian profile in a Western mind would be: straight black hair, slanted eyes, yellow skin, short and lean physique, great at Kung fu and math…You know, Mulan and Jackie Chan, interesting but not particularly attractive altogether.

Of course there are exceptional Asians who MADE IT into the spotlight of the world. Special thanks to Kelvin Moon Loh, who directed my attention to People magazine's annual 50 most beautiful people of the world list, where I dug my head into the pile of archived webpages to analyze the demographics of the epitome of attractiveness of mankind. The sad truth came simple: 21 years, only 48 amongst the listed 1400 beauties are Asian, a mere 3.43%. To make the statistics grimmer, only 11 are male. Being the most populated continent in the world, surely Asia produces more "beauties" than that! One explanation could be that they're under-represented.

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition recently released a report on minority casting in New York theatre. In the summary of this study (see TheaterMania's January 21st post), the following information was included:

"African-American actors have seen the most gains, going from 8% five years ago to 16% by the end of the study. Latinos went from 2% to 4% in this same time frame, while Asian Americans have gone from 3% five years ago, to 1% in the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons, and back up to 2% by the end of last year."

Asian Americans represented 2% of the people on stage? That strikingly contradicts the actual number of active performers. The fact? There aren't so many Asian characters for them! This leads to two problems:
1. The lack of stories about Asian culture
2. The filters for appearances in casting processes

The first Asian American performer I saw on Broadway was Lucy Liu in God of Carnage. She was, at that point, already internationally famous, and was cast not for her ethnicity, but for her skill as an actress. After that, most Asian performers I saw on stage were either mute, in the chorus or stereotypical (South Pacific, La Bete, Anything Goes, etc). Of course there was Chinglish, the only story about Asian culture in modern times on Broadway in the last few years (although personally I didn't find it accurately reflects the present business world of China). It wasn't until Godspell that I saw another Asian face (Telly Leung) stopping the show and setting the audience on fire of delight and applause.

"We want to be cast for who we are and what we can do, not for our looks," expressed one of the many Asian American performers I talked to in the past few months. They want to show off their skills, and play parts where their ethnicity isn't the prerequisite.

I believe a good time has come to make this a hot topic, with Allegiance the Musical on its way to Broadway, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot under development, and multiculturalism on the rise on our horizon. Before we come to a feasible solution, I'd like to zoom in and focus on some individuals: Next week I'll introduce you to Kelvin Moon Loh (American Idiot), Alison Lea Bender (Flower Drum Song) and Vincent Rodriguez III (Anything Goes). They have stories to tell--about striving to become better at what they do and the struggle of blending in as well as standing out.


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