Their Names Are Not All Lee or Wong
Ran Xia interviews Asian American actors Kelvin Moon Loh and Alison Lea Bender in regards to their theatrical careers.
Kelvin Moon Loh and I are fellow citizens of Twitterland; I first discovered his blog where he jots down his experience being an Asian American Idiot on tour of Green Day's punk rock musical. "I was hoping you'd see this." He said during our "twitversation." We met in person by the end of January in Boston. First impression? I didn't see an Asian, nor an American, I see a young rocker with a blonde Mohawk and a lot to express, which is quite proper considering the nature of the musical: the rage and love of our generation. "A lot of people don't think that way. When they see me, they just see an Asian." Kelvin is not satisfied with the automatic stereotypes. In a recent tweet he called out to writers: "you don't have to name all Asian American characters Lee or Wong. Sometimes Mike or Joe will do." Sad but true, for most Asian American characters we see have painfully stereotypical names, of which I remember thinking "wow, aren't those names so 1920s?"
I was delighted to chat with Kelvin about his career and his thoughts on the challenges facing Asian American performers. Born and raised in New York, he identifies himself as American and doesn't feel much "Asianess." "But sometimes all they see is my different skin color and features." he explains, "auditioning, for a male Asian American, is extremely hard because there are so many filters before we are considered for certain roles. I'm lucky to have played few stereotypical characters." Having just finished the tour, Kelvin is in full on fighting mode for upcoming projects. "It was a great experience because I got to express the emotions and messages as a character created without ethnic labels." Recently he was a part of the workshop production of Madam Fury's Travelling Show, in which he plays Mother Earth, a character performed by two actors for its two sides: Fury and Conscience. He was able to explore a complete different skill set than being a punk rocker.
"Before realizing my true passion in acting, I wanted to become a lawyer. I was a natural public speaker, and have always been interested in politics." One of his shining moments at school was winning delegation award representing Papua New Guinea at a Model UN Conference. However, during high school, the one thing he looked forward to the most every year was the spring musical. "I would do everything that didn't require me to be at school for the show." He recalls sketching costumes and crafting set pieces and that his father helped with the sets and drew illustrations for the programs.
Through Kelvin, I was introduced to Alison Lea Bender: a diva, a belter, a dreamer and most importantly, a sweetheart. A 12-year-old Alison asked her musical theater camp director, "Which character has the most lines? I want that!" And that was how she got her musical theater debut role: Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. From a little girl who liked to sing in the shower growing up in Tampa, Florida, to a bubbling New Yorker leading a high-pressured life, loving everything romantic and beautiful in life, Alison has done countless musicals along the way: Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, Carousel and Hair.
"When I get my equity card, I'm auditioning for Wicked right away," says Alison. She knows her art and is confident about what she's good at, "I'm sure I'll get seen. Maybe I'll start from ensemble and understudy Elphaba." When asked why not consider Glinda, she said: "I will never get seen as Glinda because she's set as Caucasian." She explains that there are certain limitations for the roles she can take, "It doesn't matter what your skill set is, you just don't get considered at all." Of course, Alison is proud of her Asian background. She enjoys her uniqueness and isn't afraid to try anything exciting and new.
Kelvin and Alison both expressed the wish to be seen for their skills rather than their ethnicity. That's something we need to keep in mind, not only for Asian Americans, but for all actors.