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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2018

Asian American Theatre Artists Note Challenges, Progress in the Quest for Greater Representation

Tuesday, July 31, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by David John Chavez


Rinabeth Apostol remembers performing in a 2002 production of Miss Saigon with the now-defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after giving many Bay Area performers their start in large-scale productions.

It’s safe to say she doesn’t remember the experience fondly. That’s because, as a young performer without an Equity card, she was asked to do something dangerous, potentially fatal even. And without that card, the producers could avoid a pesky little thing called hazard pay. 

Rinabeth Apostol. Photo by Dana Patrick.

“I was really young and excited and was playing Miss Chinatown,” said Apostol. “But I’m up above the lights every night, scared to death and sweating profusely sitting on these giant chopsticks. I could have fallen, but looking back, I was young, desperate and hungry.”

She also understood that, given the reduced opportunities for Asian American performers, it was difficult to turn down a role—even in a show as polarizing as Miss Saigon.

Created by three non Asians—two French and one American—the original production of the oft-protested show used gibberish lyrics in an attempt at mirroring the Viet language, a misstep corrected in more recent productions. The 1989 West End production featured a white actor, playing the role of an Asian pimp, wearing prosthetics to change his eye shape, a move that nearly derailed its Broadway opening a few years later due to pressure from Actors’ Equity Association.

Years later, Apostol still dreams of finding herself on the Great White way someday but under one condition: “I will not make my Broadway debut on my knees.”

Apostol has come a long way since those early days and now works full-time as a professional actor, but she isn’t the only one that has come far. Even though there is still a long way to go and opportunities for Asian American actors are still lacking, Bay Area theatre artists are seeing a shift in the paradigm.


Lily Tung Crystal. Photo by Stuart Locklear.

Lily Tung Crystal, artistic director and cofounder of Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco, has lived in the Bay Area since 2000, save for a year spent in New York. The opportunities for Asian American performers that existed when she began her acting career in 2002 were nowhere near what they are now. And while, like Apostol, she feels there is still work to be done in terms of striving for more representation, she also recognizes how much work has taken place within the community to strengthen those opportunities.

“The last five years have grown exponentially in terms of representation on stage,” said Tung Crystal, who founded her company in 2010 with actor Leon Goertzen to provide more opportunities for Asian American theatre artists. “There are more companies doing diverse programming, and we are seeing more actors being cast in non-racially specific roles.”

In referencing these last five years, Tung Crystal notes a very important shift in some of the bigger Bay Area houses. While a few years ago, Asian American actors might have been trucked in from all over the country to fill stages, more and more houses have recently been hiring locally, giving the Bay Area’s Asian American performers opportunities to work on stages big and small.

This shift can be traced back to the activism of companies such as the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco which began producing content in the early 1970s. Playwrights such as David Henry Hwang, Jeannie Barroga, and Philip Kan Gotanda were produced there and actors such as Lane Nishikawa and Greg Watanabe performed there with regularity.

Jeffrey Lo. Photo by Tasi Alabastro

Jeffrey Lo is the casting director for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. He is the first casting director of color in the company’s history and one of the few nationwide. The Filipino American Lo is also a playwright and a very busy director, and, like Tung Crystal, has noticed the shift in local hires.

According to Lo, the shift is due to not just to the growth of the talent pool but to the flourishing of stories being told from a different perspective. Hwang, Gotanda, and Barroga have paved the way for the new crop of playwrights who are being produced nationally, with a notable breakthrough this year—Young Jean Lee became the first Asian American female playwright to be produced on Broadway with this season’s production of Straight White Men.

“Because of the work those playwrights did, you have playwrights such as Christopher Chen, Leah Nanako Winkler, and Lauren Yee breaking through with form and an exploration of our experience, and the work is so good you just can’t ignore the talent,” said Lo.

Despite the increase in plays containing quality roles for Asian American performers, theatre artists still notice other problems with theatre casting—especially when it come to roles that are not written for a particular race.

 “When there comes a day when non-racially specific roles are cast with actors of color with regularity or when the nation’s large theatres are led by more women and people of color, that to me will be a sign that we’re really moving ahead,” said Tung Crystal.

The tendency to fill non-racially-specific roles with a white cisgendered actor can lead to a feeling of competition for scarce opportunities among performers of color.

“When an Asian American actor is reading for parts that are not ethnic specific, we then get into competition with our black brothers and sisters, and our Latinx brothers and sisters,” said Apostol. “We are being looked at as one entity, but just in terms of theatre. If a white girl goes up for the same role, the brain is trained to see her face on that stage more often than not. That is often who the roles go to.”

In his official capacity, Lo regularly ponders the trials and tribulations of casting with his colleagues. Both he and Tung Crystal are encouraged by Asian American actors like Apostol and Jomar Tagatac, who can carve out full-time theatre careers in the Bay Area, a relatively new phenomenon. But for Lo, who initially had minimal formal theatrical training and rehearsed the first play he ever wrote in his parents’ East San Jose garage, finding more chances to train Asian Americans who yearn for a life on stage is a top priority.

“In casting any show where a role isn’t ethnic specific, I always look to see where we can cast something more multiculturally,” said Lo. “There are opportunities in both mainstage [productions] and new works to invest in the Bay Area’s acting pool. Is it where we can cast understudies? In case of emergencies, it’s a learning experience for a younger actor. Is that a way we can invest in the talent pool? This counts for both actors in general and for Asian American actors.” Lo adds, “The local talent pool is huge, and my thought process always kind of naturally veers in that direction.”

Tung Crystal admits that her company is not as necessary as it was five years ago, which is a huge sign of progress. And she would love to see her company do one thing, but it might not be the thing one may expect.

“There’s still work to be done,” Tung Crystal observes. “But I would love to be in a theatre community where my company wasn’t necessary anymore.”

David John Chavez is a South Bay-based theatre critic/reporter, freelance director and member of the American Theatre Critics Association. You can read David's reviews and features at Follow David on twitter @davidjchavez