by Lance Wiener
I rarely see someone who looks like me on a Broadway stage. Being an Asian-American soon-to-be-college student hungry for a performing career, I wish there was more representation of the Asian community in theater.
While most roles are written without regard to race or ethnicity, they are generally given to Caucasian actors. Asian, Latino, black and other minority actors need to be better represented in theatrical productions. Outside of shows like Miss Saigon, Motown, or Hamilton, actors of color aren’t often having characters written for them that get to lead a company. When it comes to opportunities to be “color-blind” in casting rooms dominated by people of Caucasian descent, opportunities for some minorities seem to be all too often overlooked.
Sure, stunt-casting occurs; however, when it comes to filling diversity quotients, Asian actors are frequently under-utilized. I dream of seeing an Asian Elphaba or an Asian Elsa. I hope to see boundaries broken and see people I can relate to in strong, formidable, lead characters.
I’ve found that the theater community is practically a family. Everyone has your back. You go through tech (or “hell”) week together, you open a show, and you get the thrill of seeing your peers up on that school auditorium stage, smiles and all. But even at the high school level, so few, if any, of those smiling faces are of Asian, or any minority, descent. I can’t help asking, why not? That trend seems to be present at all levels of this industry. Why can we sometimes be in the ensembles of large productions, but rarely as leads that audiences are able to see eight times a week?
Nico DeJesus, an ensemble member and swing in Pretty Woman The Musical, paints the Asian community in theater as close-knit and “supportive of everyone.” For Nico, being on Broadway is something he is extremely grateful for. It’s rewarding for him that theater “provides a space for people to escape and allows them to have feelings of joy, sadness, hope.” Nico finds inspiration among his Asian peers, like Karla Garcia (Hamilton) and Angelo Soriano (Aladdin), admitting that “I don’t put myself up there with them.”
However, as a Filipino myself, I look up to him not only as a dancer and actor, but as a genuine human. For awhile, Newsies was one of my favorite musicals to have ever graced the stage. Being able to see an actor on stage who looked like me, like Nico, made me think that I could be there one day. If Nico DeJesus can do that dance move, I can too! And that, for someone who looks up to people constantly, is what theater has provided me. I’ve dreamt of being the first Asian actor to play Ogie in Broadway’s Waitress, and having representation in Filipino actors like Nico DeJesus, Julian DeGuzman, and Aaron Albano pushes me to believe that I can.
Similarly, King Kong’s Kristen Faith Oei states that a “kind of support from within our community shows that there is huge respect for other Asian actors and their work.” Oei recently had the privilege of performing in the almost entirely Asian cast of the show Soft Power. She was completely blown away by the support that the Asian acting community gives to one another, as casts from “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians” came out to show their support.
In response to her understudy role of Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Oei feels that, through portraying characters that aren’t normally played by Asian actresses, she has added to the breaking of stereotype. I, for one, am here for it! She’s encouraged by the gratitude audience members show her for representing the Asian community on Broadway. “Asian audience members would always seem to note when there was an Asian cast member.” I have definitely done that while watching a show! Oei’s advice to young Asian actors is simple: “Be diligent, be prepared, and be perseverant.”
Nico DeJesus and Kristen Faith Oei are extremely talented performers, and I dream to achieve what they’ve been able to as Asians in the theater community. As they overcome boundaries, it gives me hope that racial stereotypes within theatrical roles will be broken as new waves of performers grace stages throughout the country. This Asian-American/Pacific Islander Month, I strive to not let my talents go to waste and let myself be proud of my cultural and ethnic background as an actor.
The theater industry has a growing number of opportunities for people of color, and I know that, just like the amazing people before me, I can go in and be the best I can be. The performers currently gracing the numerous Broadway stages in New York City and all around the country are beacons of inspiration for myself and for fellow Asian thespians. We are strong. We are resilient. We are proud to be Asian and Pacific Islander.