U.S.-Korean takes major role in local productionThe position of Asian-Americans in the U.S. entertainment scene has advanced greatly, as demonstrated by Lucy Liu of “Charlie’s Angels” and Sandra Oh of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Still, it’s not easy to be an Asian-American actor in the Western melting pot.
“There is not so much written specifically for Asian-Americans, while there is a lot [scripted] for Americans,” said Michael Lee, an actor who identifies himself as an American of Korean heritage. Lee was cast as Chris, an American soldier in the Vietnam War, in the Korean production of the musical “Miss Saigon.” The two-month-long show ended its run on Aug. 20 at the Seongnam Arts Center and Lee is waiting for the show to restart Thursday at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul.
There is also persistent fear among producers and directors that audiences might be confused by seeing Asian-Americans on stage or screen, Lee said, although in reality, they soon realize that the characters are just Americans who might have been their neighbors and schoolmates.
Because Asian American actors are not viewed as “Americans” first, the roles they get are usually limited to martial arts experts, waiters, gangsters, scientists and mathematicians.
“The idea of what it means to be American, that is still in most people’s minds in America, is to be Caucasian. We are still perceived as foreigners,” Lee said.
However, the Asian-American acting community is finding a niche in the industry. Lee said, calling it “an exciting time.” The ethnic Asian community is beginning to tell its own stories as was done in the African-American acting community about 30 years ago and the Hispanic one about 15 years ago. He said he knows a number of Asian-American playwrights and actors who write and perform to share their own stories to be heard and represented.
Lee, however, didn’t just apply for the role in the Korean production because he lacked roles in the United States. He previously played Thuy, a Vietnamese patriot in “Miss Saigon” in 1995, both Simon and Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Aladdin in the Disney musical “Aladdin.”
Through a mutual friend, Lee met Chung Myung-kun, the head of “Miss Saigon” producer, KCMI, and discussed the Korean version of the musical last year. During their conversation, the two discussed casting an American who looked Korean as the lead character, alongside the otherwise Korean cast. That’s how Lee became involved in the show. After three months of auditions, the creative team from London chose Lee, which was a moment that both thrilled and scared him, Lee said. “From an actor’s perspective, it’s a huge challenge to play [Chris] who doesn’t know where he is, who he’s protecting, why he is there,” he said. “But that was a big challenge that I was willing to do,” he added with a smile.
by Park Sung-ha
“Miss Saigon” runs from Thursday to Oct. 1. Shows start at 8 p.m. weekdays, and at 2 and 7 p.m. on weekends. There are no shows on Mondays. Tickets cost from 33,000 won ($34) to 121,000 won from Tuesdays to Thursdays, and from 44,000 won to 132,000 won from Fridays to Sundays. Students can purchase tickets on the day at a 50-percent discount two hours before the show starts. The discount is limited to B (60,000 won) and C (40,000 won) seats. For more information, call (02) 518-7343 or visit www.miss-saigon.co.kr.