Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Would-Be Stage Career Remembered

She raised her arms to the heavens with exhilaration and cried, “Hallelujah!” And I felt the tears forming – not in my eyes, but in my chest, where my heart squeezed at the sight of a strong woman who lived in sacrifice finally getting something she’d dreamed about for years, if not her entire life.

Moments later, the house lights came up. Intermission at the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of A Raisin in the Sun.

I love the stage. It’s where I discovered my love of acting and my true path in life. It all began on the boards of MIT where I performed several plays as an alumna. Rehearsing was a joy – a challenging yet fulfilling process of breaking down a character, exploring choices, playing with text, and collaborating with a team to create a performance. Acting made me so happy back then. Stepping on stage was like coming home to a place I never thought could exist for me.

When I ventured into the world of stage work in Boston, I learned a hard lesson. There is no career to be had as an Asian-American stage actress. It’s not a racist thing – there just aren’t that many roles in published plays for non-black, ethnic actresses. Even in a fantastic theater town like Boston, my options were limited.

I wasn’t enough of a triple threat to break out of the chorus in musical theater. Auditioning for all the Irish plays being produced in town was just a waste of my time. One director told me after an audition that she’d love to cast me, but couldn’t find another Asian-American actress to play my sister. I was mostly cast in new, avant-garde works, which often weren’t the best-written pieces of drama out there. I played a few good roles – Connie Wong in A Chorus Line and Leann in A Piece of My Heart – but soon realized I just couldn’t make a living on the stage.

So I set my sights on the world of film and television, which eventually took me to Los Angeles. And I’ve been enormously blessed to work as much as I have since coming here. I’ve met and worked with big names, been paid very well for a day’s work, and settled into my nurse/doctor/reporter niche.

But when I see a brilliant piece of theater like A Raisin in the Sun, my heart aches for the process of live theater that isn’t part of my life anymore. For the experience of creating a performance that moves people, makes them think, inspires laughter and tears. Where I’m more than just a piece of exposition that serves the plot.

My experience working in television just isn’t the same. Most of my roles are one or two lines – at most a two-page scene in which I’m checking on a patient’s condition. There still aren’t many theater roles for Asian-Americans in Los Angeles, and even when there are, I don’t have enough training or pedigree to compete with the sea of Asian-American actresses who’ve been on Broadway or studied with Uta Hagen herself. Nor do I have time and money to invest in a membership theater company in order to earn the right to audition. I audition when I can, but I’ve been focusing on my on-camera career for the last eight years. I left my stage career behind in Boston.

So although I love finding exceptional productions like A Raisin in the Sun, they always make me nostalgic for a life on the stage. Hopefully, someday, I’ll get back to that world myself.


  1. What a moving, poignant piece! I was never an actress, but I feel as you do about the stage. Perhaps someday you'll write yourself your own fabulous role? - Michele Po