The King and I, Or Asians on Stage

I’ve just come back from seeing “The King and I” at Lincoln Center, and I have to admit that I thought my blog post after the show would revolve around the Kelli O’Hara-Kristin Chenoweth Tony debate. Let’s begin by stating that Tony Winner (finally!) Kelli O’Hara was not in this performance, and Betsy Morgan was. It was definitely disappointing to miss Kelli’s award-winning performance, and it took awhile for my brain to stop wondering what Kelli would do every second, but I got over it. I’ll save the Tony debate for another post.

It should be noted that I am Chinese-American and spent my four years at college very involved with student of color organizations, and I am constantly picking at diversity in the media with a fine tooth comb. As thrilled as I was about the King and I returning to Broadway, these sorts of revivals always leave me a little apprehensive. While I LOVE seeing fellow Asians on the stage (and let’s face it, that only really happens in an Asian-setting show, which is rare), shows like “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “Miss Saigon” make me uneasy. For the times they were written, I’m sure they were groundbreaking and provocative. But now, they just make me wonder why we always need the Western world to infiltrate some Asian country as an introduction to the show. And I completely understand that English-language musicals are basically written for American audiences, but it’s still troublesome to think that the only way an Asian can be on stage is only AFTER the western forces, be it military or a lowly, feminist schoolteacher, invade their worlds. (Side-note: I am so excited for “Allegiance” to come to Broadway this season, starring George Takei, Telly Leung, and my absolute favorite, Lea Salonga. A show about Asians IN America with an Asian-American creative team! Cannot wait!)

The irony of being excited over seeing Asians onstage, only to be disappointed that the one white actress I care about being out does not escape me. But I loved the production. I’ve heard rumblings about Ken Watanabe’s performance, and he was the one actor that critics seemed surprised/shocked/upset come Tony nominations, but I absolutely loved what he did in the role. If he was a native-English speaker, then I could understand if some people found his character cartoonish. But I thought him not being a native-English speaker colored the role so beautifully and his body language expressed so much. And for the critics who complained that they couldn’t understand him, most foreign-born people are hard to understand. Just think about what Anna would have gone through back in the 1800s before everyone was taught English in pre-school. And after all, isn’t part of the show all about crossing language and cultural barriers?

Ruthie Ann Miles gave a beautiful, heartbreaking performance that I won’t say too much about because everyone has been praising her and she won a Tony. I will say her last look in the show left me devastated and heartbroken when I thought I was going to make it out of the show unscathed. What a beautiful parting image. Oh, Lady Thiang, how you tugged at my heartstrings.

“How to Get Away with Murder” was one of my favorite new television shows this year, and of course I gravitated towards Conrad Ricamora because he’s Asian and you have to support your people when they finally get on screen. Needless to say, I was extra excited when I found out he was going to be making his Broadway debut with the show, then I got very concerned when his character, Oliver, was announced to be HIV-positive during the season one finale. I remember turning to my mother and saying, “they can’t kill off the only Asian on the show!” But despite having an extremely dysfunctional relationship, I absolutely love Oliver and Connor together, which I don’t know what that says about me. And I was very concerned that Oliver would get killed off or be too sick and never appear in another episode. But now that I saw, or more importantly heard, Conrad as Lun Tha, I selfishly want him to be an exclusive New York theater actor. Also, I realize that Rodgers and Hammerstein have both passed, but I really think they should have given Conrad Ricamora more material in this production.

Sadly, it’s extraordinary for more than one Asian actor to appear on the same stage this day and age. Seeing the enormous cast of Asians, especially the adorable children, was amazing. There are some shows that you don’t like but you go to represent and support in hopes that producers will continue to put Asian on stage. But “The King and I” is a beautiful production that is so deserving of the Best Musical Revival award. In fact, it’s a show I would jump at the chance to see again, especially if Ms. O’Hara makes an appearance. The show is something wonderful indeed.


One thought on “The King and I, Or Asians on Stage

  1. Yeap Allegiance is something worth looking out for. I am a huge fan of Lea Salonga, and I am also Chinese (not Chinese-American though). You’d probably deduce that from my name anyway. Yeah, my blog is all about Broadway and theatre, and it has a fair bit of Lea Salonga as well, so do check out! (In fact, a recent post of my blog was a video of me singing with her.)


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