The 2017 Oscar nominations came out this week, and much was made about how diverse the nominees were. Out of the 20 acting nominees, seven are people of color; six of African descent and one of Indian descent. While this is encouraging, it is clear that much work still needs to be done to promote the visibility of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) talent. As this blog has argued in the past, APIA talent is not in short supply, but opportunities for them often seem to be.
This February, JANM will host live tapings of a new series aimed at providing a platform for exciting APIA comedic talent. Comedy InvAsian presents six APIA actors and comedians doing one-hour standup sets in front of a live audience. Each set will be professionally filmed for later digital television broadcast.
The series will kick off on Friday evening, February 10, at 9 p.m. with a set from Paul “PK” Kim, a regular at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory and founder of the APIA networking group Kollaboration. It will end on Sunday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Amy Hill, a longtime film and television actress known for her roles on 50 First Dates, Seinfeld, All-American Girl, King of the Hill, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Amazon Studio’s Just Add Magic, among many other credits. For a complete schedule, with links to purchase tickets, visit this page.
Comedy InvAsian was founded by writers/directors Quentin Lee and Koji Steven Sakai (the latter was also formerly JANM’s Vice President of Programs). As the two state on their website: “In our filmmaking career, we have met and become friends with so many talented comedians of color, from producing Dwayne Perkins in Take Note to directing Randall Park in The People I’ve Slept With to working with Paul Kim in the Comedy Ninja Film Festival to directing Amy Hill in White Frog and The Unbidden. Comedy InvAsian will celebrate the talent and comedy of a group of select and diverse Asian American comedians which should prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.”
The two already have a distributor, Viva Pictures, and are vying to get on a popular digital platform like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. The latter recently produced Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, which became an enormous hit for the longtime comedy writer and standup artist. Lee and Sakai hope that Comedy InvAsian will also become a hit, so that they can continue to spotlight the many great APIA comedians that they know. Come support them by attending a live taping at JANM in February!
This Sunday, August 21, at 2 p.m., JANM is pleased to host a unique staged reading of Arthur Miller’s iconic drama, “Death of a Salesman.” Directed by Michael Miraula and produced by Tadamori Yagi, the reading will feature a predominantly Asian American cast as it attempts to explore minority relations within the larger context of mainstream white America in the late 1950s.
To learn more about this production, we conducted the following interview with Yagi, an LA–based actor who, in addition to producing this reading, also plays the role of Biff, Willy Loman’s son.
JANM: How did this production of “Death of a Salesman” come about?
Tadamori Yagi: I really wanted to work on this play; specifically, I wanted to act the role of Biff. When considering how best to go about this, I immediately realized two things: 1) Willy’s family would have to be cast as Asian American, and 2) I’d probably have to produce it myself.
It all seemed like a huge, impossible undertaking. But then I found an article about a group of students at the Stanford Asian American Theater Project who produced their own version of “Death of a Salesman” in 2013. After reading it, I said to myself, “I should at least do something!” Since I didn’t have the experience or resources to do a full production of the play, I decided to go with a staged reading instead.
JANM: Tell us about the structure of the play. Who will be playing what roles, and how does the casting work with the existing narrative?
TY: The play consists of two acts centering around the life of a traveling salesman named Willy Loman and his pursuit of success and the American Dream. Time-wise, it takes place in the late 1950s.
When casting the play it was important to me that the family be an accurate portrayal of a multi-ethnic Asian American family. The reason for this was personal, as I am Japanese-Chinese-Korean American. The actor who plays Willy (Kelvin Han Yee) is Chinese American while Willy’s wife Linda (Marilyn Tokuda) is Japanese American. Meanwhile, the actors playing the sons, Happy (Kenzo Lee) and Biff (myself), both have mixed Chinese and Japanese ethnicity.
APIA actors are often cast randomly without regards to their actual ethnicity but, for a family drama, I felt casting accurately would make it feel more authentic. I also decided to cast Willy’s neighbor Charlie (William Gabriel Grier) and his son Bernard (Ky Soto) with African American actors. Through these unconventional casting choices, I wanted to subvert social stereotypes of both the Asian American and African American communities—challenging, for example, the Asian American model minority myth.
It was also important to me that the casting of the play be historically and culturally accurate. For example, I consciously made the choice to cast Willy Loman as Chinese American; if he were Japanese American, he and his family would have been interned during the war years and he would not have been able to work as a traveling salesman.
Likewise, before I cast Charlie’s family as African American I made sure to research whether or not there were actually black lawyers presenting cases before the Supreme Court at that time. Luckily it turned out that during the late 1950s, there was a small number of black lawyers presenting civil rights cases before the Supreme Court—one of them being future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Historical accuracy and authenticity are important to me.
JANM: “Whitewashing” (the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles) has been increasingly called out in the media. Do you consider this version of Arthur Miller’s play to be your response to whitewashing in the entertainment industry?
TY: While I did not explicitly intend for the casting to be a response to “whitewashing,” I suppose it could be interpreted that way.
JANM: What do you hope will be the audience’s takeaway after seeing your play?
TY: I hope this reading of the play will resonate with the audience in such a way that some will recognize aspects of themselves or their own families in the play.
JANM: Are there other iconic plays or films that you think would benefit from a similar treatment?
TY: I love period pieces and I love family dramas. I picked “Death of a Salesman” because, in addition to being a compelling drama, it has an inherent universality that can accommodate an ethnically diverse cast. I’m sure there are tons of other iconic plays that could work, especially the more modern ones, like “The Odd Couple,” “Of Mice and Men,” or “Waiting for Godot.”
Ironically, for all the pains I took to cast the play in a “realistic” way, what I took away from the whole process was this: if you love the material and it speaks to you on a human and personal level, the other details don’t really matter so much. As a creative person you should just do the work and you will find a way to make it fit somehow. And if you can’t find a story that adequately fits your experience, you should create your own story, because getting to do the work you love is the main thing.
Tadamori Yagi’s staged reading of “Death of a Salesman” is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.
Dumbfoundead, whose given name is Jonathan Park, is a Korean American rapper. Born in Buenos Aires, “DFD” was raised in LA’s Koreatown. At the age of 10, he got his first exposure to hip hop at a community center in MacArthur Park. He further honed his craft at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop in Leimert Park. He began to achieve renown after participating in the West Coast division of the rap battle Grind Time Now. Today he has a strong presence on YouTube, where he has over 400,000 followers, and has released three solo albums to date.
Dumbfoundead will be headlining JANM’s outdoor Summer Night Concert on Thursday, August 18, along with other hip hop and electronic music stars. Our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in production, Michael Chang, conducted the following interview with the rapper via email.
Michael Chang: What drew you to music, specifically hip hop and rap, as a way to express yourself creatively?
Dumbfoundead: There was always an “I don’t give a ____” attitude that came with rap music. I feel like I can say whatever I want when I rhyme it over a beat. There’s a lot of power in music. Hip hop as a genre specifically has always been rebellious and DIY, and I like that aspect of it—it makes something out of nothing.
MC: As a creative person, what do you think makes Los Angeles a unique place to work?
DFD: We have so many little neighborhoods, and each one makes you feel like you’re stepping into another country. Being in this city really is the definition of the American experience; I feel like I learn more every day about different cultures and how unique everybody is, which helps me write universal stories and songs.
MC: Do you think LA is more conducive to a thriving scene for artists of color?
DFD: I love that LA is as diverse as it is. The community of AAPI entertainers here is bigger than anywhere else in the world and I definitely do not take that for granted. I think it’s important that we tell the stories of our people with all the outlets we have here. I know when I tour the Midwest I get a lot of AAPI artists coming up to me and talking about the lack of creative outlets in their town.
MC: The music video for your song “Safe” critiques how Hollywood erases and ignores AAPI identities in mainstream media. Do you think executives, directors, and other people in power inside the entertainment/media industry do this with intent or more subconsciously?
DFD: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s almost a new idea to throw us into leading roles and in some cases they can’t even imagine us playing those characters. In other cases, they aren’t willing to take the chance because they think white actors are a safer bet for box office success. We need more people of color behind the scenes—writers, producers, directors, and executives—pushing our stories forward. We can’t just wait for those roles to come along, or expect them to be written by people who don’t know anything about our experiences. We have to write our own stories.
MC: Looking into the future, are there any other media or disciplines you’d like to explore?
DFD: I would love to write, direct, and act in films. TV and films have always been big passions of mine and there are so many stories that still need to be told. For right now though, I’ll settle for writing treatments for my music videos [laughs].