On October 2, JANM hosted a staged reading of Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime drama, Reservoir Dogs. Organized by a group called No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), the reading had a unique twist—all of the parts in the macho, all-male, all-Caucasian drama were read by Asian American actresses. Elaine Kao played Mr. Blond; Jully Lee played Mr. Pink; Rosie Narasaki was Nice Guy Eddie; Sharon Omi was ringleader Joe Cabot; Grace Su portrayed Mr. Orange; Tamlyn Tomita stepped in as Mr. White; and Jolene Kim voiced a variety of smaller roles, including the cop in the iconic ear-slicing scene.
According to the organizers, finding a suitable all-female vehicle was difficult, so they decided to choose from the many all-male films in the canon and enact a gender swap. The stripped-down event had each of the actresses reading her part from a script while standing at a lectern. A disembodied narrator’s voice (West Liang, who was also the director) provided the deejay’s lines that open the film, and went on to narrate the action sequences, which, with a few notable exceptions, were not physically acted out by the actresses.
Watching this brutal, expletive-laden drama unfold in the hands of highly capable APIA actresses—who are typically cast by Hollywood as roommates or best friends in romantic comedies, if at all—was a jarring and fascinating experience. The film opens with a casually vulgar chat among the group of criminals, in which they debate the real meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The actresses bit into this semi-sexist dialogue with gusto, spitting out their lines without hesitation or self-consciousness. They then maintained this level of vigor for the entire reading.
The quality of the acting was excellent throughout, which made the narrative convincing in spite of the gender incongruity at play. Tomita was clearly channeling Harvey Keitel, who played her character in the film, as she deepened her voice and wore a simple white blazer over black pants to enhance her masculine presence. She and Omi were the elders of the group, and they were well cast as the two older men in the film; as Joe Cabot, Omi did a great job emanating the gravitas of an “old mob boss.” In a nice touch, Omi’s own daughter, Rosie Narasaki, played Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie.
Perhaps the most intriguing bit of acting, and the best physical realization of a scene, belonged to Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond. With a nice smile and a proper air about her, Kao seems to be the polar opposite of the creepy, psychopathic Michael Madsen character in every way. (In fact, she had a bit role as a blushing soon-to-be-bride in Bridesmaids.) Kao used this dichotomy to her advantage, however, managing to conjure a sinister darkness just below the surface of her sunny smile. The infamous scene in which Mr. Blond tortures and ultimately slices the ear off of Jolene Kim’s hapless cop was the most physically articulated in the entire reading, and both of the actresses played it with relish.
Overall, this staged reading was highly entertaining and stimulating. The gender disconnect between the actors and their characters threw the conventions of masculinity and femininity into high relief. At the same time, the excellence of the acting proved that there is, indeed, “no shortage of Asian talent,” and made a strong case for taking more risks in casting APIA actors. Hollywood, are you listening?
This all-APIA reading was the second organized by No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), a group formed to showcase up-and-coming Asian talent and combat Hollywood’s seeming refusal to give major movie roles to APIA actors. Their first project was an all-APIA reading of Glengarry Glen Ross, which took place last year. Look for more all-APIA readings of iconic films, coming soon from this group.