What Broadway meant for a Malaysian Chinese actor, and how that fire died

As a Malaysian Chinese actor, I’d dream vividly about how it’d be my turn to be on a Broadway stage one day, singing my heart out. But how did these dreams die even before the pandemic?

When Broadway closed their curtains due to the pandemic, it seemed like the world of theatre crumbled for actors, tech, crew members, and stage managers alike. I haven’t seen a Broadway show in a long time, but seeing the effects of this pandemic hits me hard as a Malaysian Chinese actor who still dreams of being on Broadway one day. 

Growing up, I had the privilege of attending Broadway musicals. I’d dream vividly about how it’d be my turn to be on a Broadway stage one day, singing my heart out. But how did these dreams die even before the pandemic?

Igniting a Passion

I wanted to be an actor more than anything, especially one who could sing and dance. During middle school, I heard “Defying Gravity” for the first time on Glee, and fell in love with its lyrics. For a girl who always loved fairy tales and movies about friendship and romance, this was the first time I got the message that you could make a stand for yourself even when no one was on your side. 

When I heard the original version by Idina Menzel, I thought she had the most beautiful voice in the world, and vied for such a powerful voice one day too — one that could tell a story, stir emotions, and make myself feel like I could fly. This interest brought me to Wicked, and I was hooked on Broadway musicals from there.

Watching Broadway shows and listening to music would be the only times I could feel emotional as I was often conditioned to hide and bottle my feelings. Growing up, I felt depressed and developed anxiety from bullying. My parents never sat down to speak to me about how to deal with sadness, anger, or even racism, so I could never speak to them about my mental health. 

It didn’t help that I didn’t even speak the same language as them; they didn’t speak English well, and I certainly didn’t know how to communicate in Cantonese. During these times, I felt so isolated because there was no one I could speak to without the fear of being seen as “weak” or “sensitive”.

Because of this, acting on stage became an act of self-discovery for me, as well as a sacred place where it was perfectly acceptable to show genuine emotions and feel everything I wanted to feel. Whenever I got on stage, I never felt more alive and present.

Photo Credit: In Full Color

See also: Mental health support for the Asian Canadian community and beyond

Discovering the Real Broadway

After high school, I became a theatre arts college graduate, and aspired to play Broadway characters of every type, from the dreamer Cinderella to the infamous Abigail Williams. I wanted to prove that I could be many different things, that I was multi-talented, and that my passion would carve out a place where I would thrive and be happy that I could do what I love for a livelihood.

However, in my theatre college classes, I discovered that my professors often used whiteness as an objective lens, forgoing any colour-consciousness. White playwrights were put on a pedestal, whereas playwrights of colour would get only a passing mention, or have their works relegated to the suggested readings section in the syllabus. 

Outside the classroom, the most inclusive spaces I felt safe in were events put together by students of colour themselves, rather than the administration. My college has made it on the news for discrimination towards its students, and I have heard many stories during my enrolment about my school’s systemic racism, favouritism, sexism, ableism, harassment, and sizeism. These problems are not solely exclusive to my school, but rather rooted in the history and biased language of theatre education and production.

Photo Credit: In Full Color

As I continued to build my portfolio by auditioning for films and theatre productions, the casual racism never stopped. All my life, I’ve had strangers and school peers inappropriately question my race and pass their microaggressive judgements on me — all because of a face I never had the choice of choosing.

Eventually, midway through college, the fire for Broadway within me died. I’m still not sure exactly why or how. Perhaps, as I learned about intersectionality and social justice, I became disenchanted with the industry. There are many things that theatre needs more of that I wasn’t taught in college, like intimacy coordination, colour consciousness, and sensitivity readings.

Looking Beyond the Stage

With the pandemic, theatre has pivoted to virtual spaces. Performances, festivals, and concerts are live streamed, and performing arts classes are now conducted online. In a way, theatre and art classes have become more accessible because of this.

From calling out anti-Asian racism to supporting Black Lives Matter, actors in the industry are also confronting the corrupt systems present in theatre collectives and beyond. I’ve also seen more opportunities for Asian actors in recent years, especially with shows like Aladdin, Allegiance, The King and I, Miss Saigon, and M. Butterfly, in spite of the problematic history behind some of them. 

The author with David Henry Hwang, playwright of M. Butterfly, Chinglish, and more. Photo Submitted.

There is so much to dismantle, but we must keep going. From whitewashed roles to white producers keeping marginalized groups misrepresented in the media through caricature, we need to hold the performing arts industry accountable. As I see this movement for a better and more inclusive industry, I’ve realized that these acts of transformative justice are akin to defying gravity itself.

I may have become disenchanted with Broadway, but I am hopeful for a day where I can sing on stage, untethered by the industry’s limiting and oppressive standards. Art should be liberating. It should work to remove barriers, uplift marginalized people, open minds and hearts, and explore what it means to be human. 

As more people strive for an antiracist theatre world, I hope that one day Broadway can love me and other marginalized folks back.

See also: Virtuoso in the virtual – how a musician adapts to the virtual space from the physical stage

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