Performers Looking for a Reflection as the Only Asian Actor in a Production of ‘Mulan’
I felt humiliated singing a song about honor when I could only feel shame. As I stood in yellowface, I had finally fulfilled my quest to become white.
If there was a Tony Award for Best Actor In Doing the Bare Minimum, I’d have a glass case full of trophies by now. One for my role as a German village boy in The Story of Hansel and Gretel , multiple awards for the many times I was a chorus member, and a highly deserved trophy for playing a literal snowflake in The Wizard of Oz .
As an Asian theatre kid in a predominantly white town, I was always the eyesore of the ensemble. Even if it was culturally inaccurate to see a little Asian boy playing Townsperson #13 in a production of Tom Sawyer , where Asian people probably didn’t exist in 1800s Missouri, I still gave those jazz squares my all because I knew my mom had dragged all of my relatives to see me flailing in the background of a low-budget community theatre production.
I was often cast in supporting or minor roles, even though I thought I was a pretty good triple threat. Either the directors didn’t know what to do with an Asian actor or my mom was giving me false compliments. Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind small roles. That wasn’t why I performed. Belting “La Vie Boheme” at cast parties (in a suburban Applebee’s) with cast members, as makeup residue stained our faces, made it all worth it.
For a few nights, we felt like the biggest stars in our small town and no one could take that feeling away from us. From fourth to twelfth grade, theatre gave me a sense of belonging, something I struggled to find with my Asian identity. To avoid being seen as just an Asian kid, I hid behind makeup and costumes as I morphed into other characters.
During my senior year of high school, the community theatre in my hometown announced auditions for Mulan. I was ecstatic because this was going to be my big break. I was the only Asian actor within a thirty-mile radius, which already made me the most qualified actor to play the title role. I imagined audience members lining up to adorn me with flowers and praise after each show.
Being queer and Asian, Mulan was the closest thing I had to representation. As a kid, I would take my mom’s magenta scarf and wrap it around my head as if I had a head full of long locks, steal incense from our ancestor shrine, and reenact “Reflection” in the three-panel bathroom mirror. The dramatic montage scene where she cuts her hair and transforms into a soldier liberated me from a feeling of repression that I was too young to know I felt.
My family practiced Shamanism and, as part of our Hmong culture, worshipped our ancestors—just like Mulan did. Although I didn’t fully understand the practice as a kid, I did know that it was a way for me to communicate with ancestors whom I’d never met. I watched Mulan pray to her ancestors, and so I did the same.
Ask and you shall receive, I did. As a gesture of thanks, you must sacrifice a small animal like a pig or a chicken and cook a meal for your ancestors. Pretty soon, my parents realized that all their efforts into preparing these meals were because I had found a way to bargain with my ancestors. I would pray for the newest Hilary Duff CD while promising them free food. My parents were putting God’s kitchen out of work.
Praying before auditions became a ritual, and it ended up working in my favor. About a week after callbacks, I received the long-awaited phone call from the director. “Phillipe,” he said. “I’m very happy to cast you in the role of Yao.” I didn’t even know who the character was, but I enthusiastically thanked him for the opportunity and immediately looked the name up on Google. I would be playing the short and temperamental soldier with the black eye, famously voiced by Harvey Fierstein in the animated Disney movie.
I walked into the first rehearsal the next week with a scratchy voice from channeling my inner Fierstein, feeling fully prepared. “It’s Mulan!” a cast member shouted as he pointed at me. I chuckled along with the rest of the room, but didn’t get the joke. Shortly after taking a seat for the table read, I understood the punchline. It was me. I was the only Asian actor while everyone else in the cast was white.
The actress playing Mulan was a short brown-haired girl. Her dark hair and olive complexion made her apparently the most fit to take on the lead role. Shang was played by a tall and broad-shouldered white boy who looked like he skipped the awkward stage of puberty. The Emperor was portrayed by a scrawny blonde kid, and the actor playing Shan Yu must’ve thought he was a Klingon from Star Trek .
I quickly developed a crush on the lead actor playing Shang. I wanted him to notice me, and so I said yes when he asked if he could call me “Rice.” Other cast members soon picked up on the nickname.
“Is it offensive if I say this?” they would ask before making an Asian joke that I’d probably already heard.
It’s fine , I thought. Because my brothers and I were among the few Asian kids at school, I’d been “other” for most of my life. I was thirsty for a sense of belonging. For once, everyone was obsessed with my Asianness instead of making me want to hide it. I was the mandarin duck in a pond full of mallards, and I was going to let my feathers show. Becoming a caricature of myself was my golden ticket into their world.
Becoming a caricature of myself was my golden ticket into their world.
To be Asian American is to constantly choose between being seen or staying invisible. In middle school, I would place slits of Scotch tape in the creases of my eyelids to make my eyes appear larger than they actually were. In ninth grade, I dyed my hair with a box of cheap blonde hair dye from Walmart. Little did I know that mixing blonde with black hair would have me looking like a Chucky doll with orange splotches on my head. In the summers, I refused to go outside in order to preserve the paleness of my skin. I thought I was erasing my Asianness in order to become white, but it was only manifesting itself as internalized racism.
A few years prior, the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis put on the same production of Mulan . The lead actress was Korean American, but the show received backlash among the Asian American theatre community for having a mostly white cast. We, on the other hand, were a small theatre company in rural Wisconsin; our white-washed version roamed freely within the confines of our town.
My family saw it as just another show that I was in, but my high school thespian troupe were skeptics. My friend, who was Vietnamese, thought I was foolish for joining my colonizers. It hurt to not have the support from one of the few Asian actors I knew. Yet, I continued on with the show. I was Asian, so therefore I wasn’t doing anything wrong. When there are already so few opportunities to play a character that resembles you, it’s easy to take what you can get because you never know if you’ll get that opportunity ever again.
On opening night, I felt both nerves and excitement knowing my family and friends were in the audience. The makeup artist called me into the dressing room so that she could transform me into Yao. She lathered a thick layer of spirit gum (faux hair glue) onto my face and attached a scruffy beard onto it. The glue burned as it seeped into my pores, but I instantly felt fifty years older. With a brush, she carefully combined different shades of purple and blended them into a black eye.
“One last finishing touch,” she said before I could get up from the makeup chair. She applied black eyeliner to the ends of my eyes and drew little squint lines.
I stared at myself in the mirror, but didn’t recognize who I was. Not because I was hiding behind a beard and a full layer of makeup, but because I had allowed someone to draw on an identity that was already my own. One I had spent so long trying to wipe away. I walked into the green room and saw the rest of the cast in their makeup and costumes. All these white kids had squinty eyeliner marks on their eyes, sprayed on black hair dye, kimonos, and chopsticks in their hair. It felt like we were in Chinatown and I was the golden cat waving at the entrance.
“Places in five!” the stage manager announced over the intercom.
I quickly prayed to my ancestors for a successful performance, which I did before every show, and ran to stage left. As my castmates and I giggled at how silly we looked behind the curtains, I overheard a group of actors whispering nearby.
“Yeah, Charlie was actually cast as Yao, but had to turn down the role because of some conflict.”
Charlie was white. He was another theatre kid I grew up doing shows with. His smart comedic timing and ability to impersonate famous character voices always landed him big roles in productions. The more I eavesdropped, the more I learned that I was the director’s second choice for Yao. Here I was in an itchy beard and breaking out from all the heavy stage makeup, when it should’ve been Charlie.
How would he have done Harvey Fierstein’s voice? I thought to myself.
The lights came on and the erhu, a traditional Chinese violin, began to play. I marched onto the stage with my chest out and shoulders back, embodying a masculine soldier as best as I could. Our set was extravagant: The backdrop was a watercolor painting of mountains, two giant pagodas stood on each end of the stage, and red banners with painted Chinese characters hung from the ceiling.
I expected to feel seen on that stage as the only Asian actor, but the spotlight wasn’t on me. As I robotically contorted my body into fake tai chi poses while the sounds of the erhu and gongs echoed in the background, I felt like Panda Express takeout being served on a silver platter.
Standing frozen on that stage with nowhere to hide, I was forced to lie in the bed I had made. All this time, I thought I had earned my role because of my acting abilities, when in reality I was just there to fill a diversity quota of one. I felt humiliated singing a song about honor when I could only feel shame. In that moment, as I stood in yellowface, I had finally fulfilled my quest to become white.
Photograph courtesy of Phillipe Thao
After the show, my castmates and I greeted audience members in the lobby. I watched as Mulan and Shang took photos and signed autographs for the little kids, wishing I was doing that. Instead, my friends gave me a hug and told me that it was the most offensive piece of theatre they had ever seen.
“You were great,” they began. “But I can’t believe they did Mulan with all white people.” What was supposed to be the peak of my acting career turned into a joke.
During the last weekend of performances, the younger cast members have a tradition of putting on a skit in which they parody each of the senior members. We had just finished our matinee performance and were on break before the evening show. All of the seniors sat in the audience and watched our fellow actors get on stage, giddying in preparation to roast us.
As the skit began, I anticipated who would play me and what jokes they would make. After all, I was pretty popular among the cast, so there must be a plethora of things to make fun of me for. I watched as inside jokes were acted out and wondered when it would be my turn to get roasted.
All of a sudden, someone started playing stereotypical Chinese-sounding chords on the piano. Dundundundun-dun-dun . . . dun . . . dun . . . dun! One of the actors stepped forward with his eyes closed and hands clasped together in a prayer.
“I’m Phirripe !” he exclaimed before bowing down to the audience. Everyone bursted into howls as I sat in my seat fighting back tears.
The production wrapped and I went on with the rest of my senior year. I graduated high school that following summer and moved to Chicago. Before giving my Facebook to new college friends, I untagged myself from all the Mulan photos.
After the soldiers learn that Mulan is really a woman, she is disrobed and left to fend for herself. As she sits in front of a fire wrapped up in a blanket, she looks at her reflection in her father’s helmet.
“Maybe I didn’t go for my father,” she says. “Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile. But I was wrong. I see nothing.”
I spent many nights, lying in the beds of white men, feeling the same way I felt on that stage, doubting the reason I was there. My existence was diminishing. And so, I began to decolonize my mind by reading and writing about my identity, one that I had been complicit in erasing.
I began to decolonize my mind by reading and writing about my identity, one that I had been complicit in erasing.
A professor recommended the book A View from the Bottom by Nguyen Tan Hoang, which taught me to think about Asian masculinity and my own sexual representation outside of whiteness. I became more vocal about my queer Asian experience on Twitter, and that connected me to a network of other queer Asians going through the same journey. My friend Gilary and I started our own podcast, What’s The Bubble Tea? , about growing up Asian American and turned our pain into conversations that began to heal us.
I was responsible for my own internalized racism, but it was also rooted in being socially conditioned into a white society. My process of unlearning led me to reconnect with my roots by traveling to Laos and seeing where my family came from—a place that only existed in the corner of my imagination from hearing my parents’ stories about their homeland before the Vietnam War.
Back in the States, my mom spent weeks hand-sewing two traditional Hmong outfits for my boyfriend and I to wear to the Hmong New Year together. The stitches in the embroidery that decorated our bodies also mended the different parts of my identity. As we walked throughout the new year celebration hand in hand, it was a costume that I was proud to wear because I finally felt like my authentic self as a gay Hmong American man.
Mulan saves China as herself and earns the respect of the Chinese army and her family. While I began to reclaim my Asian identity, I realized that a seat with white people was not what I wanted. I desired to feel seen among my people, to see myself in my reflection. Performing Asianness for a white gaze only makes us invisible.
Validation comes not from the dominant group in society, but from reclaiming what we’ve erased. To do that, you have to cast yourself in the role that you want because you are your own audience. I think I’ve finally found the role for me.
Photograph courtesy of Phillipe Thao