From an Asian perspective
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"When I first went in to audition for 'How To Get Away with Murder,' it wasn't a part written for an Asian actor," says Conrad Ricamora, the gay actor who plays Oliver Hampton, a gay HIV+ lawyer on the hit CBS series. Ricamora will be in San Francisco through July 8 as part of the cast of the new musical "Soft Power" at the Curran Theatre.
"The guy who auditioned right before me was white, and the guy after me was black. To me, casting like that is an important breakthrough in American pop culture," says the 39-year-old. "The character's story has nothing to do with his Asian-ness. It's felt good to be a part of this kind of representation. When I was a kid, I saw all of these demeaning stereotypes, like Long Duk Dong in '16 Candles.'"
Along with the progress indicated by an increase in colorblind casting, Ricamora is also pleased to be part of a major production like "Soft Power," by playwright David Henry Hwang and fellow Tony winner, composer Jean Tesori, that is addressing Asian and Asian American perspectives in a far more nuanced manner than past works of musical theater.
"This is very different than being in 'Miss Saigon' or 'The King and I,'" both of which Ricamora has done. "'Soft Power' is written from the perspective of an Asian person. When you watch 'The King & I,' you're looking at the Asian characters through the eyes of white people. They represent 'the other' to the white characters. 'Soft Power' actually gets the audience to look through Asian eyes and see the otherness of the white world of the U.S."
Among the show's almost indescribable interwoven plotlines, set in the present and 100 years in the future, is the story of China becoming the world's dominant power in the wake of the 2016 election. An actress playing Hilary Clinton sings and dances. The majority of the cast is Asian American, but many of the characters they play are citizens of China. Ricamora recognizes some deeply embedded ironies in that fact.
"I was called 'chink' all the time growing up," says Ricamora, whose father, an adoptee, is assumed to be of Filipino descent. His mother has Irish and German bloodlines. "The cast of this play includes actors with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean and Hawaiian backgrounds," he says. "White America tends to lump all Asians together.
"In 'Soft Power,' I play a Chinese character," Ricamora explains. "But the play doesn't try to explore the Chinese psyche; it focuses on what it's like to encounter the racism and stereotypes that are traditionally placed on all Asians and Asian-Americans."
Ricamora was raised by his father, who worked for the U.S. Air Force, after being abandoned by his mother when he was seven months old. Growing up in the macho environment of military bases, he never imagined he would be an actor.
"If you were artistic, you were ridiculed and shamed," Ricamora recalls. He channeled his restless energy playing competitive tennis. "I grew up idolizing tennis players. Being an athlete was a way to avoid having my ass kicked all the time."
It was not until his junior year of college, where he was a psychology major, that Ricamora took an elective theater class and had an epiphany.
"We had to do monologues, and I chose a piece from Lanford Wilson's 'Lemon Sky.' The character is talking about being estranged from his biological father, and I connected with that, thinking about first meeting my mother when I was 8 years old.
"I stood on that stage with a sense of authority and just ripped into it. There was this huge electricity. The whole room went dead silent. And I was like 'Holy shit! This is for me.'"
It was also not until his junior year that Ricamora began to open up to his own sexuality.
"Allowing myself to do theater and to come out were related," he says. "I was paying my own tuition. I wasn't dependent on my family. And I thought, if I'm paying for myself I really should be myself. Ultimately, I don't really think it's possible to make genuine connections with other people unless we're true to ourselves."
Today, while Ricamora sees progress being made in portrayals of gay men and Asian Americans in theater and film, he is painfully aware that the two are rarely seen in a single character.
"The experience of gay Asian men just hasn't been shown in mainstream media," he says. "It's incredibly important to me. There were years of online dating where I'd get messages and blocks from white guys who wanted to totally rule me out of their world just because I was Asian."
Ricamora and two friends from the theater world are currently working to assure that the gay Asian-American experience doesn't remain hidden. They're four episodes into the writing of a serial called "No Rice."
Soft Power plays the Curran Theatre June 20-July 8. sfcurran.com.