Vive la différence! — Queer actors of color in "Les Misérables" at the Orpheum

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 27, 2023
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Haley Dortch as Fantine in 'Les Misérables' <br>(photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Haley Dortch as Fantine in 'Les Misérables'
(photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

"It's like throwing a baby in a pool!" said Christine Heesun Hwang, 24, describing the experience of leaving Ithaca College midway through her undergraduate studies to jump into the cast of an in-progress national tour of "Miss Saigon" in 2019.

Haley Dortch, 21, began her professional life with similar splash, departing the University of Michigan after sophomore year to play Fantine in the latest touring production of "Les Miserables," which opens an engagement at the Orpheum Theater on July 5. Old-timer Hwang is also in the cast, playing Éponine.

The two queer actors of color spoke to the Bay Area Reporter by phone last week about beginning their work lives in constant motion.

"I was learning how to live on the road at the same time I was learning how to just be an adult at all," recalled Hwang of the few months she spent traveling with "Miss Saigon" before the pandemic sent her new career into unexpected intermission.

"I'd never had to think about a 401K or housing or insurance. I really got those lessons on my feet."

Hwang said that during the time she spent with her family in Seattle during the shutdown, the fact that she'd fulfilled a longtime dream of becoming a professional actor really sunk in with her.

"On the road, you're so tired that it's easy to forget that you've been given this amazing opportunity. I also got back in touch with why I was doing it in the first place and how much I love the theater. I spent so much time on the internet going down these crazy rabbit holes of fandom. I also had a chance to sit with myself and think about the kind of life I hope to lead in the next few years."

Christine Heesun Hwang as Éponine in 'Les Misérables' (photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)  

Setting an example
Hwang, who has been out since she was 16, has realized that she can use her platform as a performer to reach out to kids, particularly Asian-Americans, whose family dynamics can make coming out — and careers in the arts — feel particularly challenging.

In the program for "Les Misérables," she pointedly identifies herself as "a queer Korean American."

"I put it in my bio to try and make a little difference. To let younger people know that you can be queer; that you can make a career out of performing. A lot of people forget how difficult it can be for kids in some of these smaller cities we visit," said Hwang about a tour with stops that include Appleton, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; and El Paso, Texas.

"I really admire Christine for doing that," said Dortch, who spent her own childhood in Texas. "I wish I did more. It's something I'm trying to navigate, because I'm a new member of the queer community. I've known at least since I was in high school, but I just came out to my parents last June, just a few months before the tour started. But I look forward to creating more space for young queer artists as my career progresses."

Settling into one's identity while living an itinerant lifestyle is doubtless a challenge.

"I was so frustrated that all of the Pride activities in the cities we've been touring have been during times we're on stage," said Dortch. "But in Seattle, the apartment building where I was staying had a Pride brunch, so I got a bunch of friends from the cast to come over and we made it into our celebration.

"The cast is one of the few things that keep me rooted," said Dortch. "And about two months ago, while I was at home on a vacation, I adopted a dog, a mini golden doodle, and now he's on tour with me. That's really a cozy comfort for me."

Dortch says it's ironic that "Les Misérables" marks her professional debut.
"For my sixth grade talent show audition, I sang 'I Dreamed a Dream' and didn't get to be in the show. And now I'm singing it eight times a week!"

Both Hwang and Dortch feel fortunate to have interests beyond acting that help them pass time on the road.

"I really pride myself on my writing," said Hwang, who is committed to both her own free-form journaling and several playwriting projects, including collaborating with a friend, composer Adam Rothenberg, on a musical about wildfires.

"I'm lucky that writing requires such isolation and monastic focus. I'm actually an introvert when I'm not on stage."

Dortch, who also enjoys having plenty of downtime alone, is a hardcore reader. She recently tackled a tome that she suspects most of her cast mates have never read: Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables."

'Les Misérables,' July 5-23. $60.50-$372.00. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market St. (888) 746-1799

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