What I Didn’t Know I Needed
By Lainie Sakakura
What do you do if you are Asian American growing up without a role model? A child never seeing a successful actor, model, pop star, ballerina, athlete, or even popular kid or teacher that looks like you? How do you dream of being any of those things? Without conscientiously thinking about it, you try to be as white as possible, because white is beauty and success. White is cool and popular. These are not flushed out, conscientious decisions. Just something you inadvertently learn. Blonde is better than black hair. Blue is better than brown eyes. Long legs are better than short. Big eyes, long lashes, thinner face, pointy nose, and on and on. The whitest parts of yourself became the most valuable assets. Pride grows from a seed of self hatred that you are completely unaware of. Proud to be taller than the others. Proud to not have an accent. Proud to be American born. Different than other Asian people. Anger and disgust towards anyone perpetuating the Asian stereotypes. Blaming Asian people for having embarrassing qualities that made the rest of the world make fun of us.
I was clearly a young woman that desperately needed an Asian American role model; someone awesome to show me, prove to me, that being Asian American is cool and something to be proud of. But I didn’t know I needed it. How could I? How could I wish for something I couldn’t even imagine?
It’s taken me a long time to understand who I was as a young woman. I remember having final callbacks for three big regional shows in the same week. One was an Asian specific show that I reluctantly auditioned for as a backup. Of course, that was the one I was offered. There was a scene where I had to interpret and speak in English and Japanese. The creatives liked it so much, they decided to expand it. I hated being associated with my ethnicity so much, I didn’t want it. I showed up unprepared and they cut my new lines. I didn’t care. In the ensemble, there were some white actors playing Japanese. During tech, the Production Stage Manager announced that all white people needed to tape their eyes for dress rehearsal. I stood up to management, “Nobody better tape their eyes! I swear I will get on the next plane home.” That was no empty threat and no one taped their eyes. I never wanted to do a show like that again.
It’s awful looking back at my younger self, how I looked at myself and the world, but my point of view served me in a way back then. Pushing away from anything Asian specific and pushing away from being with other Asian people made me audition for everything else.When I was 23, I was offered two Broadway shows at the same time, the original company of Carousel and Tommy Tune’s The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Of course, I was the only Asian performer in both shows. I didn’t think about being Asian or how it was affecting my career. When started work on a new show, Fosse, I was told Bob Fosse didn’t like Asian dancers because he didn’t think we had the right body type. That didn’t surprise or upset me because I believed it to be true. Everyone told me I had a “non-Asian” body and that’s why I was lucky that I got away with being Asian. Looking back, I was pretty unhappy, but didn’t know it. I had always been uncomfortable with myself and the world around me so that was my normal. I didn’t know anything differently.
I auditioned for my first Asian specific Broadway show when I was 25 years old. I hadn’t auditioned for an Asian specific show since the regional debacle three years prior. At that time, Miss Saigon was still running on Broadway and multiple tours were out. It was the first time that I had walked into a huge holding room of professional Asian American performers. They all seemed to know each other. I didn’t know any of them, but I was kind of excited to meet them. I wasn’t in the room for more than two minutes before I hear, “Oh, there’s that girl that gets all the token parts.” I looked at her and realized that all this time that I didn’t want to be Asian, they didn’t want me either, I was just as alone here as I was in any room filled with white people. I went after that job like I did any other and booked it. I didn’t know what to expect when I started rehearsals, but my life changed. For the first time I had Asian American friends that understood what it was like growing up the way I did. I was in awe of the ones that just loved themselves for who they were. I discovered that Asian features were beautiful. Beautiful on them and beautiful on me. Our collective Asianness was incredible and something to celebrate, not something to ever be ashamed of. For the first time in my life I had a family and community. I learned to be proud of my heritage. I wanted to be with them all the time. Unfortunately, I had to leave after only six months because I was to dance captain Fosse. I would end up being the only Asian American woman in the Broadway company for the entire run.
I am not proud of being the only Asian American in a cast or the first anything anymore. I hate that it’s 2019 and we are still experiencing so many firsts and still having to create many more. I am still learning everyday, but what I have learned thus far is that we all need role models. We need to love the things that make us different. We need to lift each other up and by doing so, will never take anything away from anyone else. For us to change the idea that there is only one spot, one job, one anything to fight for, we need to imagine and believe it first. I am here to encourage, assist, support any of my Asian brothers and sisters, and I am here to tell any young person how awesome their Asianness is, even when they don’t know they need it.
Original cast member of six Broadway shows: Fosse (dance reconstruction, onstage dance captain); Chita Rivera The Dancer’s Life; Flower Drum Song (2002 revival); Tommy Tune’s The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public; The King And I (1996 revival and 2015 revival). Recipient of the 2015 Joe A. Callaway Award - Outstanding Choreography and 2002 Joseph Jefferson Award - Best Choreography. NYC freelance director: Cherry Lane Theatre, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Summer Stage, Neighborhood Playhouse, The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama. An advocate for multicultural education through art. Seven year co-chair for the PS 87 Culture & Community Committee producing over 25 free multicultural performance events including Pan Asian Lunar New Year. Creating a new mentoring/support group, Sakachez Asian American Broadway Teens. Thirty year Teaching Artist including NYU New Studio on Broadway and Pace University. Currently developing new musical, Corner Of Bitter And Sweet. Book by Lainie Sakakura, Music & Lyrics by Paul Fujimoto. A musical adaptation of the New York Times best selling novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Proud member of SDC and AEA.