Holding Out for a Hero

Orville Mendoza playing the ‘hero’ in Side by Side by Sondheim at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Photo by Cory Weaver

Orville Mendoza playing the ‘hero’ in Side by Side by Sondheim at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Photo by Cory Weaver

This is a repost from BCTR’s blog on April 13, 2016. Live & In Color used to be named Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat (BCTR).

by Orville Mendoza

We all love the hero or heroine of the story. The protagonist. The character that the story and the world revolves around. Writers work hard to develop their story line making these characters rich and multi-dimensional, giving them humor and flaws. Ultimately, they are given that thing (whatever that thing may be) that makes them universally relatable. Likable. Admirable. The thing we ALL want to be.

Now, imagine growing up and admiring these heroes or heroines, but imagine that NONE OF THEM look anything like you. In fact, their features are the polar opposite of yours. Strong noses, when yours is flat and wide. Tall and muscular, when you are may be a little over 5 feet with a toned body but not the Hercules presented on screen. Blonde hair and fair skin — you have jet black hair and your skin is the color of the earth.

Now look at the antagonists. The ones put in the story to “antagonize” the hero. To make life hell for him. The one who throws a wrench into the works. The BAD guy. What do they look like? What are more often then not, their features? I’ll give you one guess. — “Ah! Finally! I see myself,” says the child with brown skin!

What do you think the effect of constantly seeing images of brown people, yellow people, red people, people who may look like you, constantly being portrayed as the bad guy, the nerd, the less attractive one, the pain, the butt of the joke, the silent one in the background who does not contribute to the story at all except for giving a hint of diversity, the inconsequential one — what do those images do to a child’s mind? What subconscious values are being placed in their head by images from TV, films, commercials, books where the protagonist is unrelentingly presented with the face of the “dominant culture,” a face that bares no resemblance to that ethnic child whatsoever. What does that do to their self-worth? What does that say about their value in society?

I remember how I felt as an Asian-American child. I still am that child. We adapt. We relate. We assimilate to this culture and country we love. We see ourselves in these place-holders who are supposed to represent all that is good and right in society, in our country, in humanity. These characters are inspirational. Kids aspire to be them. Wouldn’t it be nice, for some of these kids — some of these kids who look like me — to actually see adults who they might ACTUALLY look like one day being the one who conquers evil, being the one who is desired by the leading lady (or guy), being the one who saves the world through his intelligence and super-human strength?

Having diversity in the media, and theatre in particular, isn’t just about getting the correct ethnic actors for the role. For me, it’s all about the kid in the audience. The kid who was just like me, looking for themselves on stage, on TV, in books, in art, in culture. The kid who can finally look up there and not have to suspend their disbelief so much that they can finally identify with the hero…completely, PROUDLY! 

I believe we are making great strides in owning our own stories and creating our own opportunities. It’s a slow process. There is still a lot of prejudice, blatant and subtle, that we all have to overcome. But, ultimately, if we keep the goal in mind, the goal of future generations feeling like they have a voice, feeling like they have worth, and feeling like their stories are being told no matter what their skin color, our small steps will turn into great leaps into realizing a world where everyone is represented equally, represented with dignity, represented realistically, good and bad, hero and villain, with all the traits that make us unmistakably HUMAN. 

Photo by Brian Myers Cooper

Photo by Brian Myers Cooper

ORVILLE MENDOZA received a Barrymore Award and a Drama Desk nomination for originating the role of  "Tempura" in Christopher Durang & Peter Melnick's musical Adrift in Macao at the Philadelphia Theatre Co. and Off-Broadway at Primary Stages. He’s appeared on Broadway in Pacific Overtures and Peter and the Starcatcher. Off-Broadway credits include:Romeo & Juliet, Timon of Athens, and the original company of Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman’s Road Show all at The Public Theater/NYSF. Found (Atlantic Theater Co.), Passion (2013 Classic Stage Company revival), Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (NY Times Critic’s Pick), Antigone, The Seagull, Blind Mouth Singing, A Play on War (all at National Asian American Theatre Company), Ivanov (NAATCO & The Mint Theatre), The Romance of Magno Rubio (Ma-Yi Theatre Company), Rashomon (Pan Asian Rep.). He has developed new works for The Public Theatre, The Old Globe, York Theatre, Second Stage, New York Theatre Workshop, NY Stage and Film, and New Dramatists. Regional credits include: A.C.T., La Jolla Playhouse, 5th Avenue Seattle, Kansas City Rep., Long Wharf Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, East West Players (Ovation Award nomination in the title role of Sweeney Todd), The Muny, St. Michael's Playhouse, Denver Center Theatre, TUTS Underground. On television he has appeared on “The Blacklist”, ”Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and several commercials. www.orvillemendoza.com

Dennis CorsiComment