Opening a New Window: What's an Asian-American Actor to Do When the Role He Wants Is Saddled with a Dubious Past?

Article excerpt

When I got the call from my agent that I was being offered the role of Ito, the Japanese manservant, in the recent revival of Mame at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, it was a mixed blessing.

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On the plus side, there was the cast. I knew that Christine Baranski (Tony-winner for The Real Thing and Rumors) was going to play Mame, the eccentric, kind-hearted, wealthy socialite. And I knew that Harriet Harris (currently in the mega-hit "Desperate Housewives") was cast as the mega-diva Vera Charles, and that Emily Skinner (who was amazing as one of the Hilton sisters in Sideshow) had signed on as the quirky and hysterical Agnes Gooch. I couldn't think of a more powerful and exciting lineup than this one. I have been in awe of these three women for years. Furthermore, there hadn't been a revival of the show since 1983, so theatre fans were chomping at the bit to see a new version of it.

But then there was the challenge of the role of Ito itself. Most people are familiar with Ito from the 1958 Rosalind Russell non-musical film Auntie Mame. In the film, he is played as an effeminate, shuffling servant, giggling into his hands like a geisha. He is an Asian "Stepin Fetchit," with nothing remotely Japanese about him--and which, of course, he is supposed to be. Frankly, the portrayal is so offensive to me that I have trouble watching that otherwise fine film.

For Asian Americans, this type of stereotypical character is what we have been striving to change for years. But they still seem to pop up in both movies and television. So there is a stigma associated with the role of Ito. An Asian-American actress friend of mine calls it "that role," as in, "You're not going to do that role, are you?"

I knew that in order to change the role, I would need the director and creative staff to be open to a new interpretation. But would they be on board with such a radical change? And would a new interpretation even work with the script? Was the comedy of this character dependent on his subservience? Was the giggle needed to make Ito complete?

I also knew that I had been offered the part on the basis of my audition, in which I tried a new tack. My take on Ito is that he's a cross between Rosario from "Will & Grace" and Toshiro Mifune--with a little of my grandfather thrown in for good measure. This Ito would be more wry, understated, and definitely more masculine. Very Japanese, very guttural. But would this fly? And would anyone find it funny at all?

With so many questions flooding my addled brain, my first step was to pick up the script to reread it--to see what was on the page, as opposed to the images from the past that gave me that Pavlovian shudder. I was surprised to find absolutely nothing objectionable to Ito. Sure, he had an accent, but that didn't bother me. That would have been historically accurate. And the humor in Ito's role doesn't come from his misplaced "l's" and "r's," which it does so often when bad writers get hold of Asian characters.

What I discovered was that Ito was actually a valuable cog in the mechanics of Mame's life. He was chef, butler, chauffeur and organizer of the household. He also was the male influence in the house, and helped in the raising of 10-year-old Patrick Dennis. And, most important, Mame considered him a beloved member of the family. She treated him with nothing but fondness and respect, which was completely in tune with her progressive lifestyle.

AND THAT GOT ME TO WONDERING about how the actor who originated the role of Ito in the 1966 Broadway musical production of Mame approached the role. Were the issues that I had with the depiction of the role his issues as well?

Well, the actor who originated the role of Ito in the musical is Sab Shimono, and I had the privilege of working with him in the 2005 Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures. (He also was in the original 1976 Broadway company of Pacific Overtures. …