Thumbnail courtesy of Austin Kim.

Liam Oh (Comm '22) got the call last April right before he was about to go on for act two of the musical “Once” at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Oh’s representatives told him he needed to be in New Orleans in a few days to start filming “The Corps,” a Netflix series about a young gay man in the Marines based on the memoir “The Pink Marine.” Oh is set to play the protagonist’s best friend in the upcoming adaptation. In the memoir, Oh’s character is half Japanese but was written into the script as half Korean to match Oh’s ethnicity. Oh said this was the first explicitly Korean character he has played.

“In the media, Asian American men are emasculated or typecast,” Oh said, “The cool experience of this character has been being able to play someone who is exceptional.”

Oh and other Asian Northwestern theater graduates have worked hard to break into the entertainment and performing arts industries. Despite a history of low representation of diverse actors and stories, a new generation of creatives represents a promising future for Asians on stages and screens across America.

The state of the industry

Seonjae Kim (Comm ‘14) associate directed the Broadway musical “KPOP,” which follows several fictional Korean pop music groups as they prepare to perform in New York. “KPOP” opened on Broadway in November 2022 but closed after only two weeks and 17 performances. (For context, the popular musical “Dear Evan Hansen” ran for five years with over 1,600 performances.) Kim, age 32, said “KPOP” was a pivotal moment for Asian Americans on Broadway even though it didn’t succeed commercially.

“It was a project that not only Koreans were involved in, but the larger Asian community,” Kim said.

New musicals like “KPOP,” “Monsoon Wedding” and “Here Lies Love” feature predominantly Asian casts and give Asian creatives a long-overdue platform. Nevertheless, Asian Americans in the industry say they still struggle to find jobs that allow them to bring their entire identity to their work.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathan Karnik (Comm ‘21) is a half-white and half-Indian actor and said he rarely finds roles in Chicago that represent his mixed identity.

“There are so few South Asian roles and shows in live theater,” Karnik said. “You’re looking at stereotypical roles like Sundeep Padamadan in ‘Legally Blonde’ and whoever that math nerd is in ‘Mean Girls.’”

Karnik said casting calls often ask him to audition for Middle Eastern roles or stereotypical Indian characters with thick accents who lack depth and individuality.

“I’m not in a position in my career where I can say no,” he said.

Still, Karnik has had opportunities to play complex, nuanced characters. He is an understudy in “The Matchbox Magic Flute” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and played Anthony in a production of “Sweeney Todd” in Ithaca after graduation. He said the director was looking to cast people of color, which allowed Karnik to play a traditionally white love interest he wouldn’t have been considered for otherwise.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Karnik. Karnik as Anthony in “Sweeney Todd” in 2021 at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. 

Emily Zhang (Comm ‘22) has also struggled to find roles that don’t lean into stereotypes and caricatures. She said she is often limited to auditions for successful Asian women who are emotionally void or Mandarin-speaking characters whose lines are grammatically incorrect and appear to have been written using Google Translate.

For a recent Purina cat food commercial, the 23-year-old was cast as an “ethnic spot.” She said she was surprised that it was an all-white crew except for one person whose job was to hold up a phone for someone on FaceTime.

“The makeup artist had never done makeup on an Asian person before,” Zhang said. “When casting wants diversity, they don’t have representation in the other areas to support the actor.”

Photo courtesy of Emily Zhang. Zhang as M in a Wirtz Center production of “Peerless” in 2022. 

The creative impact of identity

Erik Kaiko (Comm ‘07) worked as a professional actor in Chicago for five years after graduating. Eventually, the 38-year-old decided to pivot toward arts administration and got an MFA in theatre management and producing from Columbia University. He said that he made the decision after realizing he could have more impact on marginalized voices from an administrative role.  

Kaiko said he believes representation can be achieved in various ways and emphasized the importance of having Asian Americans in decision-making positions.

“By the nature of who I am, I’m going to think about casting in a different way. I’m going to think about marketing in a different way,” Kaiko said. “There’s still value in that even if it’s not a project that’s, on the surface, about the Asian American experience.”

Photo courtesy of Liam Oh. Oh in the “The Notebook” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2022.

Some actors also believe there is a benefit to playing roles created for their identity. Karina Patel (Comm ‘22) is the director of new work at the Jackalope Theatre in Chicago and discovers writers and stories for each new season. According to Patel, Culturally specific shows written by playwrights of color allow theaters to send identity-based casting calls and provide opportunities to underrepresented communities. “It feels special to know that I'm creating rooms and I'm creating spaces and places for other actors," she said.

Zhang said that shows created by and for Asian Americans allow her to focus on acting rather than feel like she has to advocate for herself in the rehearsal space. In 2022, Patel directed Zhang in “When the Sun Melts Away” at the Token Theatre in Chicago.

“When there’s an Asian director or playwright, I can finally play a role that lets me be the whole range of human,” Zhang said.      

Photo courtesy of Emily Zhang. Zhang in “When the Sun Melts Away” at the Token Theatre in 2022. 

Oh, on the other hand, said he finds value in roles not explicitly written for Asian Americans. He played the Eastern European Andrej in “Once” and was the first to play Fin/Justin in the world premiere of “The Notebook” musical at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

“No matter who I'm playing, I'm always Korean,” Oh said. “Acting is both trying to be someone else and then also finding yourself in a role.”

Looking forward

Kaiko emphasized the importance of supporting Asian creatives by buying tickets to shows to prove there is demand for Asian American stories. He said it is especially important for Asian Americans to support the work they feel represents them.

“When you see yourself on a poster, go see that show because that organization, producer or company is making a decision to try and improve representation,” Kaiko said.

Kim said she learned from the closing of “KPOP” that productions must do a better job marketing to new audiences beyond traditional, white theater-goers. Broadway shows should make an effort to reach younger demographics who are excited to see new musicals and plays with diverse stories, she said.

Zhang, meanwhile, said she values talking with other actors of color about their shared experiences in the industry as a reminder that they aren’t alone. She said her love for the craft helps her persevere in a difficult industry.

“I truly just enjoy acting so much,” Zhang said. “I feel like I can become a part of the change in small ways and hopefully, I want to get involved in bigger ways as well.”

Karnik said he’s optimistic about the future, especially with so many new South Asian musicals and emerging actors. He said he has lofty goals that he’s willing to work to achieve.

“One of the best pieces of advice ever told to me is that you’re insane if you’re not constantly questioning whether or not you want to [be an actor],” Karnik said. “But each time I act I’m like, ‘Yeah, I want to keep doing this.’”