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The Magic Number is 17

There are 17 performers of Asian descent in Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of Flower Drum Song. 17. Seventeen. That might not seem like groundbreaking news, until you ask yourself: When was the last time you saw 17 Asian American actors in one production on stage or on screen?

Sure, there are The King and I’s, Miss Saigons, and maybe even Pacific Overtures out there, but now I’m struggling to name another big broadway musical with as many as 17 Asian characters in it, let alone Asian or Asian American performers. And if you add the qualifier of a broadway musical written by an Asian or Asian American playwright or composer, that number dwindles significantly.

Many people are quick to say that in recent years, we’ve come a long way in American race relations, and maybe we have. However, while blackface is considered a thing of the past, yellowface and brownface are still practiced with some regularity, even in 2016. Add to that the practice of Whitewashing, casting a white actor instead of an actor of color, sometimes changing the script to do so. Take a look at #WhitewashedOUT, #MyYellowfaceStory, & #MyBrownfaceStory on Twitter & Facebook for more stories from Asian Americans about [lack of] representation on stage and screen.

A few years ago, during a broadcast of the Academy Awards, I challenged my Facebook friends to name an Asian American who has won an Oscar for a project telling an Asian American story. I noted that by saying “Asian American” I specifically meant that non-Americans of Asian descent did not qualify, and that stories that were set in foreign countries, where Asian American actors might be playing foreign nationals, likewise did not qualify. I meant specifically Asian Americans telling stories about the experience of Asian Americans. I would happily stand corrected, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Tony Awards are slightly better, but not by much. Rarely has there been an Asian American story on broadway, and Flower Drum Song is one of those rarities. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an Asian American, David Henry Hwang, received a credit for writing the new adaptation of Flower Drum Song, which is the script being used for Park Square’s production.

So when you come to Flower Drum Song (opening Jan. 27) not only will you be watching broadway musical history in the form of an Asian American musical written by an Asian American, but you’ll be seeing 17, count ’em: 17, Asian Americans onstage. And you might not see that again for a while.

Eric "Pogi" Sumangil
Eric Sumangil

Eric "Pogi" Sumangil has been one of the most often mispronounced names in the Twin Cities theater community for the last 15 years. He's currently in Macbeth playing the roles of Banquo and Siward, and recently was in Park Square's co-production with Mu Performing Arts in Flower Drum Song He also played John Jones in Park Square's The Realistic Jonses. and appeared in the Mu Performing Arts production of tot: The Untold Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan at Park Square in 2016.

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