By Ryan Pangilinan
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I pretty much got my education in theater, on the road, on that tour in each city. … I kind of went to the University of [Miss] Saigon,” actress Jennifer Paz said laughingly.
Philippine-born, Paz moved to Renton at a young age with her family. She got her start in 1992 as the lead in “Miss Saigon,” a role immortalized by Lea Solanga.
Currently, Paz is taking on the role of the Narrator in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which runs from Oct. 10 to Nov. 1.
Prior to this role, Paz has had a storied acting career. Following her debut in “Miss Saigon,” she went on to perform in “Les Miserables,” “Flower Drum Song,” “Evita,” and she took on roles in features and television shows such as “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Touched By an Angel.”
Along the way, Paz even had time to record an album entitled, “Awakening.”
Though her impressive resume has taken her around the country, she has found a way to come back home to the Pacific Northwest.
“I came up here in early 2000 to work at the Village Theatre in Issaquah,” Paz explained. “I realized that there was a really fantastic theater community out here. So I’ve been back and forth between here and Los Angeles working.”
Having been a professional actor for more than a decade, Paz is quick to point out that the range of roles for Asian Americans has improved over time, though there are still some limitations.
“It’s evolved a lot,” she said. “There are more opportunities for Asian Americans — the things that [the older generation] were fighting for, like being able to play three-dimensional characters, that [had been] the issue back then.”
Paz recently participated in a panel discussion that included playwright and producer David Harry Hwang and “Flower Drum Song” novelist C.Y. Lee. They discussed the visibility of Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs).
“[The older generation] played the stereotypical kung-fu masters … with the success of Bruce Lee,” said Paz. “[Building on] the success of the previous generation is the next generation’s challenge. … We’ve got [new and] great opportunities for Asian American actors. We have John Cho in ‘Harold and Kumar’ where they’re just regular guys.
“With that said, Asian American groups may or may not agree with some of the depictions. … There are very sensitive issues brought to life with these characters.
“For example, the film with Jeremy Piven (‘The Goods’) — there’s a scene where an Asian American (Ken Jeong) is beat[en] in some car dealership. It offended a lot of Asian Americans because it brought back memories of Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Detroit.” In 1982, Chin was beaten to death by a Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz in what has been said was a racially charged crime.
In addition to being a spokesperson for Asian American actors, Paz has also avoided being pigeon-holed into a particular role.
Instead, she has taken on roles that have normally been reserved for white performers, such as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” For her role in “Joseph,” Paz is sinking her teeth into a play that serves as a reflection of America today.
“‘Technicolor Dreamcoat’ is such a funny, metaphorical title because the cast is so multicultural,” she said. “Looking at this cast, we have so many Filipino Americans. … There are so many ethnic backgrounds. … It’s perfectly crafted.”
According to Paz, Seattle’s theater community takes risks in casting plays and musicals in a non-traditional way, creating a multiethnic experience for the audiences and casts alike.
“[Theatre casting directors are] a lot more open-minded. They’ve got a great imagination to [not] cast strictly on how they want a piece to look. [They] support Asian American performers, and I’m extremely grateful that [5th Avenue Theatre] took a risk with an Asian American to perform the Narrator part in ‘Joseph,’ which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.” ♦
Ryan Pangilinan can be reached at email@example.com.