By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
For Seattle actor E.J. Gong, the two last straws included one show review, and one parent-teacher conference.
Gong, appearing in the new play “99 Tropes,” recalls a production of a play called “Shooting Star,” several years back. He asked the playwright for a change of character name, from a Scottish name, to an Asian name. The playwright agreed, and as Gong remembered, “Finally, I got to play a character who was actually Asian American. It was thrilling and new because I always have played white men.
“The show was a huge success. Sold out most nights, great reviews. But one review burns in my mind. One of the reviewers learned that the name of the character was changed to sound Asian and she said that by changing the character’s ethnicity, it changed the whole meaning of the role. And that an Asian American man would behave, feel, and act differently than a white man. It was a crushing example of racism and stereotypical thinking.”
Around that same time, Gong and his wife attended a parent-teacher conference for his son, who attended a small private school in Seattle.
“We had this fantastic review with the teacher on our son’s performance in class and with his studies,” Gong related. “Only near the end of the session, did it become clear the teacher actually was referring to his other student, the other Asian kid in my kid’s classroom, not our son.
“It was the most awful cringe moment you can imagine. And yet another incident where the words ‘we all look alike’ rang in my ears. [And] there have been many other incidents over the years where someone mistook me for another Asian in the school or work community.”
Gong, who arrived in town in 1995 after growing up in Miami, was fed up. He’d grown up having kids jabber cruel mock-Chinese at him, throwing kung fu kicks while they laughed. He was impressed with the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie because it showed Asian folks as rounded human beings, not shallow stereotypes.
But he felt, passionately, that much more remained to give Asians in America a broader range of roles, not to mention, more respect.
The actor saw his chance when he ran into Hollywood writer Andrew Chapman, who splits his time between Seattle and Los Angeles. Chapman listened to Gong’s concerns, and agreed to write a play with Gong in mind for the lead.
Chapman’s final result, called “99 Tropes,” stars Gong as the suspiciously-named “C. Chan,” a writer who breaks into the big time when his show is picked up by network TV. As the show tanks in the ratings, Chan nevertheless succeeds in taking complete control of the writing, and his ideas he’s sending into American living rooms grow ever more bold and outrageous.
In addition to Gong as the lead, the show also features a middle-aged lesbian and a Jewish man as lead characters, plus a Black actor in another lead role. Gong co-founded In The Moment Theater with director Jeff Woodbridge, who oversaw this new production.
“His artistic vision is inspiring, but what’s best about his directing style is that it’s a collaborative process between director and actor,” said Gong. “He’s not mandating orders from up above. He’s asking you what you believe the character needs and wants.”
Ultimately, said Gong, he wants the audience to get an up-close look at writing in Hollywood, the fascinating, and odd, victories and defeats that happen there. Playwright Chapman, with decades of experience in that world, has the necessary perspective to make it work onstage.
Also, the actor concluded, “I want audiences to see something they usually don’t see, a main character who is Asian American. Not just Asian and not just American, but truly Asian American.”
“99 Tropes” runs Nov. 24-Dec. 23, as a presentation of In the Moment Theater. For tickets, prices, and other information, visit 99tropes.com.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.