Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, February 11, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Paul Nakauchi was an understudy in the Broadway
production of "The King and I," but in the DHT
production, he owns the part.

The king of
roles for the
Asian actor

For better or worse, this play
is a staple for Asians in theater,
etcetera, etcetera, etcetera

By Cynthia Oi


Paul Nakauchi grew up not thinking of himself as Asian. Had he focused on that, he might not have chosen acting as a career.

"I grew up in Northridge (California) and among mostly Caucasians," he explains. "So my identity was more Caucasian oriented."

"It wasn't until I really started getting into theater and getting cast in productions of 'The King & I' that I started to realize that yes, I am Asian, and yes, the kind of roles that were going to be offered to me would be Asian roles."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Nakauchi finds work, an achievement for an actor of any ethnic persuasion. He's just finished a two-year run in the Broadway production of "The King & I" as understudy for Lou Diamond Phillips. He's also toured nationally in "Miss Saigon" and has appeared in television's "ER," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Murphy Brown" and other programs.

He is in Hawaii to do, yes, "The King & I."

On this day, he's munching on half a bagel

smeared with peanut butter while sitting in the Green Room at Diamond Head Theatre. With him is local boy Greg Zane, a choreographer and dancer who is directing DHT's production. Both worked on the Broadway show and Zane lured Nakauchi to the islands to perform for DHT.

The talk is about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which Nakauchi declares is "the staple for Asians" in theater.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- or is there? For Nakauchi, the answer's yes and no.

Nakauchi, 39, says he's performed in the musical "countless" numbers of times in various roles, the first time as a youth in the chorus when Yul Brynner played the lead. Beyond "King" and "Miss Saigon," he's hungry for other roles, but they aren't there.

"A lot of times I'll go to a casting and they'll say 'Oh, did a lot of "King and I," eh?'

"And I want to say, 'Oh, yeah, I have, and why do you think that is? Do you think I want to do the same musical over and over and over again? Yeah, that would be my choice.' But of course you can't say that."

Zane laughs, understanding Nakauchi's point, which is that Asian Americans aren't in the mainstream of the entertainment business.


"What's funny is that if I had considered that when I first started off, I wouldn't have done this. Being young and naive and not really knowing about the business, you go into it thinking you're going to be the breakthrough performer."

Zane, 36, also didn't focus on his ethnic heritage while growing up in Hawaii. But when he went to the mainland for college, "I looked around and thought, 'Where is everybody. Whoa, look at all the haoles!' On the mainland, you get labeled."

The labels, however, aren't as crucial for Zane as they are for Nakauchi.

"Greg's a dancer and on Broadway, there are more parts for Asians," Nakauchi says.

"Yeah, Asian dancers find work," Zane says, "parts of the chorus, the ensemble."

But for an actor, "there's not a lot out there," Nakauchi says.

Television work is "great because you go in there and work for a day or two and you're on to something else.

"But there again, as far as an ethnic performer, it's not as easy to go from one job to another. Even on TV today, there are so few Asian characters.

Zane pipes in: "There's the martial arts show on CBS, with Sammo Hung."

"Yeah, but that's martial arts," Nakauchi says.

Zane again: "Oh, a friend of ours is doing 'Mortal Kombat' now."

"Yeah, but that's another martial arts show," Nakauchi says.

Unable to think of any other Asians on television, they quiet down for a few moments.

"There's lots of roles out there for African-American performers; they have their own programs and programming," Nakauchi says. "But Asian Americans don't have a large enough voice."

"We're not all martial artists, not the deliverymen-Chinese laundry-restaurant thing," Zane says.

"But that's still the kind of characters you go up for today," Nakauchi says. "I just go 'Oh, here it is, just another chop'em-up character.' "

Nakauchi is happy with the DHT role, which Zane, as director, stages with an Asian perspective.

"In our production we are trying to get away from the stereotypical, the shaking-head Asians," Zane says. "We approach it with more respect for the Thai people, not trying to make them seem strange."

The two men agree that getting work in show business is dicey no matter what your skin color.

Having done casting work, Zane says there are many other factors that determine whether one gets the job. Sometimes, landing a role comes down to the most mundane of matters, like "will the person fit the costume," he says.

"A big consideration if you're replacing someone on a Broadway show," Nakauchi says, nodding his head sagely.

The costumes cost a lot of money, so producers aren't inclined to make new ones, Zane says.

"It's like that 'Brady Bunch' episode when Greg says 'I got the job because I fit in the costume.' That's exactly how it is," Nakauchi says. They laugh. "That's how show business works!"


The King and I

Bullet Dates: Opens tomorrow; runs through March7
Bullet Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturday matinees Feb. 27 and March 6
Bullet Tickets: $10-$40
Bullet Place: Diamond Head Theatre
Bullet Call: 734-0274

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