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Sun and Jin Kwon on “Lost”

January 19, 2010

I recently started watching all the back episodes of Lost on Netflix. They are all available via Netflix instant viewing, so I worked my way through seasons 1-5 pretty quickly. I had seen a few episodes before, and somehow randomly watched a huge chunk of season 4 previously (but out of order), but I am now all caught up and clued in. Well, as much as one can be with that show. It has been curious timing for me, given the experience and my reaction to Ruddigore the other day.

For an action-heavy show, it is also remarkably character-driven. Delightfully so, actually. The show depends upon it as it relies on a flashback format to fill out the characters as real people in their past lives before the island. It is also fairly diligent about filling out these story-lines evenly across all of the main characters. There are a few survivors who never really come into play, and a few minor characters who only get one episode of flashbacks, but there is a large-ish group of core characters that, after 5 seasons and over 100 episodes, feel like complete people.

One of the things I like best about the show is that there is racial and cultural diversity. There is a spinal surgeon, a southern con-man, a woman wanted for murder, an Iraqi ex-torturer, two Chinese men (one scientist, one who can talk to the dead), an Hispanic man, a fertility doctor, a cancer survivor, a British rock star, an Australian single mom, a French scientist, two “spoiled rich kids,” an artist and his estranged son, and Sun and Jin Kwon, a Korean couple.

It is nice to see Asian actors on TV in major roles. It is also nice to know that they are Korean and Chinese specifically, not just “Asian.” What I like about Sun and Jin is they have their secrets just like the other characters. They have problems, too. East Asians (Here I think first of Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans) are so often seen as stereotypically “good,” diligent, hard-working, brainy, etc. Worthy of a pat on the head. Or, in the case of women, a pat on the ass when we are fetishized as demure geisha-types.

One of my favorite things about Jin is Daniel Day Kim, the actor who plays him, didn’t speak Korean very well when he got the job. He was raised in America and English is his first language. In the fifth season, Jin is supposed to have been living on the island for 3 years, so by this time he has learned English and can speak it well. I can relate to that. His race is no doubt a large part of why he was cast, and the fact that he needed language lessons to actually fit the part is so fantastic. I get asked if speak Korean all the time, and I’m obviously not the only Asian raised in America without fluency in any language but English.

Seeing a female Korean lead is also striking, though I can relate to her less than to Jin because she (Yunjin Kim) is fluent in Korean, a trained dancer and fighter, TV thin, half a foot taller than me, and has western eye folds, which is a topic for another post entirely. She was, however, raised mostly in New York City, according to her IMDb page. But I like how Sun is first presented as the stereotypical Asian woman who is quiet and obedient to her husband. Then the layers are revealed, and she is shown to be strong-willed and smart and not entirely “good.”

I have been processing this whole race thing all weekend. Having been raised in a white household in an area where race didn’t seem to matter because there were other non-whites at school and in the community, I never really thought consciously about race growing up. In a way, it was a wonderfully privileged way of looking at the world as seemingly “post-racial.” Or perhaps it’s just the way children instinctively view the world until they grow up and realize that you can’t ignore skin color. I’m only now acknowledging that I can’t ignore that I’m not white. I carry my race as an identity into every situation, just as I do my gender, because that is the way the world views me.

I don’t want to become a hyper-sensitive, politically correct “race Nazi,” but it’s a big issue to unpack. And as a performer, I am perhaps even more aware of people looking at me and how I am viewed because that is a fundamental part of performance. To deny that it is is foolish. It may be “art,” but that doesn’t mean you get on stage hoping no one will see you.

What strikes me about NYGASP now, a few days later, is not that the female chorus was all white, but that I noticed and cared. If the male chorus had also been all white, maybe it wouldn’t have struck me as odd, but the female chorus came on first and set up the casting as “traditional.” I don’t think NYGASP is racist (clearly not, since there WAS diversity in casting), or that it’s wrong to do G&S, or that it’s wrong to G&S with an all-white cast. I just think that however one casts a show in America today, it must always be a conscious choice. It is a statement, either way. And either way is fine, but you can’t expect an audience to appreciate the subtleties of lighting changes, or a particular period prop, or the type of lace on a costume, and ignore or gloss over the fact that there is one lone black guy or Asian gal in a chorus of white faces. Interestingly, I am told the woman who played Mad Margaret is half-Asian, and I enjoyed her performance very much. She seemed perfectly well-cast and not out of place at all. I guess it’s all about context (Perhaps I should wait to eschew “Poor Wandr’ing One”?).

I was in The Sound of Music in high school, and we were a motley bunch. I played the Mother Abbess, the Captain was Chinese, and Liesl was half-black. Which was fine for high school because it’s a learning experience. It’s more about the experience for the students than a theatrical experience for the audience. We don’t hold them to the same standards as professional theatre. But to cast like that in the “real world” would require a slew of director’s notes to explain why the family was so mismatched. We act like we shouldn’t talk about race, but we all see it, and it does matter. It’s not racist to ask why the father is Asian, one daughter is black, and all the other children are white. It’s a reasonable question because it defies logic. We would probably question a director’s choice to cast an obese girl or elderly woman to play an ingenue role. If a story centers on the strong bond between blood brothers, it would be noteworthy if the two actors looked nothing like one another.

One reason I love opera is that it is somewhat easier to get around these “rules” that are so fundamental to TV, film, and other stage work. It has historically been more about the voice than about appearance. Although that has changed in recent years, it is still foremost about the voice that comes out of the body than the body itself. Perhaps the day will come when you can walk into a theatre and the casting choices will be unremarkable, but that day is not today.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 20, 2010 6:14 pm

    Fascinating to read about the dynamics of ethnic casting. I see what you mean about opera. More “willing suspension of disbelief” allowed. When you were in Pinafore, I didn’t even notice that you were “mismatched.”

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