AmerAsians and the Theater

Nina Zowie Lam is enjoying her third year as a major cast member of the spectacular Broadway Production, Miss Saigon. The show, in its fifth year, first began its run on the night of April 11th, 1991, amid a storm of controversy over the casting of a Caucasian in an Asian role.

With record advance-ticket sales of over 24 million dollars, producer Cameron Mitchell, threatened to cancel the Broadway engagement if Actors Equity did not reverse its decision, denying permission for English actor Jonathan Pryce to recreate his role as the Eurasian pimp that won him rave reviews in London. Inevitably, the Actor's Equity did reverse itself and Miss Saigon opened to critical applause, where it continues to host sell-out crowds at the Broadway Theater on 53rd street and Broadway.

"When the play opened," Nina Zowie Lam begins, dismissing it with a wave of her hand. "I was in Culinary School. I quit the theater. I was just so disgusted with the whole thing and I love to cook. So, I went to cooking school."

Two years after the stormy opening of Miss Saigon, Nina Zowie Lam joined the cast and now stands as co-producer of Theater's newest production, Killer Geisha's A Go-Go. The show opens on June 30th, at Theater Twenty-Two located at 54 West 22nd street, off Sixth Avenue. It is a star-studded performance featuring many of the minority cast members of Miss Saigon. Co-produced with Tina Horii, it may well be the long awaited response to a true lack of minority casting on Broadway.

"There are two shows right now, commercially, The King and I, and Miss Saigon, that employs Asians, not that it doesn't happen in any other show, but it's always the token Asian. There's the token African American, the token Asian, or whatever and it's just really tough. So, we felt we had to start writing our own pieces. We felt the time has come to produce and direct ourselves. So, we're doing our own theme."

In Miss Saigon, Nina has portrayed a bar girl, a Vietnamese peasant and a glamour girl, but you may recognize her from the Cosby Show in which she's made several guest appearances as a college chum of Vanessa Huxtable. Miss Saigon is the first long running show that I've been in. Usually, I have to leave, or the show closes. I do a six week gig, here and a nine week gig there and I've toured before, but it was never for three years. So, this has been a different experience for me. I mean, I have my life in New York and then I have the theater."

Miss Lam has toured with Rudolph Nureyev in The King and I. "I did a lot of A Chorus Line. Theater in the 80s had a lot of dark houses. A Chorus Line kept me afloat. That one Asian role kept me afloat for six years."

Born in Manhattan, Nina Lam attended Hunter College High School. She is also an Alumni of Transfiguration Church, on Mott Street.

"I'm a Catholic Buddhist," the rising star chuckles. "It's really bizarre because they are so diametrically opposing in their philosophies. My mother's philosophy is of the Buddhist philosophy, although she doesn't chant everyday. My dad, he didn't have a religion until the missionaries went into China and converted him."

Her father came to this country in his mid-teens, literally jumping off a boat to gain his freedom, while her mother came some thirty years ago.

"My father was from the village of Dai Pang and I was fortunate enough to go back there. It's just a small village, very few streets. His family is of a farming background. My mother was from Canton City, so she's a city girl. I spent nearly a year, there. It's just like New York. It's huge. It's more wicked that New York City, I think, in a lot of different ways, but maybe I've romanticized it. When I was there I thought, Oh my god. These are real Chinese people. I mean, here in America people said, "Ah, you're Chinese. You're going home. That's great." As soon as I stepped off the plane I thought, "Oh my God, these are real Chinese people. I'm an American. I mean, I was born in New York. I think of myself as a native New Yorker."

Miss Lam experienced in China a level of the same bizarre labeling in the land of her forefathers that many minorities encounter, here, in the New World. "They called me 'Overseas Chinese.' They would say ‘you're not Chinese, girl. Chinese women don't do such things,' as camping, traveling, talking with your hands. I wasn't Chinese. I was an overseas Chinese. We have some Filipino girls in the show and they went home to the Philippines. They felt right at home. I went home and felt like a foreigner. When I came home and the plane landed in Alaska, I cried. It's funny. I walked into a shop at the airport and couldn't buy enough Reese's Pieces, and M&M's. It was great to be home."

Nina will continue her role in Miss Saigon and is looking for success with Killer Geisha's A Go-Go. "I love the theater. Television and movies are fun, but the theater is so much more exciting. Given the choice, I'd choose Broadway every time."

Nina dreams of starting a major theater company, someday. "I would really like to have a theater and a theater group for, you know, Asian writers. I'd like to have a forum, a place where minorities can develop their talents and abilities." Killer Geisha's A Go-Go is the first step in that very direction.

by Jon Simonds