Emotions bring the abstract to life on stage
Hoon Lee played David Henry Hwang’s alter ego in the play “Yellow Face” (at The Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles).
“There are large emotional outbursts in both acts,” Lee says, “and the biggest challenge is remaining open enough because I’m painting a character who’s not that likable. But you want the audience to let you in, hear you, and by the end of the play, you want them rooting for you.
“Ideas as loaded as race are really felt on the personal level, and yet we discuss them on an abstract level, and they cease to have meaning,” Lee says.
He notes he is Asian American, and does not speak Korean. “There are some in the Korean American community who wish I did. I identify myself first and foremost as an American. But in theater, film and TV, you’re judged on your appearance, and I’m seen as an Asian.
“If you identify yourself with a particular group, it creates a structure and a sense of support, but does it also limit you? Is reverse discrimination a justifiable means to an end? I like examining those kinds of questions.”
Lee, who graduated with a degree in visual and environmental studies and English literature from Harvard University, is the son of two molecular biologists; his brother is a postdoctoral candidate in gene expression research at MIT.
“There was a lot of academia floating around in our home,” says Lee, who grew up in Boston. “I was a bit of the black sheep in the family because I was artistically inclined. I always thought I’d be an illustrator or a painter, never a performer. I draw, sing and make music, and feel comfortable drawing parallels between things. So doing one form of creative expression informs the other.”
Though he’s never taken an acting class, he has had occasional coaching sessions with Annie Occhiogrosso (“a real Shakespearean scholar”) and Randall Kim (“a great actor with a passion for classical theater”).
“In terms of acting, I watch an inordinate amount of TV and am drawn to ‘The Golden Girls,’ ” Lee says. “Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, Beatrice Arthur and Betty White are so good. Their timing is so superb, and their characters are so defined. A lot of actors get wrapped up in emotional space, but the actual technique of what you can do with your voice and timing is fascinating to me.”
A complex character from a rich actor
Lee says DHH, an emotional roller coaster of a character, is vastly different from the low-key playwright who created him. “DHH is shortsighted and wrapped up in his narcissistic self-perceptions,” Lee says. “David has had critical success and commercial success, and understands a broad perspective. The things DHH does in service of the community are really self-serving.
“The themes DHH comes to — the idea that nothing human has ever been pure, and that authenticity itself is potentially invalid — is something he arrives at, but perhaps is something David has come to see in the broader scope of humanity and our commonality.
“This play’s strongest legacy will be the discourse that comes from it, and I’m very proud to be part of that.”
From article: Defining himself, By Dinah Eng, LA Times Calendarlive June 12, 2007 (photo by Craig Schwartz)
Randall Kim is included in the book A History of Asian American Theatre
For how ‘narcissistic self-perceptions’ can affect acting and other forms of artistic expression, see the page Ego / narcissism