The United States is a multicultural nation, and nowhere is that truer than in the arts. However, the full range of the diverse cultures working in the arts often occurs out of the spotlight. As Artistic Director of Immigrants’ Theatre Project I have worked with immigrant theatre artists from over ninety nations, including the Native American nations, and people who are part of the African Diaspora. These artists have navigated – whether for decades or only a few months – not only making a living in our society but the sometimes byzantine combination of talent and connections that is “making it” in the theatre. In this blog series I want to celebrate their work, focusing on those artists who, while known to those who work in ethnic, multicultural theatre, may remain hidden from the mainstream audience. I am curious about how they feel about being bicultural, speaking lines in a second (or third) language, finding work, and what their unique perspective can offer American theatre.
I met Jojo Gonzalez several years ago when he was in a reading of a Czech play I directed. I had seen him in Magno Rubio and was, as they say, mightily impressed. We then worked together on Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma, where he starred as Vichear Lam, a character based on Cambodian holocaust survivor Haing Ngor who won an Oscar for his work in The Killing Fields. Jojo is one of the most inventive, hard-working, good-humored actors I have ever worked with and can play absolutely anything: farce, tragedy, melodrama…anything. He is also a first class storyteller, especially on those long rides back from rehearsals. He took a moment to talk about his work and experience as an immigrant artist in the following email interview:
What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
It was here that I was able to really flex my Acting muscles. Back in Manila, I was kind of typecast as a “Fool” in the slapstick tradition. I did not have a lot of opportunities to play any other role. I’ve been mostly cast as Latino (where I had to act in Spanish which is a language I do not speak…) and every variation of Asian that you can think of except East Indian. I’ve also been cast in shows with multiple roles ( the record is 8 characters in one show…) and for a while it was my niche. Regional theatre, playing multiple roles. I never went to acting school so doing it professionally was my acting school.
What do you miss about working in your homeland?
Acting in my language. The acting style is melodramatic in Manila. I do not miss that. But I do miss speaking my language.
How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
It doesn’t matter to me although it definitely feeds and informs my acting choices. When I first came here, I would THINK in Tagalog. Now I think in English. The experience of living in a country not your own, learning the ways of the “locals”, your survival instincts kick in. Learning how to “blend” in yet be able to assert your individuality is a great acting exercise. I see myself now as a character actor.
How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
Casting people don’t know what to do with me. I’m not Latino enough and I’m not Asian enough. So I tend to get the “Blue Collar Character of no particular ethnicity” call. Recently though, the Asian roles have been coming. Sadly, there are less roles for Asian Men in general in the NY theater scene except for those that are produced by Asian American Theater Companies like, Ma- Yi, NAATCO, Pan Asian, Vampire Cowboys, 2G and Leviathan Lab.
What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
Waiting for the phone to ring and getting the Lead in a groundbreaking Broadway Play where the Asian Male Character is a middle aged man who’s 5 feet 4 inches, 120 lbs. of intelligence, wit, humor, passion, tenacity, determination, humor and style who becomes the envy of men and the object of desire for women…BUT WHO’S WRITING THAT? AND WHO’S GONNA PRODUCE THAT? Sadly it’s the 21st Century and NOBODY has ever taken a chance on giving the Asian Male Actors a shot AND FOLLOWING THROUGH. All that’s gotta change…
Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
My sister was taking me around New York to see the sights and we walked over to Lafayette Street. She said she wanted me to see the Public Theater. If I remember right, Al Pacino was in a show there at that time.
When we got there we walked over to read the plaque outside talking about the history of the building. Then my sister said, “Let’s go inside.” I said, “No. The only way I’m going through those doors is if I’m walking in for rehearsals.” That was 1985. A year later, I walked in through those doors for rehearsals. But it didn’t count. Because that was a rental. A theater group I was working with rented the space. After that I promised myself I would never walk through those doors unless I was working on something that was being produced BY The Public. I did… In 2001, Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters”, the First Filipino play about the Philippines, written by a Filipino, acted in by Filipinos and PRODUCED by a major theater company (La Jolla Playhouse, 1998) came to the Public Theater. THAT counted…I’ve played on every Stage at the Public since then.
Jojo Gonzalez: Last seen as Feste in Leviathan Lab’s production of 12N (Twelfth Night). OFF-BROADWAY:; PAPER ANGELS (Direct Arts); SWEET KARMA (QUEENS THATER IN THE PARK); THE ROMANCE OF MAGNO RUBIO (Ma-Yi, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Laguna Playhouse, Long Wharf Theater, LATC, Sibiu Theatre Festival, Stockton/, San Bruno); 365 DAYS/365 PLAYS (World Premiere); RICHARD III, FUCKING A, DOGEATERS (NYSF/ PUBLIC THEATER); WATCHER, MIDDLE FINGER, LI’L BROWN BROTHERS, MOTHER COURAGE, PINAYTOK (Ma-Yi); ARSAT( Fluid Motion); THE SEAGULL, TOMORROW, SCHOOL FOR WIVES(NAATCO); LAST HAND LAUNDRY IN CHINATOWN (La Mama); MR. PORTER AND MR.SHAKESPEARE (Medicine Show). REGIONAL: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Long Wharf Theater); THE SILENCE OF GOD (CATF); DOGEATERS (La Jolla Playhouse); THE GOOD EARTH (Bristol Riverside Theater); 90 NORTH (Berkshire Theater Festival). TV: PAN AM, WHITE COLLAR, WITHOUT A TRACE, THE SOPRANOS, LAW AND ORDER SVU , THE JURY, TIME OF YOUR LIFE, BORDERLINE. FILM: THE SMURFS MOVIE, A KISS FOR JUSTIN, DISORIENTED. AWARDS/ NOMINATIONS: OBIE Award , OCIE Nomination (The Romance of Magno Rubio); OOBR (School For Wives).
Marcy Arlin is a freelance director and Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. A member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She recently directed The Farnsworth Invention for Oddfellows Playhouse in Connecticut. Current projects are the readings series Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New; and East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, a binational, trilingual (Vietnamese, Czech, English) theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese, in collaboration with Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, VA, and Divadlo Feste, in Brno, Czech Republic. Directing venues include: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, Vineyard, Oddfellows, Artheatre/Koln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania/Cluf. Created Journey Theatre, working with survivors of war and torture. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Lecturer in theatre at CUNY; taught workshops on community-based theatre at Yale, University of Chicago, Brown, and NYU.