The Role of a Lifetime

Special Features   The Role of a Lifetime Pacific Overtures star B.D. Wong takes his art and his life seriously.
B.D. Wong
B.D. Wong Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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B.D. Wong was a high-school student and aspiring actor when he saw the original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures in 1976. It was a powerful, revelatory experience. "I was doing school plays, and the show came at a juncture in my life when I was very discouraged about the prospect of becoming a professional actor," he says. "The harsh reality of what it meant to be an actor, compounded by the limitations that I might experience as an Asian-American, were blown wide open when I saw Pacific Overtures."

Wong stars as the Reciter in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the exquisite Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical, which began previews last month and opened Dec. 2 at Studio 54. This new production is directed by Amon Miyamoto — the first Japanese artist to direct a Broadway show — and is based very closely on his acclaimed, all-Japanese production that was seen at the Lincoln Center Festival 2002.

Pacific Overtures is about the acculturation and westernization of Japan following Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to that country. In an interview in The New York Times shortly before the original production opened, Sondheim explained that in order to find a way in to the material, he and director Hal Prince created for themselves "a mythical Japanese playwright who has come to New York and who sees a couple of Broadway shows. He then goes back home and writes a musical about Commodore Perry's visit to Japan."

"I am often skeptical that someone might appropriate a culture that's not theirs," says Wong. "But the execution of this piece is extremely dignified and raises really interesting questions. The score is gorgeous and haunting and evocative and hilarious and inspired. In the history of shows that have Asian characters in them, there are very few that Asian actors don't think twice about performing in. I can't speak for everyone, but I have a sense that the cast feels a comfort level and respect for this material that doesn't happen in some other shows. And it's compounded and enhanced by the fact that the director is Japanese. I usually ask the director a lot of questions because I like to understand what I'm doing, and I also like to test the director to make sure that he or she is coming from an intelligent place. I've never felt so free of that mechanism as I do now. When Amon says something, he's not saying, 'I think this is what a Japanese person would do.' It is 'This is what we do' or 'This is what those who came before me did.' I've just given myself over to the direction." The show's clash of cultures and the consequences of the invasion of Japan by Western forces — "The country trembles on the brink of anarchy," says the Reciter — should make it virtually impossible for audiences to view Pacific Overtures without making parallels to current events. "That's a main feature of doing this play," says Wong. "It's a rare opportunity for an actor to do a play that isn't done often, and I'm almost certain that it will be rediscovered because of its context in the time that it's being performed."

Wong, who received the Tony Award for his Broadway debut in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, is perhaps best known for his role as Dr. George Huang, forensic psychiatrist on "Law & Order: SVU." As an Asian-American actor, a gay man and the father of a four-year-old son, he is very selective about the roles he chooses to play.

"I'm a parent now, and I really see everything through the lens of raising my son," says Wong, who wrote about Jackson Foo's premature birth and early struggle for survival in his acclaimed memoir, “Following Foo.” "I see myself as a role model, although that seems very self-important. Being a role model is one thing; being a self-proclaimed role model is another. But I take that responsibility very seriously. I tightly hold on to the Asian-American models that I had when I was a young person, like George Takei.

He and others represented to me that you could be an Asian-American actor and carry yourself with dignity. So I choose my work carefully. As a double minority I understand a certain amount of subtle pain that occurs in your childhood, either because you're Asian-American or you're gay. I would be really irresponsible to not process my experience and try to eliminate that pain for others. There will always be kids like the kid that I was when I saw Pacific Overtures. I was soaking in every influence that I could and every image that I got from this industry. As a member of this community now, I think a lot about kids and whether or not they're encouraged by what I'm doing. And I like the responsibility."

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