“What is it about Zac Efron that makes us feel inadequate?” says David Rhee, artistic director of the new Asian American theater company Token Theatre.
Token Theatre’s debut play, “Zac Efron”, is a rom-com about Asian gay men looking for love. Co-written by Rhee and actor & Token director of development, Wai Yim. The company will have an online reading of scenes from the play this Thursday and Saturday, directed by Helen Young and starring Broadway veteran Telly Leung.
Rhee initially resisted writing this rom-com, as he was dead set on producing an all-Asian Our Town as Token’s first play. “If I could do Shakespeare all the time, I would. You will not find anyone who loves Death of a Salesman more than me!” he says. But Token’s board voted and insisted—and thus, “Zac Efron” was born.
Rhee has actually done it all, from appearing on Broadway in a Tony-winning production to starring on Law and Order and studying for an MFA in dramatic writing at the Tisch School of the Arts on a full scholarship. But, “I am not white. I am not tall, blond, blue-eyed. People say you’ve got to love yourself. It’s easy to use that phrase when there are so many people like you. My whole upbringing in America is defined by what I’m not,” he says. “Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I would say I was from Korea, but no one knew what Korea was. People would say, ‘What’s that?’ I remember thinking because I didn’t know any better, I’d been in America my whole life, does this place even exist?”
“This thing my mom and dad would always tell me about, this country of yours you keep telling me I’m a part of—I’ve never experienced it!”
“To know that Asian American characters are capable of witty banter and will-they-won’t-they—we’re taking those tropes and claiming them so people can see themselves there,” says director Erik Kaiko. “I just watched Over the Moon on Netflix, and it used words like nainai, which my daughter calls my mom. It caught me off guard because we’re not used to hearing those parts of our culture in pop culture. If we put our stories in the forefront, it will give more of those moments for anyone who doesn’t see themselves represented currently.”
Kaiko, who is half Chinese and half white and grew up in Connecticut, said that if it weren’t for his Chinese idle name, he could pass in many ways. But, his chosen profession said otherwise. “Despite the fact that I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese, ‘Chinese’ became the forefront of what I was to directors and to other artists. That became the defining thing about me because the industry was treating Asian American artists that way.”
The relative rarity of roles he had at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Porchlight Music Theatre, Marriott Lincolnshire, and others —and the reason why—pushed him to pursue producing. “Those experiences have motivated me to make the industry better for those who are underrepresented. I find I have a closer bond to my Asian roots than I did growing up, even though I’m not living with my family, and it means more as an adult because I see the injustice and discrimination more.”
Rhee cites “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art” as a crucial inspiration. “The artists took what was grotesque and made it beautiful. It was a celebration: ‘This is who I am, you’ve made fun of it, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to make it into art.’ I remember thinking at that moment: ‘This is what it’s like for me to be Asian in America.’ Here, “Zac Efron” becomes the ideal, everything these two characters are not. One is comfortable saying, ‘I’m not him and I don’t want to be him!’ And the other one says, ‘I’m not him, and the closest I can get is by dating Zac Efron.’ What am I not because I don’t represent this idea? Or, perhaps, what are you?”
Watch ZAC EFRON LIVE ON THE TOKEN THEATRE YOUTUBE CHANNEL on THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2020 at 7:30pm CST and SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14, 2020 at 7:30pm CST
By David Rhee Co-Written by Wai Yim
Featuring TELLY LEUNG and WAI YIM
Directed by HELEN YOUNG
Stage Manager - MIRANDA ANDERSON