Pun Bandhu saw few Asian-Americans in shows.
Then he took action.
By FRANK RIZZO
Pun Bandhu confesses to having been naive when he graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2000. After having no difficulty being cast in a wide variety of roles in plays while at school, the actor faced real-world obstacles when he left New Haven to pursue his professional career.
Being passionate about working on new works by young artists, he targeted Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons as a theater where he most wanted to perform.
But forget about being cast there, he learned. Even after working in films (Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), on TV (Bluebloods, and a recurring role in a One Life To Live), on Broadway (Wit), and Off-Broadway and regional theaters throughout the next decade, he could never even get an audition there.
“They never called me to play even a [minor] role as a doctor, lawyer, or neighbor, much less a leading role,” he says. When he finally got an audition in 2011, “it was only because a white playwright had written a character that was specifically Asian.”
That was the last straw for Bandhu, who after much deliberation posted his frustration on Facebook, “knowing what the ramifications could be” in going public on social media.
“I think as actors you never want to be seen as complaining, as disgruntled or being a diva,” says Bandhu from his home in Cornwall, Connecticut where he lives with his husband Marc Falato “I think Asians are taught growing up—and this is a generalization, but it is part of every Asian culture—not to rock the boat.”
His posting set off a quake that caused a tsunami of responses, mostly from other Asian-American, working theatre artists. The more than 400 comments echoed the frustrations, anger, and humiliations they faced over the years at theaters across the country, not only of the inability to get auditions but in the limited, marginal, and even racist roles they were expected to play when they were cast.
“My colleague Christine Toy Johnson told me, ‘I’m so sick and tired of Asians being the perpetual ‘foreigner’ in America. My ancestors have been here since the 18th century and yet we’re not considered part of the American landscape.’”
Many of the responses were from award-winning Asian-American theater artists who had been in the profession for decades. “I thought, ‘Is this what I have to look forward to? Why am I giving myself over to this craft and career just to toil in the margins?’”
With the increase of violence against Asians in this country, exacerbated by right-wing disinformation around COVID-19, the group’s efforts to be seen on stage was also more than just a matter of employment opportunities.
Says actor Kenneth Lee, “Our invisibility has only reinforced negative stereotypes. Representation is truly the key to expanding perceptions.”
Soon after Bandhu’s initial posting, the Asian-American artists decided to meet off-line to further the conversation in a more productive way.
“That meeting was so empowering because all of us being in a room together made us realized, ‘I’m not the only person feeling this way.’”
But the group needed hard data to prove their points about their feeling of “invisibility.” Though regional theaters kept tabs of hiring practices about people of color and made them public, commercial producers kept those statistics under wraps.
For good reason. “The numbers don’t lie,” says Bandhu.
When numbers were finally gathered from the New York professional theaters, the Asian-American actors were even more stunned when the new data from the previous five years was revealed: Less than one percent of employment was for Asian-Americans.
“What was so great about these stats was that it brought it to a conscious level for us and revealed that these issues were systemic,” says Bandhu. “It was such an amazing moment or empowerment.” Once the group has access to the statistics, “there was no place to hide.”
Bandhu says the next step for the group—now known as Asian American Performers Action Coalition—was to bring these stats to producers, directors, casting heads and artistic directors—and say, “What are you going to do about it?”
When that meeting took place later in 2011, there was a collective gulp from the theatrical power brokers and gatekeepers.
“They were gobsmacked,” says Bandhu. But they also shifted responsibility to their staffs, playwrights and even to the Asian-American artists themselves.
One leading New York artistic director admitted to having blinders on, and he urged the group to email him when they’re being overlooked for a role. “But why is the onus on us and not those in power?” says Bandhu.
It was clear a lot more education was needed for these gatekeepers—and their funders—to get over their unconscious bias, says Bandhu.
“It doesn’t mean they’re bad people and we were not there to burn down the theater,” he says. “All along there was a willingness from them to hear what we had to say and to do better. We were providing a different perspective, which allowed them to see where their blind spots might be. That has been the source for their success. They understand that we’re there to partner with them to help and give them the resources they need.”
Bandhu points out that part of our success “is that we’re extremely diplomatic.” But sometimes it takes more public action to produce real results in practice.
“I take great inspiration from LGBTQ movement,” says Bandhu. “Especially that breaking point of, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’ that happened at Stonewall.”
Bandhu says there’s a close connection among disenfranchised peoples, including those in the LGBTQ+ communities.
“There’s no difference from those in marginalized communities turning on the TV or going to a movie which are populated with white heroes and having to see ourselves through a white lens. There weren’t stories that were made for us and by us. Those feelings of invisibility were doubled in my case.”
Growing up gay, Bandhu rarely found pop culture images that reflected who he was.
Bandhu, the son of Thai parents, was born in Indonesia where his banker father worked. He went to an international school there until he was a 13 when his father relocated the family to New Jersey, where his mother would run an acclaimed restaurant, The New Main Taste in Chatham, N.J. His undergrad studies were at Washington University in St. Louis, followed by Yale’s graduate drama program.
While Yale embraced diversity, it did not prepare him for the commercial realities. Former grads returned to the college to speak to students about their experiences, “but no one was a person of color, and so no one told me explicitly what to expect and how typecast I would be.”
Despite stereotypes, Bandhu managed to grow a career in film, TV, and on stage. Beyond his acting roles, he became one of the few Asian-American producers working New York. His credits with his ZenDog Productions include such high-profile productions as the 2005 Tony Award-winning revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, 2006’s Tony Award musical Spring Awakening, and the 2019 hit Beetlejuice.
As for Playwrights Horizons, Bandhu has since performed at the Off-Broadway theater “and they actually asked me to consult with their diversity team.”
Meanwhile, the work of the advocacy group continues—though slowed by the nearly two-year shut-down of theaters caused by the pandemic, but progress has been made since those shocking statistics more than a decade earlier.
Further meetings, negotiations and actions have resulted in greater access in auditions and casting and better awareness to the type of roles being offered to Asian-American actors. It also had an impact on how Asians were depicted on stage and screen and the organization was a major force in efforts to stop “yellow-facing”—where white actors put on make-up to portray Asians.
The coalition’s last study examined the 2018-19 New York theater season—the last full season before the pandemic—and found that at the 18 major nonprofit theaters examined by the group, 100 percent of artistic directors and 88 percent board members were white. On Broadway, 94 percent of producers were white, as were 100 percent of general managers.
Data showed the hiring of Asaian-American actors increasing to six percent from the coalition’s 2011 less-than one percent. “Now many more Asian-American stories are being written and produced,” says Bandhu.
The group is calling for “a fundamental paradigm shift.”
Bandhu says context is everything and by joining forces with other coalitions from the African-American and Latinx communities “the scarcity model” has become evident thanks to further data.
That’s where the numbers for marginalized groups would go up and down depending on the latest hits—Hamilton and In the Heights saw spikes in their group’s demographics, but there always seemed to be a cap on how much diversity the industry could withstand. “It never went above 20 percent for marginalized and underrepresented groups from year to year over the course of 10 years,” says Bandhu, adding that it pits these groups against each other for a relatively small piece of the pie.
Bandhu says AAPAC’s data helps prove that it’s a larger problem centering on white narratives and artists overseen by a systemic white power structure, at the expense of all else.
“I hate the word ‘minorities’ because it’s not just about a mathematical equation,” he says. “The root of [the word] is ‘minor’ and it suggests that we are ‘less than.’ People who are marginalized in a society need to start realizing that we are the global majority and to move beyond minority thinking.”
In June the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition was recognized for its decade of service with a Special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre.
While the future for Asian American—and other marginalized—artists is yet to play out, one thing remains clear. Bandhu and his group are counting on, and creating, progress.