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Throughout history, Asian Americans have left an indelible mark on the theatrical landscape, with their diverse perspectives, talents, and cultural contributions. Their invaluable influence has helped shape and enrich the performing arts, infusing them with vibrant colors and nuanced narratives that resonate with audiences far and wide.
Yet, as we intentionally celebrate their achievements and contributions this month, it is essential to acknowledge that there is still much work to be done. The quest for increased representation in the theatrical world remains an ongoing journey, one that demands our unwavering commitment and collective efforts, not just this month, but all the time.
Data from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition shows that Broadway actors are still overwhelmingly white. And as it pertains to writers, producers, and directors on Broadway, the AAPC says that as of 2019, 93.6% of producers were white, 93.8% of directors were white, and 89% of writers were white.
So, it’s clear that the fight for Asian American representation in theatre is ongoing. But there is still a wide array of Asian American performers working hard to smash that glass ceiling. Today, we explore the life and work of performer Shoba Narayan.
Shoba Narayan – a successful actor on stage and screen – grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Indian immigrants. Narayan showed an affinity for performing from an early age – often putting on one-woman shows for her family members, “made complete with homemade construction paper tickets and a pre-show speech including a request for no recording devices,” she said in an interview with Brown Girl Magazine.
In an interview with NPR, Narayan says she first noticed the limits of her South Asian heritage when she aimed to audition for Dorothy in her middle school’s production of Wizard of Oz. Her friends told her she would never get the role because “Dorothy wasn’t brown.”
“I realized during that experience how much representation mattered at that time, and I realized how much my ethnicity played a role in my participation in theater,” Narayan told NPR.
But Narayan refused to quit; she became more heavily involved in the performing arts and her cultural heritage. She took a variety of dance classes, learned to play the violin, and immersed herself in learning Bharatanatyam – a classical Indian dance.
“I fell in love with it, especially as it deepened and furthered a connection to my cultural identity,” Narayan told BGM. “It was shortly thereafter I discovered musical theatre, and I would never be the same. All of my passions were seamlessly blended together in the most profoundly powerful way and the vision of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be came into full bloom.”
After a successful high school theatre career, Narayan went to the Boston Conservatory at Berklee to study acting and musical theatre.
Upon graduating from college, Narayan moved where all actor hopefuls move … New York City! She broke into the industry with a variety of TV spots, including Quantico, Growing Up Smith, Gossip Girl, Coin Heist, Mistress America, and Halal in the Family.
Narayan got her big break in a major way: she made her Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 alongside Josh Groban. Narayan made history in that show as the first South Asian woman in a lead role on Broadway since Bombay Dreams in 2004. Playbill called it “a personal milestone and a key moment on Broadway.”
Narayan’s career only skyrocketed from there. Other notable roles include:
In Aladdin, she starred alongside Michael Maliakel, who made history of his own as the show’s first South Asian Aladdin. The musical also recently joined the Top 20 longest-running Broadway productions.
“Inarguably the night’s most impressive performance, Shoba Narayan brings chills as Eliza Hamilton. She shows in the second act an unmatched strength and emotional control, selling the musical’s most difficult moments.” – Des Moines Register
Narayan cares deeply about her South Asian roots and worked diligently to bring her culture and perspective as a South Asian woman to the role of Jasmine.
“I spoke to Disney about some lines that could be shifted to be made a little bit more sensitive to the audience that may come in. They’re small shifts, but I think it will make broader audiences feel welcomed,” she told NPR.
These changes included correct pronunciation of certain words and dance tweaks to be more authentic to the traditional Bollywood style.
In November 2022, Narayan was on tour for Aladdin but also celebrating Diwali – one of the most important festivals in Indian religions; it symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.” Narayan spoke to the audience of Aladdin before the performance, discussing the importance of the holiday. She and Maliakel even took questions from the audience about the festival.
“As someone who grew up as a minority in this very specific culture, and then wanted to be a part of this very specific community, to kind of bring the two parts of myself together was a very emotional thing for me to do,” she told NPR. “We didn’t have a lot of that kind of a portrayal of brown-skinned women from that part of the world while we were growing up. It feels very full circle to step into that role and also see the impact that this casting has made on so many South Asian women.”
The theatre world needs more Asian American representation, no doubt about it. To be a part of the efforts, consider learning more about organizations that can help. A few include:
The National Asian American Theatre Company: This organization is a not-for-profit organization formed in 1989. NAATCO’s mission is to assert the presence and significance of Asian American theatre in the United States, demonstrating its vital contributions to the fabric of American culture.
Asian American Theatre Revue: By offering news about Asian American theatre, as well as a directory of Asian American theatres, a calendar of Asian American shows, a listing of Asian American plays and more, the AATR helps put Asian American theatremakers center stage.
East West Players: Founded in 1965, East West Players is committed to raising the visibility of the Asian American experience by presenting inventive world-class theatrical productions, developing artists of color, and providing impactful youth education programs.
The Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists: The CAATA envisions a strong and sustainable Asian American theater community that is an integral presence in national culture – evocative of our past, declarative of our present, and innovative towards our future.
Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT): Originally founded by a group of Asian American students in 1972 on the University of Washington campus at the school’s Ethnic Cultural Center, Northwest Asian American Theatre became a flagship Asian American theatre company in the Pacific Northwest and the first of its kind in the region.