'A quiet passion' - David Hsieh and the multi-ethnic theater of ReAct

It's not easy for minority actors to make it in the world of theater. Often relegated to the roles of servants or racial stereotypes inserted for comic relief, or just not cast at all, minorities have struggled - and continue to struggle - to get the respectable leading parts that go to white performers. Some groups have responded by starting ethnic theater companies that cater to specialized audiences and deal with racial issues.

Chinese-American David Hsieh has taken a more inclusive approach with his company, The Repertory Actors Theatre, or ReAct. When the Seattle native founded the group in 1993, he sought to create an opportunity for minority actors to do the shows they had always wanted to do.

"I just thought, wouldn't it be great if there was a company that did regular plays, but cast them nontraditionally," says Hsieh, who serves as the group's managing artistic director.

And ReAct has carried out that mission for the past 12 years, starting with John Patrick's "The Curious Savage," which it performed at the International District's Theatre Off Jackson during its first year. The play, a story of a wealthy New England family in the 1950s, featured an Asian-American cast.

Hsieh says the show went off "fairly well" and decided to keep it up. Since then, ReAct has continued to do mainstream productions, including "The Importance of Being Earnest," "A Chorus Line" and "Barefoot in the Park," with multi-ethnic casts.

ReAct did most of its productions at the Theatre Off Jackson during the first half of its existence, but more recently it has been appearing in Capitol Hill venues, including the Broadway Performance Hall, Northwest Actors Studio and Freehold's East Hall Theatre.

"It's where most of the theaters we can afford are," says Hsieh.

ReAct is currently putting on Richard Greenberg's "The Violet Hour" at the Richard Hugo House. The play, which tells the story of a book publisher in 1919 who comes upon a machine that reveals the future consequences of his actions, features a mostly nonwhite cast.

"I'm getting to play a variety of roles I wouldn't normally be cast as because of my ethnicity," says ShawnJ West, a ReAct veteran cast imember who identifies himself as a black gay male.

Other ReAct performers agree that it is difficult to find good parts in Seattle theaters. Filipino-American Emjoy Gavino, who also stars in the current production, says auditions can be frustrating.

"People like the idea of calling minorities back," says Gavino. "[But in the end] they say, oh well, maybe that's a little ahead of our time."

Gavino, points out that directors are losing out if they don't cast minority actors because their backgrounds can enrich the performance. In ReAct's 2004 production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," Gavino played Cinderella, while white actors took on the roles of her cruel adoptive parents.

"The oppression was so much deeper because of the racial tension," she recalls.

Hsieh describes his casting choices as "ethnically blind, but not color blind." It has to make sense to the story. He won't, for example, mix families racially unless the script calls for it. And if the story requires that a character be played by someone of a specific ethnicity, he'll find an actor who matches that description; Amber Wolfe, a half-black, half-white woman, plays Jessie, a light-skinned black character in "The Violet Hour."

"Whatever's best for the part that makes [the] show work," Hsieh said.

But just as big a concern for Hsieh is charity work, which ReAct has been doing since it began. A nonprofit since 1998, ReAct gives part of the proceeds from its performances to humanitarian and arts organizations.

At "The Violet Hour," ticket buyers get $1 off the price of admission if they bring food bank donations. Proceeds from that show are going to benefit the Lifelong AIDS Alliance. In the past, ReAct has raised money for other groups, including the March of Dimes, the Asian Pacific AIDS Council, the Pride Foundation and local Asian nursing homes. Even food from onstage table settings has made its way to homeless shelters.

"I do thank goodness a lot of theaters are hopping on that bandwagon," Hsieh said, pointing out that he has seen other drama companies do more charity work since the 9-11 attacks and the South Asia tsunami.

Hsieh still focuses on delivering well-produced, entertaining theater pieces. Over the past 12 years he's been involved with directing, casting, set design, marketing and general production work. He's even written a couple of pieces: an adaptation of Amy Tan's novel, "The Joy Luck Club," and a one-act version of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," both of which have been staged by ReAct. And that's in addition to working his full-time job at a bookstore.

"He has a passion for it. It's a quiet passion," said stage manager and actor Rachel Rene, referring to Hsieh's cool disposition when working with actors, a quality she doesn't often see in directors.

"For all the headaches and financial woes and labor, it's worth it," says Hsieh. "The more you put into something, ultimately the rewards that are reaped, you'll feel the majority of that. It's great to feel you've helped in some way."

Jason McBride is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. He can be reached at editor@ capitolhilltimes.com

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