DREAMS OF BLONDE & BLUE by M.J. Kang, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia, with Kang, Denis Akiyama, Paul Braunstein, Brenda Kamino and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Presented by Cahoots Theatre Projects and Theatre Passe Muraille at Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 24) and runs to February 10, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $21-$30, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
sometimes actor brenda kamino feels she's scaling the same wall she faced a dozen years ago.She wants to be known simply as a performer, but far too often she's pigeonholed as an ethnic actor.
For more than two decades she's done artistic and administrative work in theatre, film and TV, always advocating access and equity in the arts. Among the groups she's worked with are Canadian Actors' Equity, Theatre Ontario and the Ontario Arts Council.
She's also had time to found her own company, Emerald City Theatre, which mounted a non-traditionally cast version of Private Lives, and to perform in dozens of shows -- though mostly as Asian characters.
But that element of casting isn't a problem, she notes, as long as the stories are made accessible to a larger audience.
"Opportunities for performers of colour are greater these days, since playwrights of different backgrounds are encouraged by groups like Cahoots Theatre Projects to tell their stories," she says over lunch, on a rehearsal break from M.J. Kang's dreams of blonde & blue.
"Writers like M.J. and Andrew Moodie are creating complex characters, and it's a great chance for actors to stretch our craft. Specific cultural concerns are only one source of inspiration for these plays; scripts like these de-ghettoize writers of colour.
"Things are a little different in TV and film," adds Kamino. "Casting people look for a specific ethnic pool. If the scene is a New York City building, having black or Asian people around makes sense, if only to lend a sense of background reality, but there are still few key roles for professional actors.
"If you're white and working in the mainstream, you can choose to be any type of artist, participate in any capacity. But more often than not, you can't choose to be a fully engaged performer unless your ethnic pool is required by the script."
It's a theme that's haunted Kamino and others for decades. Things aren't much different today than they were in the 80s.
"My joke when I write or speak about mainstream opportunities for ethnic performers is, "If you know the words, sing along.' Even the way we speak about it is the same."
I remember seeing her in Israel Horovitz's The Primary English Class, staged in the late 70s, in which she played Mrs. Pong, one of several ethnic students trying to comprehend the crazy rules of English.
"Yes," she remembers with a laugh, "that's one of the many roles where I had to play up in age. Mrs. Pong was about 100, an old Chinese lady who knew kung fu, and in another production I played Yoko, a 20-year-old Japanese stereotype. I opened and closed that show four times, and I was cast because I'm Asian."
That's why working on a play like dreams of blonde & blue is so important for Kamino.
"It's a play where you don't have to worry solely about the characters' ethnic roots. Here's this family of Korean extraction living in New York, and their illusions, hopes and secrets are things anyone can understand.
"The mother is different from most others I've played, though, because she's not the typical "ethnic immigrant' mother. She trained as a chemist and left her profession to take care of her family. She has some maternal tunnel vision about her daughter living a normal life, but eventually the mother focuses on what she needs and wants for herself. The tensions she faces -- a combination of generational, familial and cultural concerns -- are real and immediate.
"And she's my age." email@example.com profile