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A designer of Asian vehicles

With his modest assembly line of plays, C.Y. Lee hopes to give Chinese actors a share of the spotlight.

April 02, 2006|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

PLAYWRIGHT and author C.Y. Lee is determined to help young Chinese actors get a foothold in mainstream Hollywood, even if he has to make them stars himself.

To showcase Asian talent, Lee, best known for having penned "The Flower Drum Song," has written four plays that he's staging in small theaters around town and in New York, with four more in development.

His latest effort, "The Body and Soul of a Chinese Woman," directed by Peter Henry Schroeder and starring Chinese newcomer Marilyn Zhu, opens Saturday at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.

"Thirty years ago, my agent told me never to write characters who are Chinese in plays, so I started writing short stories and novels," says Lee, sitting in a quiet rehearsal room at the Adler. "In order to open doors for the young Chinese, I am now writing American stories with Chinese characters. To break into the mainstream, we cannot raise millions of dollars, but there are hundreds of little theaters in Hollywood, so we are starting with modest plays."

"The Body and Soul of a Chinese Woman" tells the story of Amy Wu (Zhu), a recently divorced, young traditional folk dancer from China who struggles to reconcile her sensuality and intellectual nature while dealing with a traditional Asian American aunt and an ex-husband who wants to come back into her life.

Lee, who wrote "Body and Soul" four years ago, says the play was not produced because of a secondary gay story line in the plot.

"Now China is hot and gay stories are safe, so when I proposed this play again, people were open to it," says Lee, who is nearing 90 ("I always say I am 79 forever") and writes every day. "I wrote these plays because a novel is 300 pages and takes three years to write. If it's not a bestseller, the entertainment industry won't pay any attention to it. A play is 100 pages and takes six months to a year to write. So it's a smaller gamble."

The first of Lee's "modest" plays, "Mama From China," was staged at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood in 2004. Next up are "Fan Tan King," a musical that will be performed by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater in New York this summer, and "House Guest from Xing Jiang," tentatively scheduled to open at Cal State Los Angeles in spring 2007.

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An actress' path

"I got the idea for 'Body and Soul' from a divorced lady from Taiwan, who asked if I could get her novel published, but it wasn't in good shape," says Lee, who instead asked the woman for permission to turn the story into a play. "One night, I went to a banquet in Alhambra, and I met Marilyn [Zhu]. She was singing and dancing on the stage. I thought she was very talented."

After Zhu finished performing, Lee asked her to dance.

"He told me he'd been looking for me for a long time," says Zhu, who immigrated to Los Angeles from China in 1997. "I did not know who he was and thought, 'Do I owe you money?' "

Zhu, who has never acted professionally, was amused when Lee proceeded to suggest that she become an actress for a play he'd written, but resisted the suggestion. Instead, she concentrated on taking classes to learn English and computer programming.

Zhu, the youngest of three children, grew up in China's Hunan province, where her father was a school principal. She had a solitary childhood as her older siblings were no longer home and became an avid reader.

"You can't imagine how lonely it was," says Zhu, long black hair framing an expressive face. "My only company was my dog. I had no one to talk to, so I would sing and dance alone in my room. When I was 7 years old, I'd read about America in a magazine, and told my parents, 'One day, I'll live in the United States, especially California.' "

When Zhu finished college, she became a teacher of fashion design for two years, then became the Chinese representative for Best Formulations, a pharmaceutical and nutrition products manufacturer based in the city of Industry. When the venture did not pan out, the company sponsored her entry to the United States as a student, and she met Lee.

"He kept approaching me for eight months, asking, 'Are you taking an acting class?' and I would say, 'No!' " says Zhu, who went to work as a secretary for a shipping company and continued taking classes.

One night, she invited Lee to a screening of a movie, and he pressed her once more to become an actress. "When he looked at me, and I saw tears in his eyes, I gave in and decided to try acting," Zhu says.

She began working with Peter Henry Schroeder, an actor-director, and suggested he direct Lee's play.

"This project was launched almost a year ago," says Schroeder, who has directed numerous productions at local theaters. "I had to find an accent reduction teacher for Marilyn because her accent was very thick at that time. We moved the project forward as her English progressed.

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