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YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsHoon Lee

He's acting as a liaison

June 12, 2007|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

Hoon Lee had no formal training in acting when he turned to the stage in 2001, just a desire to escape a graphic design job at an Internet company with sinking fortunes. But when a friend wrote a musical bound for a Taiwan tour, Lee was able to snare a role in the show and a ride abroad.

"When I came back, the choreographer from that show let me know of other auditions," says Lee, who went on to roles in "The King and I" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., then "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway. "I never had any plans to go into acting. I sang with an a cappella group doing jazz standards in college because it seemed like a fun thing to do. But that was the only thing I'd done on stage before."

Six years later, Lee has taken on what may be his toughest role yet: playing the playwright in David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical "Yellow Face." Set amid real-life stories involving discrimination in society and the issue of racial identity, "Yellow Face," at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1, revolves around the character "DHH" and his relationship with a Caucasian actor passing for an Asian.

"Being in this play is like being on a jungle gym," says Lee, 33, who looks nothing like the playwright. "There's comedy, serious issues, tragedy. But comedy is clearly the way in for the audience to explore issues of race and identity. And DHH is the butt of all the jokes, which is great fun for me as an actor."

Hwang met Lee about five years ago, when the actor was cast in his revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song." In his Broadway debut, Lee played the part of Chao, a romantic supporting character.

"Hoon had a magnetism and charisma, and he was great to work with," says Hwang, in a phone interview. "While the subject [of Lee's credits] came up when we cast him, he wasn't the lead. Everybody has to be given a chance, otherwise it becomes a Catch-22. If they don't have Broadway experience and if you don't cast them, they can't get Broadway experience."

After "Flower Drum Song," Hwang tracked Lee's work and was particularly impressed by his performance in "Sides: The Fear Is Real," an ensemble of comedy sketches about the actor's audition process that Lee also co-wrote and produced with Mr. Miyagi's Theatre Company in New York. So Hwang asked Lee to participate in several workshops before the play's premiere at the Taper. The playwright says Lee's portrayal of DHH and his insights into the character helped shift the focus from showing multiple perspectives in early drafts to telling the story through DHH's eyes.

"I saw his ability to analyze text, and that gave me even more confidence in his ability to pull this off," Hwang says. "He has the ability to translate physically what he understands mentally, which is rare in actors."

Lee's character in "Yellow Face" goes through a marathon of emotions in each performance, which has challenged the actor to stretch his vocal cords and state of mind.

"There are large emotional outbursts in both acts," he says, "and the biggest challenge is remaining open enough because I'm painting a character who's not that likable. But you want the audience to let you in, hear you, and by the end of the play, you want them rooting for you."

Lee's enthusiasm for his work shines as he talks about the play, which will be part of the new season at New York's Public Theater. Nibbling an ahi tuna salad at a downtown restaurant takes a back seat to an intellectual conversation that runs the gamut from how to develop one's acting technique to defining authenticity in racial identity.

"Ideas as loaded as race are really felt on the personal level, and yet we discuss them on an abstract level, and they cease to have meaning," Lee says. "I'm Asian American, and I don't speak Korean. There are some in the Korean American community who wish I did. I identify myself first and foremost as an American. But in theater, film and TV, you're judged on your appearance, and I'm seen as an Asian.

"If you identify yourself with a particular group, it creates a structure and a sense of support, but does it also limit you? Is reverse discrimination a justifiable means to an end? I like examining those kinds of questions."

Lee, who graduated with a degree in visual and environmental studies and English literature from Harvard University, is the son of two molecular biologists; his brother is a postdoctoral candidate in gene expression research at MIT.

"There was a lot of academia floating around in our home," says Lee, who grew up in Boston. "I was a bit of the black sheep in the family because I was artistically inclined. I always thought I'd be an illustrator or a painter, never a performer. I draw, sing and make music, and feel comfortable drawing parallels between things. So doing one form of creative expression informs the other."

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