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Interview

Jennifer Lim Challenges Ethnic Stereotypes in 'Chinglish'

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Jennifer Lim Challenges Ethnic Stereotypes in 'Chinglish'
Jennifer Lim still can't quite believe her journey with David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," which bowed at the Longacre Theater on Broadway on Oct. 27. She was invited to participate in the first reading—"because I know Mandarin," she says frankly—and has been with the show since 2009, throughout its various incarnations. She never auditioned. Further, "Chinglish" marks her Broadway debut. Her previous credits were largely Off-Off-Broadway, along with several television appearances.

 "Chinglish" details the misadventures of a dissembling American businessman (Gary Wilmes) as he tries to negotiate a business deal in China while falling in love with a strong-willed vice minister of culture (Lim) who has her own agenda. It's a comedy about linguistic, cultural, and romantic misunderstandings, an updated East-meets-West clash.

"When I first got the script I was blown away at how timely and smart it was," Lim says. "Though I attended Western schools and my parents are more open than most conservatives, I grew up in Hong Kong with traditional values. My father is Chinese, my mother is Korean, and I had a Cantonese nanny. A lot in the play resonated right off the bat."

Though Lim had no reservations about the topic or its satirical treatment, she says the creative team was aware that it might put off some Asians. In an effort to gauge audience response, they brought in Asian-Americans and native Chinese speakers during the show's run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. "Ninety-five percent of the audience enjoyed it," reports Lim. "The few who had problems with it were the older guard among the Chinese natives." Lim suspects they were uncomfortable with the depiction of corruption in Chinese government. Theirs is a sensibility that does not air dirty laundry in public, Lim acknowledges.

Besides fluency in Mandarin, what most prepared Lim for the role was her upbringing, her relatives, and living for three months in Qinghai, as well as making a special trip to Guiyang in preparation for the play's Broadway opening. Frequenting a restaurant and tasting sour fish soup was profoundly informing, she says: "It's not the dish itself but the experience of the restaurant: how packed it is, the noise, and heat. There is no air conditioning, and it's hot, sweaty, and smelly. All the senses are assaulted."

Lim's performance was also influenced by the lack of freedom in China, especially the restrictions on public speech. It's a Communist country; one's private thoughts and one's public presentation are always at odds. This conflict is at the root of the culture clash portrayed in the play, Lim points out. While the American feels he should be honest with his wife about his feelings for another woman, his Asian lover (Lim's character) believes such forthrightness would be a sign of disrespect to the wife and is vehemently opposed to his coming clean to his spouse.

Lim's major acting challenge has been "incorporating the audience response," she says. "Figuring out how to hold and suspend the moment for the laughter. It's tricky. The other big challenge is keeping a straight face. I got most of my giggles out in Chicago."

Do It for the Joy

Lim knew she wanted a theater career early on, and despite her parents' traditional worldview, they supported her from the outset. "Acting has given me the chance to explore feelings I don't get a chance to express in real life as a nice Asian girl, like being passionate, sexy, angry, and strong."

After majoring in theater at Bristol University in England, she went on to earn her MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Still, she says it took her a couple of years to find her feet in front of the camera. "And I still feel more comfortable on the stage," she says. Lim has worked steadily and does well at auditions, in part because she makes sure all the necessary prep work is done, "so I can go in and play."




READ THE BACK STAGE REVIEW OF 'CHINGLISH'




Auditions for television and film are different from those for the stage, she continues. "When I audition for TV or film, I like to be off the book. The camera picks up everything. I also like to look the part. In the theater, the look can be more relaxed at an audition. But it's tricky because what you wear informs what you do. The skirt and shoes, for example, inform the way you move. When I audition for a play I also want to know what I'm doing and be prepared, but I do have the pages in my hand. I want to be able to take direction and make adjustments."

Preparation is the key to taking pride in what you're doing, because that's where the joy is. "If the experience is not joyful, why do it?" Lim says. "It's so easy to be distracted with issues that have nothing to do with the work. It helps me to focus on the work."

Playing Stereotypes or Being Unemployed?

Being Asian has been central to most of the roles Lim has played. "It's a Catch-22," she says. "Who wants to be pigeonholed? But I've worked as much as I have because I am Asian." Still, as a relative newcomer to the States she had to learn to recognize hot-button stereotypes. "It's not that racism doesn't exist in Hong Kong, but the majority of people look like me."

In TV and films, Lim often plays "the unnamed Asian roles," such as teacher, nurse, lab technician. Though these are borderline stereotypes, they are not offensive and they offer employment she might not have otherwise. But the pure, demure innocent is too much of a cliché for her, nor is it a fair representation of young Asian women today. "Stereotypes are lazy, and I don't find them interesting to play," she says. "But stereotypes can also be handy—when they're used as a vehicle for irony or irreverence. Would I play a two-dimensional lead because it's work? Yes, if I had the chance to change it. These decisions depend on who's in the project and what everyone is willing to explore. I'd like to say we can achieve a bridge. But this is not black and white. It's gray."

Lim is hopeful for her future and that of other Asian-American actors but believes it may be harder for them than for their white counterparts. Nevertheless, she warns against feeling bitter and resentful. "Because while you're in that ditch, 50 other actors who are not in that ditch will be moving ahead," she emphasizes. "And Cinderella stories do come true. It happened to me. But then, I had David Henry Hwang as my fairy godmother."

"Chinglish" is playing at the Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th St., N.Y. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.

Outtakes

- Has performed at HERE, P.S. 122, and La MaMa Experimental Theatre and with the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre

- Has a recurring role on "The Good Wife" and was featured on "Blue Bloods," "Law & Order" (all three New York–based shows), and "Royal Pains," among others

- Had roles in "This Isn't Romance" (London), "The Medea" (Turkey), and "Hamlet" (Poland)

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