When B.D. Wong was a youngster, he knew he wanted to be an actor. But there were no role models for the boy whose favorite pastimes were watching television and going to the movies.
“In my child’s mind, my race was invisible,” he said. “There were no Asian Americans on TV.”
Wong, best known for his role as Father Ray Mukada from the HBO series Oz and as forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Huang on NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, spoke March 20 about his odyssey from racial self-loathing to eventual self-acceptance.
His talk, given at the Student Union Theatre, was sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, the Rainbow Center, the Department of Dramatic Arts, and the Student Union Board of Governors.
“Deciding to become an actor and not seeing anyone who looks like you, or seeing them do something demeaning or embarrassing or stereotypical, made me try to negotiate what that really meant,” said Wong, whose parents are second-generation Chinese American.
He struggled with wanting to be an actor and being Asian American.
“Asian American parents were extremely vocal and single-minded about what the kids of my generation chose as careers,” he said.
It was difficult for him to tell his parents what he was going to do with his life.
After years of performing in high school plays, with mentors who offered him parts regardless of race, college left him cold. He didn’t have the same encouragement or access to perform. So he left for New York.
But being in New York didn’t change how he felt about his ethnicity. He still judged himself by the negative images of Asian Americans that he had seen on TV and in film.
“I convinced myself that when I came to New York to be an actor, I could transcend my race by behaving in an all-American fashion,” he said.
“I was so uptight about the whole concept of being mistaken for ‘fresh off the boat’ or asked to play those kinds of roles, that I steered myself clear of it by the way I talked, the way I spoke, and the way I dressed.”
After a stint in New York, Wong moved to Los Angeles. The parts being offered there, he said, were like the ones he saw as a child, “the cook on Bonanza” and the “wacky foreign exchange student.
“My favorite role was the troubled Chinatown teenage gang member,” he said, drawing a laugh from the audience.
“I tried to take these parts and turn them into something else: the all-American boy. I was making a living, but not being honest with myself.”
Playing the role of the opera diva in M. Butterfly, on Broadway ended the period of “pushing away” his ethnicity. The play earned him five awards, including a Tony.
The story is about a 20-year affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera star. It turns out that the diva is not only a spy for the Chinese government, she is also a man.
“I was supposed to be beautiful in the play,” Wong said. “And I never felt attractive as an Asian American person.”
He said the show changed how he perceived himself and his vocation.
Wong, who is gay, had not been comfortable sharing his sexual orientation. That changed after he and his partner decided to become parents.
A surrogate carried twins, who were born prematurely. One child died, the other was in intensive care for months. Wong coped by writing e-mails, which have become part of his book, Following Foo: The Electronic Adventures of the Chestnut Man.
On The Today Show, he was asked how it felt to be a gay parent. The question, far from being embarrassing, gave him freedom, he said.
“What I discovered answering it,” he said, “is peace.”