Reviewing Brian Kim’s submission, My Asian American Typecast, I found myself snapping my fingers at certain lines, laughing at others; and was left feeling inspired by the conviction and vulnerability present in his piece. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pick his brain four a couple hours. Our discussion touched on a lot of topics, ranging from his childhood, to theater history, to the limitations of academic institutions— explored through the lens of being Asian American actor.
Brian Kim is a second generation Korean American who hails from Illinois. Growing up, Brian always loved playing pretend and participating in skits at his church. He discovered his interest in acting and performing arts when some of his friends were auditioning for their high school’s play, and convinced him to audition too. “I didn’t get a part as an actor, but I joined the crew and it allowed me to learn the ins and outs of performance [beyond being on stage].”
He auditioned for his school’s next production (“Hairspray”) and landed a role. “From there, it snowballed into doing every musical and being the secretary for the drama club. I finally found something that I felt like I could do for the rest of my life.”
Like many Asian Americans, when it came time to think about college, Brian started down a path of what he thought he should do, not what he necessarily wanted to do. He spent a semester studying psychology. “Growing up in a traditional immigrant family, it’s a risky business to go into the entertainment field.” During this time, Brian still took theater classes and watched plays, but he kept thinking: “‘Why am I in the audience? What am I doing in the audience when I’ve spent the past four years realizing how much fun this is.’” This drove him to audition for his college’s acting program, which he was accepted into. He realized that “when you are pursuing something that you’re passionate about, things seem to fall into place.”
Recently, Brian has been vocal online about his experience as an Asian American attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign acting program. “My theatre department’s mission statement is ‘we stand for radical inclusion’ and I’ve always asked in my four years, what does that mean to this program? How can you be radically inclusive and yet have persistent inequities?” When he would question the Eurocentricity of the programs, and why the theater history program couldn’t include non-white histories, he was met with excuse after excuse from faculty claiming, “there’s no time, it’s hard to change the curriculum, university change takes time, there’s an elective you can take that’s Asian American theatre.”
However, he was required to take a “general” theatre class which only discussed Greek and western theater. Fed up with the contradictions and fallacies in the departments mission and execution, Brian wondered: “How do you have the audacity to tell me this is a general theater class— that I’m required to take— and tell me your excuse for not putting in more diverse theater in your curriculum is that ‘people have the option as an elective?’” The fallacies in their excuses became crystal clear in the context of the pandemic, as he recognizes “[They’re] telling me that curriculum change is tough and takes time, but then in three months you are able to get an acting class that is all physical, and move it to online because of Covid. You can’t tell me you can’t change your curriculum fast enough for the moving times, because you just did, for the pandemic.”
Brian’s public discussion of his university experience is not meant to discount the program, but to highlight areas for growth and start a dialog about the limiting factors of being one of the few people of color and the only East Asian, in the program for his first two years. “I went into my acting studies not thinking about Asian representation and advocacy, but realized how much of a hole there is, I realize no one is going to step up to the plate, so I have to.”
Like many PoC’s wishing to learn about our varying roles in history, he had to rely on self-inquiry and independent research— not just lectures and graded assignments. He made sure to note: “I think this is not an experience that is specific to me, I think this is something people from all marginalized groups relate to.” Centralizing the experiences of white people and making it the norm affects people of color across all backgrounds. It instills an internal belief that we, as non-whites, are intrinsically other. As Brian now recognizes, the barriers that limit Asian American representation in film are connected to a long history of racism in film and theater, from minstrel shows to the appropriation of Asian and Pacific Islanders.
“[We must] talk about all the stepping stones of that and how white people have been able to use minorities to make money.” Through his studies, lived experiences, and by listening to the experiences of POC’s, Brian has realized that Asian American representation is not just about seeing more Asian people on film, but increasing the overall diversity of how POC’s are represented.
My discussion with Brian was prompted by his spoken word poem, “My Asian American Typecast,” which he wrote for a cabaret night at the 2019 Illinois Shakespeare Festival. This was the first piece of poetry he wrote that was meant to be read aloud. In the words, you can hear his heart speak, allowing rhythm and rhyming and imagery to display his passion and talent. The following year, he used the same piece for the online showcase his graduating class produced.
“I decided to use it for my showcase because it represents who I am. If you want to see something filmed that is me, this poem is me. It’s my frustration at feeling like there is an expectation of me to be something that I’ve never been.”
Since then, this poem has become a sort of compass, reminding him of the direction he wants to take the industry:
“It helps me understand why I’m doing all of this; it both inspires and humbles me and makes me proud of myself. But also gets me fired up and reminds me there is so much more I can do. It’s not only a representation of me, but a promise to myself: I will do these things, I will try to lead the charge, I want other people to see themselves represented on film and in theater, so that other Asian kids who have a flare for the dramatics don’t feel like black sheep in a sea of white.”
Brian doesn’t simply want to break the bamboo ceiling; he wants to hold that gap open to create a more diverse film industry that represents that diversity that defines America— not just the American that has been historically represented in film and theater. It’s not just about Asians; it’s about all marginalized people being shifted to the center. Brian is a reminder to other Asian kids aspiring to see themselves on stage, that it’s possible. That even though you haven’t seen someone who looks like you, or a story that represents you— it doesn’t make your story invalid or non-existent. That it probably means, your story is urgently needed. There are others who feel similarly to you, and through speaking up we will be able to find each other.
Written by Sammie Riedman
This article first appeared in the October 2020 Issue of The Asian American Arts Zine