A Voice of Diversity: Sam Simahk
December 2, 2018
During Pittsburgh CLO’s run of Thoroughly Modern Millie in August, Sam Simahk saved the day as Ching Ho, a Chinese immigrant who works for the villainous Mrs. Meers along with his brother, Bun Foo. Ching Ho and Bun Foo are Mrs. Meers’ two henchmen who are forced to help her with her white slavery ring. She runs a hotel for young orphaned girls, kidnaps them, and then sends them to be streetwalkers in China. The two brothers, however, are not villains and wrestle with their consciences about what they’re doing. All they want is to make enough money to bring their mother over from China. They even sing a Chinese version of Al Jolson’s 1920s hit, “Mammy,” titled for the show as “Muquin.”
Over the course of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ching Ho falls in love with the titular character’s roommate, Miss Dorothy. Smitten, he learns how to say, “I love you, Miss Dorothy,” in English, and even though Mrs. Meers has her sights set on Miss Dorothy, Ching Ho rebels and heroically frees her.
As Ching Ho, Simahk was both charming and funny. He played the love-struck Ching Ho with the perfect balance of sincerity and humor. When he sang, his deep, powerful voice rang out through the theater and left the audience wanting more. He and Colin Miyamoto, who played Bun Foo, had wonderful chemistry and were the perfect foils to Mrs. Meers in scenes with her and created their own comedy in scenes of their own.
Off-stage, Simahk is charismatic and friendly. He talks with me about Asian Americans in theater and in Millie. He’s funny, easy to talk to, and incredibly eloquent. The handsome Simahk is half-Thai, and he clearly feels deeply about both his work and his culture. Being an Asian-American man has informed his career, his view on the theater world, and Millie.
On the surface, the show can seem offensive. Mrs. Meers is a white woman pretending to be a heavily stereotyped Chinese woman.
The only two Asian characters in the show (and in the cast) are Bun Foo and Ching Ho, criminals. On the surface, the show can seem offensive. Mrs. Meers is a white woman pretending to be a heavily stereotyped Chinese woman. The only two Asian characters in the show (and in the cast) are Bun Foo and Ching Ho, criminals. While the show seems problematic, Simahk doesn’t view the show as offensive.
“I appreciate Thoroughly Modern Millie for what it is, and I do love it. I did have a lot of fun with the production. I think it's a bit dated, but I also think that it is sort of a triumph over racism because these two characters, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, are real men who are going through real problems. It doesn't matter that they are talking and singing in Cantonese and Mandarin the whole time. They don't have buck teeth and stick-framed glasses; they're not goofy characters with accents. They are Asian men who have emigrated illegally because of the Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882]. There was a 60-year ban on Chinese immigrants; the first ban that prevented an ethnic group from an entire country from entering this country.” After a pause, Simahk adds bitterly, “It was sort of like the first draft of a Muslim ban for a country that refuses to learn from its mistakes.”
Bun Foo and Ching Ho, Simahk continues, are forced into a life of crime because they are illegal immigrants. It is not so much a reflection on their character as it is on the society that they lived in. To hear him talk about the rights of Asian Americans and their journey, it is evident that it is a subject he is passionate about, but even when discussing systemic racism, he makes his argument thoughtfully.
He says, “Ching Ho and Bun Foo can only make money by working for this awful woman, the villain. It should be noted that Mrs. Meers is the only racist character in the show. Everyone else is kind to these guys. She's the only one that is openly racist, and she's the villain. Nobody leaves that show saying, ‘Oh, I'm going to act like Mrs. Meers.’ At the end of the show, too, Ching Ho and Bun Foo save the day. It turns out that Bun Foo speaks English and knows more about the white-slavery business than Mrs. Meers thinks he does, and Ching Ho saves Miss Dorothy from slavery. I think is a real triumph for something that was written 50 years ago.”
Simahk, half-Thai and half-American, grew up in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. He began doing theater as a child going to two-week-long summer camps. He then progressed to being one of the kids who did the show for the younger kids and then as one of the kids working with the adults and performing in shows with them. Theater was the only activity that really appealed to him; cross country, soccer – he disliked everything else. His senior year he decided that he wanted to be an actor professionally. He went to Emerson College in Boston, majoring in Musical Theatre and then began pursuing his acting career after graduation.
Being the first person from his rural town to pursue a career in theater, he felt fully supported but not accurately informed about college decisions for theater and the career path he would follow. He had to do all the research on his own and, being a teenager, he admits ruefully, he didn’t do as much research as perhaps he should have. Being an established and successful performer now, he feels it is part of his duty to help younger performers by talking with them about the process. He’s had multiple mentors and believes it is the responsibility of established actors to teach and support the incoming generation. While performing in regional productions, National Tours, and the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel, he helps kids interested in pursuing theater professionally.
After Millie ended, Simahk went to Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars to star as Curly in their production of Oklahoma!. He went from playing a Chinese immigrant speaking and singing in Chinese to a rowdy, Wild West cowboy singing Rodgers and Hammerstein classics in chaps, spurs, and a cowboy hat.
Simahk was thrilled to be playing Curly, a traditionally white character. “It was a surreal experience for sure. It was absolutely wonderful, and there's not a moment that I ever regretted being there. This was just a dream. I didn't know that it was a dream role until I started working and realized the similarities between myself and the character. Curly is just so much fun to play, and these songs are just some of the best songs in the musical theater compendium: ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ and ‘People Will Say We're in Love,’ and even ‘Poor Jud is Daid,’ as dark as it is, is so much fun to sing."
It is unusual to have an Asian-American actor play Curly, but Simahk hopes that theater casting is changing to give minorities the opportunity to star in traditionally white roles. He mentions other African-American and gender-bent productions of Oklahoma!. He himself was influenced by the 1997 movie Cinderella, which starred African-American singer, Brandy, and Paolo Montalban, a Filipino-American actor. Seeing that movie was the first time that Simahk realized that “someone like me” could be a prince. Simahk said that to be the inspiration for a young Asian-American boy, the way that Montalban was for him, is his dream. “I just hope that a little boy in the audience sees me up there and realizes that he too can be anything he wants to be,” he says.
The entire Oklahoma! cast was diverse in a way that Simahk wasn’t used to. In Millie, he and Miyamoto were the only two Asian actors. When he was on The King and I tour, almost the entire cast was Asian, since the show is set in Siam. Simahk said that he was used to the two extremes, but not the diversity of Oklahoma!, which brought together actors of all backgrounds.
“I'm an Asian-American Curly, and my friend Olivia Hernandez is playing Laurie. Priscilla Lopez, a Tony Award-winning star from A Chorus Line way back, is playing Aunt Eller. Tyler Chris Campbell is playing Will Parker, and he's African-American. We have a cast that is a mix of black and brown and white and yellow and purple and green and everything. It's just so cool to have that experience.”
Non-traditional casting in the staples of musical theater is a new trend that Simahk is glad to see growing. In addition to giving actors of minority backgrounds opportunities to star in shows they might not otherwise, it also gives new meaning and new understanding to the show.
As Simahk says, “Oklahoma! is about this community of people coming together and realizing and deciding who they're going to be as a people. When Oklahoma! was written, we were in the middle of the second World War. It was a national identity crisis, and we were figuring out who we were as a nation. We had gone through the Civil War, we made it through barely, and we're still currently feeling the waves of that now. We're taking down Confederate statues and flags, and people are doing everything but burning crosses on people's lawns. We're right where we were. We’re in another national identity crisis now, in the middle of a World War II stage, and we're trying to figure out who we're going to be: Jud or Curly. Neither character is all good and neither is all bad, but one is more hero and one is more villain. Who do you want to be, and who do you want to rally behind when things go sour? That's what Oklahoma! is all about. It shouldn’t have just one generic homogeneous look for the shows. It should be a bunch of different people of different cultures saying, ‘Where do we want to be in the future?’ That's what Kevin [director Kevin Moriarty] was trying to do with casting, and everybody in the show is just absolutely wonderful I have the best scene partners a guy could ask for.”
Oklahoma! closed on September 23 to rave reviews. Simahk then did a reading of a new show in late September before attending a cousin’s wedding in Thailand in November. He’ll be home in Massachusetts for the holidays and then will play Rodney in Small Mouth Sounds at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston in January. Keep an eye on this talented actor/singer (who is also a playwright and songwriter) whose talent, passion, and cultural conscience are sure to change the theater scene.
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