Ethnic humor for everyone
Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Americans are mongrels, says actress Sandra Tsing Loh - just like her. Although she'll upgrade that moniker to "radically indeterminate" if pressed, basically she means that most Americans have emerged from a simmering stew of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The best approach to that sort of mlange is to, well, revel in it.
The child of a first-generation Chinese father and German mother, the actress - who describes her looks as "vaguely Hispanic" - has made a name in Hollywood by celebrating what it usually lives to escape: the everyday ordinariness within even the most exotic of backgrounds.
"My story is peculiar," she says, "but in the end it's universal."
By that she means that no matter the racial background of Loh's audiences, in the end her themes are meaningful to "anyone who has ever felt they didn't fit in somewhere, at some time" - which is basically everyone, she says with a laugh.
The southern California native is a screenwriter, novelist, and essayist - and currently a successful solo performer who has developed a loyal following with her National Public Radio spots, dubbed "The Loh Life," and her collections of essays, "Depth Takes a Holiday" and "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now."
Her stage show, "Aliens in America," a humorous examination of several key incidents in her own life, has garnered acclaim. So much so that the show, originally set to end Oct. 3, was extended at Los Angeles's Tiffany Theater to Nov. 21. And she has been invited to continue it at the Seattle Repertory Theatre (Nov. 29-Jan. 15).
"She's so in touch with the culture of the ordinary," observes director David Schweizer, who helped Loh transform what were essentially monologues into a fully realized stage piece, "that she can pull in a wide audience with her accuracy."
He adds that few people may be able to match Loh's ancestry for pure exoticism, "but almost everyone has a feeling lingering within them that they don't belong." With her ability to see the common humanity in everyone's experience, "there's this enormous degree of empathy she generates in people."
Her show is staged in three parts, with a deliberate dramatic arc. The first section, entitled "My Father's Chinese Wives," is a plunge into the deeply ethnic nature of her Asian father, who as an elderly engineer living in southern California took a succession of traditional Chinese brides from mainland China.
The middle section looks at the question of racial and ethnic stereotypes through the lens of her family's 1969 vacation in that "famous tourist destination," Ethiopia. Her thrifty father chose the African hot spot, embroiled in a guerrilla uprising, because he figured that his dollars would go further in a place not overrun with tourists.
In the final section, Loh explores that most universal of all stories, an adolescent's coming of age.
Her goal, she says, is to provide a window into her life for any type of audience, no matter where they stand in respect to her personal story.
"I've always crafted my work to be inclusive," she says, adding that she has found theater based on racial exclusivity to be very limiting.
The performer lives with her musician husband in what is often called by the self-styled hipper denizens of the west side of Los Angeles "the dreaded [San Fernando] Valley."
It provides grist, she says, for her creative voice.
Living a deliberately low-key lifestyle suits her. The 30-something actress says she has had a sobering go around the track with Hollywood.
"I've had producers running after me, saying 'Love your voice, love your wit.' " But each of the four times that negotiations over TV situation-comedy deals have gotten serious, she says, it's become clear that the producers have no intention of presenting anything like her actual story.
"Basically, what they mean is, 'Your one-woman show is great, but you're too old and haggard to be on TV," she says. She has come to believe, she adds, that "women of any style or wit are not welcome."
Loh recalls her most recent experience without bitterness, but with a great deal of frustration. Her last presentation was a proposed TV show about a character with friends of various ages and backgrounds, which she would both write and appear in.
"They listened and nodded their heads," she says, "and then basically said, 'Sounds great, but let's do it with two 22-year-old blond twins.' "
She throws her hands up and adds that she has now informed her agent she will not "take meetings" with any more sit-com producers.
"It's so racist and sexist now and it's very draining to be in those situations," she says.
However, notes friend and director Schweizer, all these experiences are the refining that have made her ready for the big time, which he says she will hit.
"Year after year they [entertainment producers] come smiling and waving dollars, and they reject all the most interesting ideas," he says. "But all of it is just ammo, developing her, strengthening her, so that when the moment arrives, she'll ace it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society