Last week Racebending.com contributor Erikonil presented an overview of the history of the Los Angeles based theater group, East West Players as well as touching on their continuing work developing young talent both on and off stage through community programs and educational opportunities. This week we’ll take a look at their contribution to the television show that introduced us to one of the first American animation fantasy worlds in steeped in Asian culture.
Avatar: The Last Airbender was a milestone in contemporary children’s television for many reasons. It featured a world that wasn’t just made up with the superficial trappings of various Asian cultures for the sake of tapping into the current love affair with Kung-fu. Instead, it presented itself with a strong respect for the cultures it drew inspiration from, exposing children to Chinese calligraphy, historically accurate clothing, architecture and traditions. The animation team also brought in the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to act as cultural consultants, continuing a sense of respect for the cultures they were representing. Because of this respect and cooperation, Avatar: The Last Airbender also became a showcase for voice talent for actors of East West Players.
The names that most people will know off the top of their heads will of course be Makoto “Mako” Iwamatsu and Dante Basco, the voice actors for the characters of Uncle Iroh and Prince Zuko.
Mako was a long time advocate for Asian American actors up until his death in July of 2006, not only as a spokesman, but also co founding the EWP in 1965 and acting as their artistic director.
“Generally for him it was particularly hard, because he was an immigrant…. There was the linguistic challenge, but he recognized we needed more opportunities to practice our craft.”
George Takei, 2006
Born in Kobe, Japan and coming to the US with the intention of becoming an architect, Mako found himself drawn to theater. He gained a reputation as being an actor who could pull depth to the stereotypical roles that Asian Americans were offered at the time, earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 1966 for his role as the Chinese laborer Po-han in ”The Sand Pebbles”. To younger audiences, Mako is more associated with his voice acting work, not only as Uncle Iroh, but also as the villain Aku in the critically acclaimed Samurai Jack and as Master Splinter in the 2007 film, “TMNT”.
The voice of Prince Zuko, Dante Basco, is known to many by one name. Rufio. 1991′s “Hook” saw Basco as the leader of the Lost Boys, a role that secured him a place in pop culture and one that seems to be making a resurgence in part to fans of Prince Zuko taking a closer look at his voice actors work. He’s also lent his voice to another cartoon featuring an Asian American lead in Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long. Not simply an actor, Basco is also a poet, dancer and rapper, bringing all these skills when he performs.
The current artistic director for the EWP, Tim Dang preformed the role of Yan Rha in book 3 episode “The Southern Raiders”. Dang is a prolific voice actor, working on several series including Batman Beyond, The Wild Thornberrys and Jackie Chan Adventures . This year will mark his 17th year as the Producing Artistic Director with the EWP and he has overseen some of the largest growth the group has ever seen, overseeing it’s transition from it’s 99 seat black box theater to it’s new 240 seat house in the David Henry Hwang Theatre. He’s taken the group through critically acclaimed productions of Sweeny Todd and Pippen and is himself an award winning director. Be sure to check out Racebending.com’s interview with Tim Dang!
George Takei has name recognition that crosses generations and fandoms. In Avatar: The Last Airbender’s book 1, he voiced the Warden in the episode “Imprisoned.” His claim to fame though, is originating the role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek, a character who was one of the first positive reoccuring roles for an Asian American at the time while also breaking the mold for how Asians were portrayed. The swashbuckling Sulu was created to be the antithesis to the stereotype of the unemotional, inscrutable Asian often seen at the time. Aside from acting, Takei has also been involved in politics, being California’s alternate the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and serving seven years on the board of directors for the Southern California Rapid Transit District where he helped plan the Los Angeles subway system. He’s worked steadily in television, film and as a voice actor through the years and as of 2005 has added gay activist to his resume when he came out in October of that year. He and husband Brad Altman have been active in the LGBT community as well as the Asian American community where the two of them donated their winnings from The Newlywed Game to the Japanese American National Meuseam.
James Hong is a founding member of the EWP and two time Avatar: The Last Airbender voice actor, proving the vocals for Mayor Tong in the Book 2 episode “Avatar Day” and as an Air Nomad in “The Storm.” His acting career started as a part time gig where he acted on his days off from his job as a road engeneer for the city of Los Angeles. Some of his earlest work was dubbing imported Asian films such as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” and “The Human Vapor.” His live action resume streaches over 500 roles on both television and big screen and include “Big Trouble in Little China,” Kung Fu, Big Bang Theory, Friends and The West Wing. His list of voice acting credits includes Ping in “Kung Fu Panda,” Chowder, Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! and Jackie Chan Adventures among several others.
Daniel Dae Kim is most famous for his role as Jin-Soo Kwon on the hit show Lost, but to those of the Avatar inclination, he’s the voice of the overly ambitious General Fong in book 2 episode “The Avatar State.” Working steadily, he’s been in films such as “The Cave,” the television adaption of The Andromada Strain, Charmed and Angel. Other voice acting work includes the video games like Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, Saints Row 2 and as the Metron in Justice League Unlimited. He’s currently signed to play Chin Ho Kelly in the television remake of Hawaii Five-O.
Lauren Tom is an Obie Award winning actress who has worked on stage, screen and as a voice actress, preforming in Avatar: The Last Airbender as everyones brainwashed tour guide Joo Dee in book 2′s Ba Sing Se story arch and as Amy Wong in Futurama. Getting into acting at a young age (17 when she joined a touring production of A Chorus Line), she cites being introverted because of teasing about her Chinese heritage as the reason she began acting. When she began working in films, she landed small roles until a guest spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson led to her being cast in the critically acclaimed “The Joy Luck Club” as Lena St.Clair. While her live action work has slowed in recent years, she’s had an upswing as a voice actress. She’s worked on several shows including Kim Possible, Legion of Superheroes, American Dragon: Jake Long, Codename: Kids Next Door and The Replacements.
Love the sight of cabbages getting smashed by wayward benders? Then you love the soulful wailing of James Sie, professional voice actor and voice of the ever put upon Cabbage Merchant! Sie has provided the voices for numerous characters including another Avatar character, Oyaji from “The Warriors of Kyoshi.” While he has done live action work on shows such as ER and Charmed, most of his work is with his voice. He provided the voice of the animated Jackie Chan and the villain Shendu in Jackie Chan Adventures, had reoccurring roles on King of the Hill and Justice League Unlimited. He’s also worked in video games including Fing Fang Foom and Radioactive Man in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Metal Gear Solid 4:Guns of the Patriots and in Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, he voiced lead character Dennis Isenberg,
Sab Shimono has the distinction of providing the voices for one of the nicest and one of the sneakiest characters in Avatar, those being Aang’s mentor Monk Gyatso and Toph’s would be teacher, Master Yu. He’s also provided the voices for Uncle Chan in Jackie Chan Adventures, Justice League Unlimited and in the movie “Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword.” A prolific stage actor, Shimono has worked both on and off Broadway with actors such as Angela Lansbury. In the realm of big screen films, he’s been in the acclaimed drama “Come See Paradise” that deals with the treatment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor and in several Asian American independent films such as 2008′s “The Sensei” and 2009′s “Americanese.”
Takayo Fischer is the voice of Princess Azula’s mentors, Lo and Li. The daughter of Japanese immigrants, she and her family were part of the massive relocation of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and she spent time both in the Jerome and Rohwer Internment Camps before moving to Chicago, Illinois. There, she attended Rollins College. She’s worked both as an award winning stage actress, in independent films and big budget movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
East West Players is a wealth of talent, truly putting forth many voices that tell of the Asian American experience. They tell of hardship, discrimination, triumph and cultural pride while still proudly embracing what it is to be American. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a way for many to participate in something that educated, entertained and brought an often-exploited set of cultures to people in a respectful way.
In April 2008, after learning about the casting of the The Last Airbender film adaptation, East West Players sent a letter to the production expressing their concerns and asking for a meeting. The letter explains that “a golden opportunity was lost to cast ethnically Asian actors to play the lead roles in this Asian-inspired story.” Unfortunately, their concerns were never addressed.