James Chen (left) and Christopher Rivas in KCRep’s 2023 production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” (photo by Don Ipock)
Nelson T. Eusebio III’s groundbreaking production unearths truths about ‘what it means to be an Asian American in this country’
For Nelson T. Eusebio III, associate artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the history-making “Cyrano de Bergerac” that opened the Rep’s 2023-24 season was a big check off his bucket list. “Cyrano” is a chance for directors to stage big moments — the iconic three-way balcony scene, the epic “battle of the one hundred” and that unapologetically melodramatic death scene. “It’s a big challenging play, and you want to take that on,” says Eusebio.
But for him, this production was also deeply personal. “I always knew I wanted to have an Asian American Cyrano,” Eusebio said. “Cyrano” is a story of face as destiny. “This is the first time in history this story has been told with an Asian face.”
That face, a gorgeous one, incidentally, was that of James Chen (of “The Walking Dead,” Netflix’s “Iron Fist” and ABC’s “FBI”). A martial artist as well as Yale-trained dramatist (and former classmate of Eusebio’s at the Yale School of Drama), Chen was well-matched to both Cyrano’s poetry (via Martin Crimp’s hip-hop rhymes) and physical demands, the play’s see-saw of comedy and tragedy. He dazzled with incredible lightness in the fight choreography, at one point leaping onto a café counter in a single levitating spin. And he was deeply affecting as Cyrano comes to believe he is cut off from love, despair shadowing his face bit by bit.
“You look at this man who’s super confident in fighting and poetry,” Eusebio says, “but he cannot confess his love to the woman he loves.” Eusebio’s epiphany was that the conflict that drives Cyrano — i.e., the inescapable physical appearance that defines and limits his life — is also a perfect metaphor for the racism Asian American males experience growing up.
Eusebio’s parents were immigrants from the Philippines, his father a Navy veteran and his mother a nurse. They met in Rochester and lived briefly in Philadelphia, where Eusebio was born, before moving to southern New Jersey, where he grew up: “I distinctly remember wishing we were white, so people would stop bullying us. I got beat up, kids called me chink. A lot.”
Then, when Eusebio was 14, his father was transferred to San Diego: “It was pretty incredible. I had never seen that many Filipinos in my life. When you go from being a minority to what felt like a majority, you get this feeling you can be whatever you want, you can try stuff, you can be attractive to the people you want to be attractive to. San Diego changed all that for me.”
But it wasn’t until Eusebio read the David Henry Hwang play “FOB” in college that he began to understand how much the racism he experienced as a child, and internalized and carried as a result, had continued to affect his life. “David wrote this monologue, from the point of view of a guy who grew up in a predominantly Asian place, that articulated so truly my own internalized racist experience. And from that moment of realization, it’s really easy to draw the line to ‘Cyrano.’”
Eusebio came up at a time when Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, were by and large invisible. “Growing up there were almost never people who looked like me in the culture, and the few portrayals there were, like Long Duk Dong in ‘Sixteen Candles,’ were horrific.”
“The example I always use is Ke Huy Quan,” says Eusebio. “He didn’t act for 15 years! There were no roles for him.” Quan, winner of the 2023 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” starred as a child alongside Harrison Ford in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and as “Data” Wang in 1985’s “Goonies.” But after decades without roles, he could find work only behind the scenes and was without an agent when the casting call went out for “Everything Everywhere.”
Recent years, of course, have brought a growing wave of popular movies and shows featuring Asian and Asian American men: first Daniel Dae Kim, who grew up in Pennsylvania but was cast as a non-English-speaking Korean national, breaking ground in “Lost.” Then Steven Yeun in “Walking Dead.” Followed by “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Kim’s Convenience,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Parasite” with the 2020 Best Film Oscar, “Squid Game” and “Shang-Chi” and of course the world-dominating K-pop group BTS, with six #1 Billboard songs.
Within this context, the historic significance of the Rep’s “Cyrano” — the first professional production with an Asian American director, and the first with an Asian American lead — can be easy to miss. Then Eusebio reminds me of the data, consistent in different studies from different dating apps, which have shown, time and again, that of all demographic match options, Asian men are the least preferred, that in fact Asian men are often specifically filtered out in search settings. In other words, they are rejected before their faces are even seen. That’s why it was so important to Eusebio to have an Asian man play the title romantic lead, to be convincingly sexy and dangerous, to pose the question, “What if the most romantic man in the world was Asian?”
“BTS and these other new depictions of Asian masculinity, it’s wonderful that gets to be out in the world,” says Eusebio. “It’s better for current and future generations, but there’s still the current cultural space we occupy and the history we have in this country that Asian Americans themselves aren’t always cognizant of. There’s so little understanding of our experience, how much we’ve had to assimilate ourselves to try to spare ourselves physical and emotional violence and yet can never escape, because of the way we look.”
For a brief moment in time, it looked as though anti-Asian violence might be a thing of the past, like the casual massacres of Chinese railroad workers or the forcible incarceration of over 100,000 American-born Japanese during WWII. That changed during COVID-19, when anti-Asian violence surged so drastically in number, frequency and savagery it could not be ignored. Shocking incidents, recurring so often it felt like a bad dream — in Colorado, Atlanta, Texas. But also in places that large, visible, well-integrated Asian American populations have long considered home, like San Francisco and New York City. “They’ve taken away our safe spaces,” Eusebio says. “Now what is left for us?”
“Ins Choi [author and creator of “Kim’s Convenience”] and I had this conversation: the best thing we can do right now during all this anti-Asian hate is to tell stories that remind people that we are human. Fully human.”
With his short fuse, ready violence, lying, deception, distorted and toxic masculinity, and most of all, his self-hatred, Cyrano is as much anti-hero as hero. And that’s what Eusebio likes. “Why does everyone else get to be the anti-hero? Why can’t Asian Americans be messed up? Cyrano is a fully human, unadmirable character. So I was able to give an Asian actor that opportunity, to fall apart, have fits, go to those places, unearth the truths about what it means to be an Asian American man in this country. The stories we tell now are the stories we needed when we were younger.”