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The Outsider

Actress Cheryl Hamada finds her way through a jungle of stereotypes



In Lookingglass Theatre's adaptation of Studs Terkel's oral history Race, Cheryl Hamada plays a submissive geisha who commits hara-kiri. "I've been regarded this way of course," she says. "The geisha stuff of feeling oppressed is very subtle. I didn't know it until I was an adult. For a young girl, to be seen as pretty, nice, feminine--all flattering things--is a blessing. The problem comes in when you get to be an adult, when you express aggression, anger, not-so-delicate emotions--the negatives of being a person. We can't be sweet all the time, in the workplace or relationships."

Hamada, who's now in her mid-40s, hadn't thought much about prejudice and discrimination growing up in Rogers Park in the 1960s. She says the large Jewish population there seemed sensitive to any kind of racism: "They must've taught their children to be tolerant." Her parents, both second-generation Japanese-Americans, had been youngsters in the internment camps during World War II but didn't want to talk about what they'd experienced. Their extended family had moved to Chicago rather than return to their homes in California because they could get out earlier. Others families moved here for the same reason. "As a kid," says Hamada, "just about every Japanese adult I met had been in the camps."

Hamada spent the first four years of her life in racially mixed Hyde Park, but she doesn't remember seeing an African-American until she was ten, when she started visiting her father's south-side TV-repair store. "There were a few black kids in my high school, bused in from elsewhere," she says. "I didn't have any African-American friends. If anything, I wanted to be Jewish."

In high school Hamada was "an outsider, a nobody. But it was OK to be that." She'd always enjoyed performing for others, and her major at Northeastern Illinois University was speech and drama. "My parents were supportive but didn't believe I could make a living at it," she says, "so speech therapy was the fallback." She had parts in student productions but was never cast in an Asian role.

The 70s were a giddily experimental time in theater, and when Hamada started graduate studies in speech therapy at Northern Illinois University she joined the campus theater. Her directors were insistently colorblind and had her play parts in The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and Hedda Gabler, but she never thought she could have a career in acting. "They wanted blonds, so I was told," she says. "And I'd never make a believable blond. There were no Asian roles."

Instead she took a job with Chicago's Board of Education as a roving speech therapist for students in south-side schools. For the first time in her life she was taunted for her ethnicity. "The kids would yell within my earshot, 'Oh, Chinee, ching kun, ching kun,' in what they believed to be Chinese," she says. "It wasn't threatening or wounding but certainly inappropriate." It happened a lot, and she wondered why the other staff said nothing, why the parents hadn't taught their children that such behavior was unacceptable.

Her job kept her busy--some weeks she went to five schools--but she still thought about acting, even though she didn't do much about it. "I've never been diligent about auditions," she says. Then in the early 80s, on a lark, she answered an ad in the Reader for roles in an industrial spot about swimming safety. "I called them, but they didn't have any more openings," she says. "I had the presence of mind to say, 'Well, I'm oriental, if that would matter.'" They offered her a job. She didn't tell them she couldn't swim. Soon she was a fixture in local industrials, working for the likes of IBM, the Gap, and Motorola.

Another ad in the Reader led to her first stage role out of college--also her first Asian one--playing Hollywood siren Anna May Wong in Commons Theatre's Life and Death of Anna May Wong. "Wong died tragically in every one of her movies," Hamada says. "I had fun with that."

In the mid-80s a 13-month gig in E/R Emergency Room, a long-running Organic Theater comedy, earned her some serious money. That helped with parental approval, but she kept her day job.

Unlike a growing number of Asian actors who agitate for roles--such as the late Quincy Wong, whom she knew through the local Asian-American theater company Angel Island--Hamada sees her glass as half full. She's appeared in a dozen local shows in the past two decades, earning a Jeff citation for Next Theatre's Innocent Thoughts, Harmless Intentions--a recognition she felt legitimized her as an actor. "I had my best entrance in Claudia Allen's The Gays of Our Lives, camping it up," she says, recalling her broad caricature of a Hong Kong brothel madame. "I'm not just Lotus Blossom." However, in the corporate videos and TV commercials--which had allowed her to quit being a speech therapist in 1987--she was always an Asian office worker, proof of the sponsoring company's commitment to diversity.

In the late 80s the honchos at WTTW wanted to broaden the station's reach, and they brought in Hamada to work the pledge drive. Her unrelenting cheerfulness on behalf of PBS won her fans beyond a small circle of off-Loop theatergoers, as did her four-year stint as host of HGTV's Extreme Homes in the late 90s. "I've been unbelievably lucky," she says. "Doors have been opened for me."

The door at Lookingglass, a notoriously tight-knit company, swung open two years ago. "They must've gotten my name from the Goodman--I had auditioned for Journey to the West there," Hamada says. "I got a call out of the blue to audition for a workshop. They said it had something to do with Studs Terkel's book Race. I knew Studs's work of course, so I said yes--even though I had no preconception. Before the audition, they passed out excerpts. 'Pick one. Don't be restricted by your race or gender.'"

There are three Asians in the book--a couple and a man. Hamada chose to read Diane Romano, an Italian. "I didn't hear back from them for three months," she says. "I thought, 'Another one bites the dust.' Then I got a call inviting me to a weeklong workshop. There were about 16 of us, predominantly African-American. I was the lone Asian."

The workshop was unlike anything she'd ever done. She says Joy Gregory and David Schwimmer, who were adapting Race, "were up-front about Lookingglass being very white. 'We recognize that. We need your experiences to do this work justice. We're asking you to trust us. You guys are here because we like you.'" Hamada saw the workshop as diversity training but more intense, personal, and deep. All the actors related stories of racial prejudice from their lives. "We did improv exercises, which were videotaped, and many of them concerned blacks and whites," she says. "Hispanic and Asian voices were small." Hamada would find out later that Terkel's book, then out of print, was subtitled How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.

Lookkingglass didn't guarantee the participants roles in the adaptation. Hamada wasn't counting on getting one--she was busy doing a cooking program that aired during WTTW's begathon and had a small part in the Jack Nicholson movie About Schmidt. Last September she was called back for another workshop. This time, she says, "about half of the original 16 returned. The new people were mostly company members and white. We were beyond the ethnic experiences and into the interaction between whites and others. We posted cards with cliches and slurs and acted them out. We had fun. Chunks of a script began to emerge. Yet we were still in the dark. Joy and Schwim might have been too--they seemed to be getting ideas by watching the tapes."

After she got cast, Hamada began fine-tuning her geisha routine. She was amazed that the first act went over three hours the first time they read through it. The script was shortened, and the final cast of 12 did another workshop in April. "We were asked to generate more stereotypes," she says. "I believe at that time the show was visualized as a lot more physical than it ended up." During the six weeks of rehearsal Schwimmer and Gregory further tightened the script, and the show opened at the company's new space in the Water Tower in mid-June. (It's been extended through August 24.)

"There aren't too many parts for an Asian actress of a certain age," Hamada says, "but I work with the hand I'm dealt."

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