GLENDALE, Calif. — It was supposed to be a night of celebration. Jully Lee and her boyfriend Howard Ho were eagerly watching Tuesday night’s Ovation Awards. It was Lee’s first nomination and she was being recognized for her performance in Hannah and the Dread Gazebo — a play that featured an entirely Asian American company.
But when her category came around, she stared at the screen, stunned, as her name was mispronounced and her castmate’s face appeared in place of her own.
“Two different people,” Ho pointed out. “Two different people who look nothing alike,” Lee added.
Lee said Ho “just kind of screamed ‘oh my god’ and then she said, they laughed out loud. “I don’t know if that’s an instinctual laughing it off or what that was,” she explained, “but our first reaction was to just laugh.”
But the laughter didn’t last long. A moment later, the reality of what had happened hit them.
“I think in the context of right now, of how Asian Americans are fighting our invisibility, it felt like a big slap in the face,” Lee said, choking back tears. “It’s really hard to get recognized for Asian American excellence, so those few moments when it happens, it was very painful to see it blundered like that.”
And not just for her. The aftershocks of that error were felt throughout the community.
People immediately began posting on social media and flooding Lee’s phone with messages of support. She stayed up most of the night responding to each message, from friends, actors, and complete strangers alike. It made her realize, this wasn’t really about her. This was something bigger.
“That mistake, that blunder, represented the pain of all of us that we experience when our faces are switched, our names are mispronounced,” she said, sitting in a park near her Glendale home. “People just don’t take the care and consideration to see us as human beings that have feelings and lives and opinions and thoughts.”
LA Stage Alliance took to social media as well, posting a public apology to Lee and the AAPI community. Chairman Marco Gomez said he also sent Lee a private letter of apology and that LASA is working to correct the video. The person responsible for the error, he said, is no longer with the company, adding “We want to let Ms. Lee know we value her amazing work in theatre and we celebrate her nomination.”
Meanwhile, many of the social media posts called on LASA and the theatre community to “do better.” Lee echoes that cry and said diversity takes a lot more than just opening the door and inviting people in.
“It takes extra work to learn the pronunciation of our names, to...I guess to learn what we look like as individuals,” Lee said. “You have to seek out how to bring the people to the table and actually include them.”
The error made with her name and image were not the only mistakes of the night. There were other mispronunciations and at least one other image error, although none received the same attention nor the apology from LASA. This has been a difficult year for theatres and theatre actors, Lee said, which made the missteps that much more difficult to stomach.
“We’ve been out of work…and this this the first moment of celebration that the theatre community could get together….wow,” she said. “I think it was painful not just for me or the Asian American community but the entire theatre community.”
That community responded as well. Lee arrived in the park wearing an East West Players t-shirt bearing a quote from actress Sandra Oh, “It’s an honor just to be Asian.” That company released their own statement Wednesday, saying that they were deeply disappointed though not surprised by what happened. They also pointed out that EWP was not mentioned at all during the event even though they partnered with other theatres on two nominated productions.
“Every time East West Players co-produces in an effort to bring Asian American actors more visibility in LA theatres, the other predominantly white organization is solely listed and uplifted,” EWP Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai wrote. “This is what erasure of our work and our community looks like.”
He went on to announce — under the heading #LEAVINGLASA — that East West Players was revoking their membership in LASA and urged their supporters to do the same “until the LA Stage Alliance can transparently demonstrate their commitment to recognizing and providing visibility for all of us in the LA theater community.”
Over the next few hours, several companies, like Center Theatre Group and A Noise Within, stood in solidarity and revoked their memberships as well.
Lee said AAPI invisibility is unfortunately not a new problem. “These acts, these responses that are thoughtless, that are not malintentioned [sic]...it does harm,” she said, “and it’s very painful to be on the receiving end of these microaggressions.”
But while she finds herself in this unexpected and painful spotlight, she hopes she and her fellow AAPI artists will finally be seen and heard.