AsianConnections’ editor Lia Chang sat down with Thom Sesma on the set of the Bay Street Theatre production of Shanghai Moon in Sag Harbor, where he is playing the handsome, sexy and insatiable General Gong Fei, to talk about his artistic influences, life-changing experiences and working as an Asian American actor in the theater.
Equally at home on the legit stage as well as in the musical theater, the versatile actor was last seen on Broadway as the seductive powerhouse Captain Ahrab wielding a whip and making women swoon, in the Tharp/Dylan project The Times They are A-Changin‘. On and off Broadway and on tour, he has appeared in Miss Saigon, Titanic, Search and Destroy, Man of La Mancha, Sweeney Todd, Cymbeline, Rashomon, Baba Goya, In a Pig’s Valise, As Thousands Cheer, Othello and Ivanov.
Last Fall, he played opposite Kathleen Chalfant in the EPIC Theatre Ensemble’s acclaimed production of Howard Barker’s A Hard Heart, directed by Will Pomerantz.
He recently starred in a reading of Jeanne Sakata’s Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, a one-character play inspired by the true story of 24-year old college student Gordon Hirabayashi, who during World War II, openly defied and legally challenged U.S. government orders to forcibly remove and and imprison over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into desolate concentration camps.
Born in Sasebo, Japan and raised in San Diego, California, the actor credits his father, a naval engineer, for his introduction to and appreciation of the performing arts. A return to Japan for two years during his youth is when Sesma first saw Japanese performers on stage, and experienced John Wayne on the silver screen.
Lia: Who inspired you to be in the arts?
Thom: My father. I grew up in San Diego. There was a radio station called KSDO, and on Sundays at 1pm they would play something called The Sunday Show. They would play scores to musicals. That was my introduction to the theater. My dad listened to it every Sunday.
The first show he took me to was in Japan. It was a movie, but it was in a big giant cinema, like a Radio City Music Hall. There was revue, a live revue before and in between the movies. I remember that they did the dances from West Side Story, which was astounding, all Japanese performers.
The first movie my dad took me to prior to that was The Longest Day, a 20th Century Fox epic with an all-star international cast of actors- French, German and American. I was six years old. John Wayne was in that movie. My dad was so excited to see that film (he had read the book). We were living in Japan at the time, but he didn’t wait for the film to show up on the Navy base. We saw it in a Japanese theater, but because there were French and German actors in it, it was side titled, with Japanese letters on the side. My dad remembered the story well enough to tell me what was going on. I remembered thinking that it was a really terrific movie.
Years later, I was living in New York performing in my first Broadway show, La Cage Aux Folles. It was June 28, 1985. The Regency Theater was showing The Longest Day. I had a performance that night. I went to see it in the afternoon. In the middle of the film, when I saw John Wayne, I thought he was good, very natural, very at ease. If you buy the character he’s playing, you buy what he’s doing as an actor. I sat there thinking, this movie is really good.
It’s a perfect day, I am here living in New York, doing a Broadway show, and I owe it all to my dad, because of the Sunday Show, because of John Wayne, because of seeing the movie in Japan. He had just been out the year before to see me in La Cage. I had this epiphany. I thought it was just so amazing. And as I had that epiphany, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack in San Diego. I thought that was a fitting kind of farewell.
Lia: What was your first paid acting job?
Thom: I played Bob Crachit in the San Diego Theater Repertory production of A Christmas Carol when I was in my 20’s. My second paid acting job was playing Wang Ta in the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Flower Drum Song at the San Diego Civic Light Opera with the fabulous Pat Suzuki in 1980.
I’ve had the good fortune of working with amazing people, the best people in the business. Along with that I’ve had the chance to see and to get to know both sides of the fence. It’s difficult not to talk about the opportunities that don’t come our way because we’re people of color. And yet, right now, that doesn’t seem to dissuade an enormous number of Asian Americans who are becoming actors.
Lia: Written by and starring the divine Charles Busch, Shanghai Moon is set in Shanghai, circa 1931. You play the notorious Chinese warlord General Gong Fei, who Lady Sylvia Allington (Charles Busch), the beautiful, young American born wife of an aged British diplomat falls for, and begins a fatal love affair. The cast is rounded out by longtime Busch collaborator Julie Halston, Jarlath Conroy, Jodi Lin and Gordana Rashovich, and directed with a firm hand by Carl Andress. Tell me about your experience with the show.
Thom: I am having a fantastic time in Shanghai Moon, Charles Busch’s homage to exotic melodramas of the 1930s. The play is a nod to all of those, some great and some tacky, ‘white damsel in distress in the Forbidden East’ movies like the Bitter Tea of General Yen, Shanghai Express and The Letter.
To my credits portraying authentic Asian leading men such as “King” in King and I, “Prince” in Chu Chem, “Engineer” in Miss Saigon, “Priest” in Rashomon, I now add the inscrutable, cruel and sensual forbidden man of the East, General Gong Fei. It is my own homage to the great cinematic exotic villains portrayed by authentic Asian performers such as Christopher Lee, Warner Oland, Nils Asther, George Sanders, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt… oh yeah, and some guy named Sessue Hayakawa. Gong Fei is an amalgam of all the sinister dangerous Asian men whether they be crimelords or emperors that the invariable white heroine falls in love with.
Charles is a bit of a film historian, so the archetypes are drawn from that canon of literature. There’s nothing new or original about General Gong Fei, which makes it an absolute delight, because the joy in doing it as well as it can be done, is with a very contemporary self-conscious twist on it. Gong Fei is fun to play.
Click on the slide show below to view photos of Thom in Shanghai Moon. Photography by AsianConnections’ Editor Lia Chang
Lia: What is Gong Fei’s journey in Shanghai Moon?
Thom: It’s a classic tale, someone comes from another land and changes their world. She introduces the whole concept of love. I’m a warlord, but what I really am is a drug lord. One of the most power drug lords of Shanghai.
At the beginning of the play, to consolidate my power, I am trying to eliminate my most dangerous rival, an American woman of questionable heritage. In the middle of this, Lady Sylvia Allington and her husband are my house guests for a period of two weeks. From the moment I see this painting of Lady Sylvia, I realize she has needs that are similar to mine. It throws my world off its axis. My journey is to continue my original path, to consolidate my power in Shanghai, and not be distracted by other things. Often times, when the world is thrown off its axis, nothing is the same.
Shanghai Moon is also about identity. In a goofy way, I could say Shanghai Moon is the apex of my career as an Asian American actor. It is a shameless satirical homage to all the offensive stereotypes and patronizing characters that we’re asked to play without question. Because we now get to embrace this character, ridicule this character and all the literary and psychological tropes that come with it. The great thing about it is that it’s not isolated.
Lia: What is it like to play Charles’ object of desire?
Thom: Charles is dreamy. He makes the job so easy. It is like the script itself. Very little work is required. You just have to show up. Charles is very easy to fall in love with.
Lia: Dawn’s Light was only a staged reading, but as a gifted storyteller, you were successful at creating a very real environment and had the audience in the palm of your hand as you portrayed a multiplicity of characters. How did the project come about?
Thom: Several months after I did Howard Barker’s A Hard Heart last Fall for the Epic Theatre, I got an email from Zak Berkman (director of Artistic programming for the EPIC Theatre), asking if I would be interested in taking part in a developmental reading of a play called Dawn’s Light by Jeanne Sakata.
I worked with Jeanne years ago in the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, and I absolutely adored her as a person. I had no idea she had started writing.
I knew about Gordon Hirabayashi as one of three Japanese American men who defied Executive Order 9066, the mandate for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Min Yasui, Fred Korematsu and Gordon, all for three separate reasons decided that they would fight the internment order in court, and subsequently they served prison terms. Very qualified prison terms. Each of them had a very interesting story to tell.
Gordon’s story really interested me because, he was a Quaker and a pacifist. His fight was almost passive aggressive, which is very Japanese.
Framed like a mystery, the essential moral of the story is not so much that Gordon is a symbol for defiance, but that he’s an individual. The thing that one is left with at the end of Dawn’s Light is that behind the face of that Asian man behind bars, behind barbed wire, is not a symbol, but a human being with a wife, with children, with feelings, with an interrupted university career, with a spiritual mandate. It’s not just a story, it’s who he is.
I jumped at the chance to work with EPIC again. They are a terrific company whose mandate is education and development of new works that engage the audience in civic discourse. With a segment of the population isolated and demonized during World War II, and now with the regular practice of isolating and demonizing various ethnic groups as a result of the War on Terror, I found this show to be very timely.
I hooked up with an amazing director named Lisa Rothe, and the reading was co-presented by EPIC and the Lark Play Development Series. Slated as a table read, it ultimately turned into a fully staged workshop performance at the reading. How that managed to happen in ten hours of rehearsal, I will never know. It was a bit of a miracle, but sometimes God smiles down on those of us who stumble onto a noble project.
Lia: In 2006, you starred on Broadway in the Twyla Tharp/ Bob Dylan project The Times They are A-Changin’, and won the San Diego Drama Critics Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical. What was your experience with Ms. Tharp?
Thom: The Times They are A-Changin’ changed my life. I understudied the role in San Diego that I eventually took over. Working with Twyla Tharp, well, she is someone who doesn’t just welcome the way that I work, but demands the way I was naturally inclined to work, but was never allowed to.
I think that it is really important for young people to remember when they become actors or artists, or they go into any field that is creative, is to never wait for permission to work. You just start working. That’s how Twyla is. She has a amazing book , The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. It starts off with the most beautiful sentence, I walk into a white room. That’s it, every room you walk into as a creative person is a big blank white room and it’s up to you to fill it. Twyla worked that way during the show, during the rehearsal process.
Lia: What is your next project?
Thom: A play called Durango by Julia Cho at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. I just got offered this job, yesterday. I took the jitney into New York yesterday, auditioned and took the jitney back. Upon my arrival in Sag Harbor, my agent called to say they were making a offer. It was a random event, another gift of the universe. All the signs in the universe point to this confluence of energies and souls.
Julia Cho is a brilliant playwright. Her material does the work for you, you just have to be committed to it. The character is a father who is laid off. He is a man in his late fifties who is alienated from his two sons, both of whom are college aged. What’s remarkable is that it’s not an Asian American story, it is a classic American road story. He takes them on a road trip to Durango, Colorado. It’s beautifully written.
Don’t miss the wonderful cast of this revival of Shanghai Moon at the Bay Street Theatre on the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Performances run through June 29 and tickets can be purchased online at http://www.baystreet.org or by calling (631) 725-9500.