“Baayork Lee has long been a role model and mentor in the Broadway and Asian American communities – and one of my own personal heroes for longer than I’ll ever admit to in public,” said AEA Councillor and co-chair of EEO committee Christine Toy Johnson, who presented Lee with the 2014 Paul Robeson Citation Award, presented by Actors’ Equity Foundation, at the beginning of AEA’s membership meeting on Friday, October 10, 2014, at the Actors Equity Building in New York.
Lee was the toast of the town with Tommy Tune, Bob Avian, Lee Roy Reams, Orville Mendoza, Lori Tan Chinn, Raul Aranas, Anthony Wayne, Dana Ivey and Nick Wyman, President, Actors Equity Association, in the audience which collectively leapt to their feet as she made her way to the podium to accept the 2014 Paul Robeson Citation Award.
Created in 1971, the Paul Robeson Citation Award honors individuals or organizations that best exemplify and practice the principles to which Mr. Robeson devoted his life: dedication to the universal brotherhood of all humankind, commitment to the freedom of conscience and of expression, belief in the artist’s responsibility to society, respect for the dignity of the individual and concern for and service to all humans of any race or nationality. Previous recipients include:Paul Robeson; Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; Pete Seeger; Harry Belafonte; Studs Terkel; Lena Horne; Joe Papp; Maya Angelou; Bill Cosby; Sidney Poitier and, in 2013, Shauneille Perry.
Lee, an Asian American actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, director and author, was born in New York City’s Chinatown to an Indian mother and Chinese father, made her Broadway debut at the age of five as “Princess Ying Yaowalak” in the 1951 original production of The King and I. Her dream was to become a ballerina and she appeared in George Balanchine’s production of The Nutcracker, but this dream was dashed when she achieved her full height of just four feet, ten inches. In 1958, she returned to Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Other Broadway appearances were in Bravo Giovanni; Mr. President; Here’s Love; Golden Boy; A Joyful Noise; Henry, Sweet Henry; Promises, Promises; Seesaw and Michael Bennett’s groundbreaking production of A Chorus Line, in which she originated the role of “Connie.”
“For most of her performing career, she was one of the only Asian American performers working consistently on Broadway, breaking color barriers over and over again,” said Johnson.
Lee worked with Bennett in several productions and over the years went from being his dance partner, to being his assistant. She would later supervise all major productions of A Chorus Line, choreographing 35 international productions as well as the 2006 Broadway revival. She is the co-author of the book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, published in 1990.
“I first met Baayork when she was appearing in A Chorus Line on Broadway and I was a young girl growing up in Westchester County,” said Johnson. “I wrote her a fan letter, asking if I could interview her for a grade school paper I was assigned to write on role models. Imagine how thrilled I was to get her response! She arranged to meet me in between shows one Saturday afternoon at the legendary “Ted Hook’s Backstage” (which is now a “gentleman’s club” called “Private Eyes” – conveniently, or inconveniently, situated directly below Broadway Dance Center) – me with my gigantic tape recorder. After a wonderful meal, she took me back stage at the Shubert, set me up to watch that evening’s show from the sound console and has stayed in touch ever since, instilling in me the profound importance of hard work, perseverance and giving back to your community – all of which she lives by.”
Lee also has choreographed and directed scores of national and international tours of, among others, The King and I; Bombay Dreams; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella; Porgy and Bess; Jesus Christ Superstar, Carmen Jones and Miss Saigon. In addition, she has choreographed several productions for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, been a talent scout for Tokyo Disneyland and opened a musical theatre school in Seoul, South Korea. She was the recipient of the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Asian Woman Warrior Award from Columbia College in Chicago.
“Baayork continues to spread the good word of old school dedication & hard work (never calling out unless dead), while directing and choreographing all over the world, always with an eye towards multi-culturalism and reflecting our diverse society on our stages,” said Johnson.
In their “Discover: New Musicals Series”, where they present new works with all Asian American casts, they’re again giving audiences, and writers, an opportunity to see Asian American faces included in the worlds of their plays. The work they do with their Community Choir, with children and seniors in Chinatown – too much to mention here…(please check out their website, www.naaproject.org and support them)…all of these add up to do what Baayork refers to, in loving spirit, as “making a difference”. And they do.
Baayork’s deep commitment to fostering Asian American artists, giving us opportunities to become an integral part of the American landscape of storytelling, and continuing to find ways of creating new world views of inclusion – beautifully and totally exemplify the spirit of the work done by Paul Robeson.
It is my deep honor and joy to present Baayork Lee the 2014 Paul Robeson Citation Award.”
Below are excerpts from Baayork Lee’s acceptance speech.
Thank you Christine. Thank you to the committee for voting for me. This award is truly humbling. To be in the same company as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Joseph Papp, Maya Angelou and many others –OMG! (big laugh) I can’t believe I’m standing here and I think I’m having an out-of-body experience.
So it all started at 5 years old when I saw the red velvet seats and the huge chandelier at the St. James Theater. I loved going to the theater and seeing all the people in the theater, especially those who inspired me and gave me the passion so needed to continue in this business. I want it. I want it. I will have it. If they will take me. I will be here. And I got it.
Mr. Roman Terleckyj who introduced me to the world of opera and for 18 years, made me the resident choreographer of the Washington Opera. He’s up there looking down. Thank you Roman. Mr. Mori Shibuya, my Japanese sensei, who gave me the opportunity to have musical theater schools in Korea and Japan. Mr Jimmie Earl Perry and Professor Juan Datoy, from South Africa gave me the opportunity to help them develop their theater company to help AIDS around the world. So without their encouragement and support, I would not be standing here today.
It is a joy for me to see our afterschool kids at P.S. 124 sing and dance, and get excited to go to Atlanta to the junior theater festival, our fifth year. Thank you Principal Alice Hom for coming. Thank you ladies from our senior sing-a-long program. And thank you for NAAP Broadway Community Chorus for your support.
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Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman, and made her jazz vocalist debut in Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz “LADY” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.
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