When I was a sophomore in high school, my community theatre did the Jerry Herman musical, Mame. Despite being Caucasian and blond, I landed the role of Ito, Auntie Mame’s Asian houseboy. There were few non-white people in my rural, Midwestern hometown. My hair was spray-painted black and my eyes were lined for the show. The only thing I knew about other cultures was from watching movies and television. I made up my Asian accent and the audience enjoyed when I jumped up and down and giggled in character.
My mother was very proud of my brief acting career. She bought a bunch of glossy, eight by ten photos from Mame and showed them to everyone in the family who missed my performance.
About fifteen years later, I was the head of wardrobe for a world premiere play called Red by a promising young playwright. Red is the story of a father and daughter caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution. The father is involved in the Beijing Opera, while his offspring decides to join the war. When political forces begin to use the opera as a pawn, tragic consequences ensue.
All the stops were being pulled out for this play. I was quite excited when I learned that Sab Shimino was being brought in to play the role of the father, Hua, in Red. Mr. Shimino (who insisted he be called by his first name) had quite the prestigious career on both the east and west coasts. What I was most impressed with was that he had played the role of Ito in the original Broadway production of Mame, starring Angela Lansbury. I remembered seeing his name on my cast album and enjoyed him singing “We Need A Little Christmas”. Would it be appropriate to share with Sab that his (white) dresser on Red had played the role of Ito, too?
The father in Red would wear full Beijing Opera makeup in a portion of the play. The costume designer supplied extensive research of what the makeup looked like and I hired my favorite makeup designer, Jolene, to come up with a plan to recreate the look for the show. I had used this makeup artist for several times over the years. Jolene happened to be Asian.
I also hired a woman named Kitty to serve as Sab’s personal makeup person for the run of the show. Kitty was white (and happened to have an albino son in high school).
It was surreal. Jolene taught Kitty to do the Beijing Opera makeup on my face for practice. Not since I played Ito in Mame had my eyes been lined to look Asian. It took an hour for the women to fine tune the design. We took a Polaroid of me in the makeup for reference.
Early the next Sunday morning, Jolene and Kitty met Sab and did his face for the first time. The playwright, the costume designer, the director, and the choreographer all decided to stop by for the debut of the makeup. There was whispering. It was obvious that the choreographer (who was Asian) wasn’t happy. I learned during a ten-minute break that Mr. Choreographer was not only in charge of movement; he was knowledgeable of Beijing Opera and had been hired to be a consultant. He wasn’t merely Asian; he was Chinese and was upset that the makeup designer I hired was Japanese.
“That Japanese woman is doing it all wrong,” I heard him whisper.
Jolene finished supervising Kitty. She packed up her kit and left. I was told to schedule another session without Jolene. The next Sunday morning, we all gathered again without that Japanese woman so Mr. Choreographer could teach Kitty how to do authentic Beijing Opera makeup all over again. I stayed clear, but from what I could tell, the only difference was Mr. Choreographer didn’t use sponges or brushes. He used his fingers. It was still white face, pink blush, and black pencil-lined eyes. I took photographs of Sab’s face in both makeups. They did not look different.
This whole makeup thing left me rather confused. The director of Red was white. The set, costume, and lighting designers were all white. The backstage crew was white. I would later learn that the other Asian actors in the play were not fully Chinese, either. I wanted to do everything the right way for my production of Red, I just wasn’t sure what that was.
From all this, I concluded, it would never be a good idea to mention my community theatre production of Mame while working on Red.
Because of the staging of the show, Kitty and I were going to be seen by the audience when we did costume changes for the actors. We were told we would have to wear a Chinese costume to blend into the world of the play. I didn’t say a word when I was given a black Japanese martial arts gi to wear. Black bandanas covered our blond heads.
The show opened and the director, playwright, designers and Mr. Choreographer all went away. Things loosened up and I grew quite fond of Sab Shimino. He had a million stories to tell and was quite fun to be around. Turns out he was featured in one of my favorite episodes of MASH and he had worked on one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies. He loved my story of being sent Teenage Mutant Ninja costumes for my summer stock production of The King and I, rather than just plain black ninja costumes (not unlike what I was wearing to dress him for Red).
To go with his Beijing Opera makeup, Sab wore a very elaborate jewelled costume. It was custom made for the show and had a jacket and pants made from light blue satin. At intermission, one Saturday matinee, I heard Sab shouting from his dressing room. I looked down the hall and saw him running toward my office. He had spilled black coffee all over his blue satin and jewelled pants.
“I am so sorry, Dennis. I should have know better to drink coffee in costume.”
I calmed Sab down. There was no way to get the coffee out of the one-of-kind pants and get them dry quickly. I dabbed the coffee as best I could, but it was obvious Sab could not be able to wear them to finish that performance of Red. There really wasn’t anything else around remotely like it for him to wear.
“Give me your karate outfit,” he told me.
“What?” I said.
“Do you have a better idea?”
Luckily he and I were about the same size. I told stage management what had happened and she approved of the choice. Sab Shimono wore a Japanese martial arts gi to perform with the Beijing Opera that matinee. And I wore black Levi’s and a black tee shirt in front of the audience to hand him his costumes.
I rushed the coffee-stained costume to the cleaners on my dinner break and it was cleaned and beautiful again for the evening performance of Red.
By the time the show got to it’s closing weekend, I got a vibe from Sab that he had seen and experienced a lot of bullshit in the industry concerning race. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked me and I knew he would appreciate the fact that I played Ito in Jerry Herman’s Mame in high school. I told him my story.
“Do you have any pictures?” he asked.
“Umm, yeah.” I said sheepishly
“Well bring them in! I’d love to see them.”
I was rather embarrassed to show him my pictures. Not just because I was painted up to look Asian, but they could hardly compare to his Broadway production. When he finally saw the pictures of me in my hometown production of Mame, he cooed.
“Awww. You did the best you could do. Well, at least your theatre didn’t make Ito white,” he said.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.