Broadway performer Telly Leung, who made his name playing the lead roles in Aladdin and Allegiance, was born and raised in New York. Yet he is no stranger to the follow-up question “But where are you from from?” when his answer explaining his origins doesn’t satisfy those who think that his “being American is a ludicrous idea because I’m not white”. Long before the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that started in March 2020 in the US, Leung, whose parents immigrated to Brooklyn from Hong Kong in 1975, had observed that racism “exists in more insidious ways as small microaggressions in our everyday life”. He says, “Asian people have been in the US since the 1800s. Yet the colour of our skin will always make us foreigners in our own country, no matter how many generations of us have been here.”
Like many other Asian Americans, Leung is painfully aware of how blatant bigotry has become since the coronavirus spread beyond Asia to the rest of the world–and how violently demonstrated. “This global pandemic has cost us so many lives and livelihoods,” he says. “When there has been this much pain inflicted, the tendency is to find someone or some nation to blame and to label whose fault this is,” he says, referring to the way many people accuse people of Asian heritage of causing and spreading the disease. “The reality is that it is something we all carry responsibility for as a world.”
He believes that performing arts can help heal the world. “Theatre is the art of storytelling, and sharing stories is how we start to understand those who are different then us,” he says. “We start to learn that those people we’ve consciously or subconsciously labelled as ‘other’ are actually not that far from us, and that we are all human beings. We start seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and we try to have empathy for that character and what they are going through,” adds Leung, who found his love of the theatre in secondary school, acting out scenes that reflected stories of the world around him.
Both by being on stage and as a performing arts teacher, Leung feels he is encouraging people to think and talk about racial diversity. He is particularly proud of having starred in Allegiance, a musical based on the true experiences of actor and activist George Takei who, like more than 120,000 other Japanese Americans, spent years imprisoned in internment camps during the Second World War. The story weaves in incidents of discrimination against Japanese Americans, such as how they were refused medical supplies because of their race. Leung played protagonist Sam Kimura, a role inspired by the experiences of Takei and his father and says, “A show like Allegiance brings emotion, flesh, blood, tears, and laughter to a historical event—and that resonates deeper than reading about it in a history book.”