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In the late Italian Renaissance, a popular theater form arose called Commedia del Arte, the Comedy of Art. The plays had rudimentary story lines revolving around some basic, funny situation, the gag. Because they were improvised, they needed some special factor to hold everything together.
Enter the stock characters, social stereotypes the audience would recognize behaving precisely as expected.
They included il Dottore (the Doctor), an older scholar who wore an academic robe; the servants Arlecchino (Harlequin, a clown) and Colombina (the Dove); and Pantalone (Trousers), a wealthy old man who wore a cape and red pants.
The characters all came across as roughly sketched caricatures rather than actual people. I got interested in Commedia del Arte many years ago but had forgotten all about it until recently, when I read an actor"s obituary in The New York Times.
What drew my attention was the photo - a face I had seen many times, though I couldn"t remember him playing any particular role - and the headline:
"Soon-Tek Oh, Actor Who Chafed at Asian Stereotypes".
Oh left his native Korea for the United States and had great success as a bit part actor, it said. He appeared in more than 100 television episodes and films from the 1960s to 2006. Often, especially early in his career, he was cast as the stock Asian, rather than a flesh-and-blood person - the "houseboy" or some other Asian stereotype in productions where any role of substance was played by a white actor.
The obituary quoted Chinese-American actress Pat Li: "You don"t know how tired you can get of always being Suzie Wong ... or a houseboy."
Oh, Li and seven other actors started a theater company called the East West Players to give Asian actors an opportunity to play real roles instead of the caricatures they were always cast as. That company still exists and is credited with helping advance theater depicting ethnic Asians as part of the fabric of mainstream American life.
Oh"s obituary got me thinking about how Asians were depicted in the television programs and films I had seen as an American child in the early days of Oh"s career.
The few that came to mind were mostly stereotypes, like a Chinese cook occasionally scurrying around in a cowboy series.
There were a few roles of more substance depicting Asians, but they always somehow mitigated that factor - to mollify racism?
Bruce Lee had a regular role in The Green Hornet ... he was the hero"s driver.
I can think of only one regular series in the 1960s, a detective series, that had a regularly appearing Asian role played by and depicted as a real person of Asian heritage.
How odd that never occurred to me before.