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As the prevalence of mixed-race actors explodes on Broadway, where do they fit into the casting puzzle? Lili Thomas says, “We're getting to a point in history where society looks a way it hasn’t looked before, and it’s finally unavoidable.” It is. Unavoidable that incredible mixed talent like Thomas is desired in leading roles—ones not specifically written to be played by an actor of color.
If not in the Big Apple, you may have seen Thomas traveling the country as Cynthia Murphy in the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Now taking on the iconic role of Mama Morton in the Broadway company of Chicago, Thomas shared what the current role means to her, some of her theater experiences, and why finding the right language to describe representation helps the industry take the right steps forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alison Lea Bender: What’s your mix, and what was it like growing up and pursuing theater?
Lili Thomas: I’m half Korean and, you know, Irish, English, Welsh. But I sort of more identify with my Irish heritage. I grew up the daughter of classical musicians in Westchester. My parents played a lot in the city, and still play. They were very disciplined and really supported me finding the art that I love—and didn't do that stereotypical Asian parent thing of making sure that I practiced 80 hours a week. It led me to actually explore a lot of different instruments. I play 10 different instruments because I wasn't locked down to one of them. Music was always around me. It never was a chore. I do think I'm very lucky to have more progressive, artistic parents who just allowed me to find my own artistic platform.
ALB: Being mixed race, I'm sure you've dealt with your fair share of adversity in this industry. When mixed, we're still lumped in with the Asian actors. Sometimes monoracial actors say, “You only got that because you're exotic.” Or Asian actors are like, “You only got that 'cause you look kinda white.”
LT: Oh, the “E word.”
ALB: Do you feel like now the industry is shifting?
LT: Yes, absolutely. And I don't think it's shifting one way or the other, but like a circle broadening and getting wider. It feels inclusive yet permissive for uniqueness at the same time.
I feel more accepted and embraced by Asian peers, actors, colleagues, casting directors, and creative teams. I feel much more included and seen as an Asian woman than I ever have in my life. But I also feel like a lot of people have been able to look at me and see the essence of me as an actor, rather than what kind of character I look like or what some previous actor has done in the past.
ALB: Yeah, I feel like that too. Even 10 years ago, I remember wishing that I wasn’t a mixed girl.
LT: Yeah, of course! I dyed my hair blonde for 10 years. Because I'm mixed, it's like, “If I changed this one thing about me, I was even more ambiguous.” I'm not Asian enough to be considered Asian by anybody else, so it's better to just be unidentifiable. Or to be anything other than Asian if I wasn't going to be embraced by that community, you know?
Marcy Park [from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee]. I mean, that was a big hit for me. I think it had already been running for about a year, and I was in for it at Circle in the Square Theatre. They were like, “You're just not Asian enough to play this part.” I thought to myself, “That's crazy, because this is my life.”
ALB: What is your favorite thing about being mixed and how do you honor that as an actress?
LT: I will say, embracing my mixed ethnicity is a newer thing for me, because I didn't know how. My mom is from Seoul, but she came here by herself at 14 to be a professional musician and really ran toward American culture and life. It's interesting because I say I'm first generation, but I feel like I'm second generation at heart. Aside from food, it was like I was purely American growing up. I didn't really realize I looked any different until I got to college.
ALB: I grew up in Florida. I had the kids pull back their eyes and say “ching chong” to me. But I've never met another half-Korean woman like me, where their mom had also distanced herself from Korea. I also grew up feeling very American.
LT: I think isolation fueled this sort of racial identity suppression through my upbringing. I don't know if it was on purpose or not. I was very, very lost unless I was embracing this MTV-loving white girl, Britney Spears kind of culture that we grew up in. When I got to college (I went to the musical theater program at NYU), then we started talking about casting. You have to look at yourself in the way the world is looking at you that you didn't even know existed.
I remember the first time that I had a racial encounter was at college. Some girl offered everybody some food. She looked at me and goes, “Do you want my tomato sandwich?” I said, “Oh, no, thanks, I don't like tomatoes.” She looked at me, “Well, you don't see me talking about your stinky Asian food, do you?” My jaw just dropped to the floor. I went into the bathroom and I cried. I had no idea why I was even crying. I had such little experience and little connection with my Korean identity in that way, that I was so confused.
ALB: Yeah, and you didn't deal with that as a child, so it was a shock.
LT: No, but it was eye-opening. It was like, “Oh, I need to embrace this person that I am.”
There was a time when I felt like I had to be the first person to use my race as humor. I used to love it, because if I was the first one doing it, it couldn't hurt me. Now I look back on those moments or at a piece of material and say, “Well, what feels right now? What feels uncomfortable, and why didn't it feel uncomfortable then?” There’s something about having had an experience of ownership over your own racial barriers that has given me a sense of understanding and power as an actor. I don't use that form of comedy at all anymore, but it stays relevant in my memory in terms of the care that I take with myself and my identity.
How do we navigate finding the right language and talking about this in a way that still moves our community forward? I think that's where “the first Asian this,” the “first Black woman this ” can be a double-edged sword.
ALB: What are some goals and aspirations you have for yourself and your career after your run in Chicago?
LT: Getting this role has opened up the dreams, right? Because it's no longer just, “I want to have a lead on Broadway.” I can really dream for the roles and the characters that I align with. For so long, being mixed race in this industry made me feel like everything was going to be settled for. I could probably sing the lead role the best, but they were never going to cast a mixed-race person. So I would be happy with the ensemble cover, the best friend, or whatever it was.
To be in an iconic leading role on Broadway that doesn’t have to be Asian, nor ever has been, opened up the opportunity to say, “I love playing villains.” I love playing the character actor. I love playing the more complex roles. I would love to originate more characters who are racially ambiguous or undefined. Dear Evan Hansen, that was one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences of my entire life, but one of the most fulfilling experiences as an actor. The meat of those characters, and the emotional depth that you have to go to, to have that kind of emotion represented on stage. People who are of mixed race have all the same emotions as everyone else. Just because it's a show about the emotions of an American family doesn't mean that they have to be white. That was a huge thing, especially as we were touring through the United States, going to different cities that really hadn't seen that kind of representation at all. So it's really about playing roles that don't have anywhere in the script that it would be somebody who looks like me. It’s a role that I should play because of my abilities as an actor or singer, and the essence of myself as a human.
There's more to me than just the representation too. How do we navigate finding the right language and talking about this in a way that still moves our community forward? I think that's where “the first Asian this,” the “first Black woman this ” can be a double-edged sword. There's always going to be backlash on social media. I read something that was like, “First Asian Mama Morton…OK, so what? Who cares?” and I actually wasn't offended by it because half of me agreed. It shouldn't matter, right? You also want to make sure that the end goal and main focus of diversifying this industry in general is still held.
ALB: It's a milestone, and it should be applauded, but you don’t want people to think you got a role only because casting wants to pat themselves on the back and say, “Oh, we cast an Asian girl.” You were cast because you’re someone that's unique and right for the role.
LT: Yeah, exactly. Especially with all of the press around this, which I had no idea was gonna happen.
ALB: It's your time in the sunshine, so eat it up.
LT: I’ve been trying to find, “Why is it actually important?” It's because the role of Mama Morton is the antithesis of this Asian female stereotype that we've been chained to and held back by in our industry.
ALB: Right? She's the opposite of Kim [from Miss Saigon].
LT: Yeah. I remember when Anything Goes was coming to Broadway. I was in for Hope, and I was like, “But I’m not a Hope. I'm a Reno.” I'm not the ingénue. But in the early 2000s, those were the first roles they started to open up that didn't have to be Asian. They said, “We can open up these really demure, softer spoken, people-pleasing roles.” It was like this bone being thrown to us as a community. I remember not only being disheartened and discouraged by it, but also further feeling like there was not going to be a place for me in this industry.
The reason Mama Morton has meant so much to me is because this is a history-making musical. Longest-running revival. Vaudeville. Satire. Fosse. Kander and Edd. These are American musical theater staples. So, to be given the permission to fully embrace my racial identity, and also appreciate all that in this show, thank you. It's a pleasure. To be given the platform to say, “Hey, weave in whatever kind of cultural identity you want for a role that is the complete opposite of the ingénue stereotypes we've just been talking about.” That's why this role in particular means more. And I'm sure it will mean something else to somebody of a different race and culture when they have that opportunity.
ALB: What advice would you like to offer up to your past self?
LT: To love all of myself. And to not follow the pattern of how the rest of the world picks and chooses what parts of you to love and not love. Especially being mixed, to love all of yourself and to know that you're whole. This idea of, “Well I'm mixed, so I'm half this and I'm half that,” while it may be technically true, it's also divisive and can perpetuate this feeling of being neither here nor there. I think that we've arrived in a time where mixed is a whole. This is a really elementary kind of example, but instead of saying that “I'm half blue and half yellow,” just say you're green.
Thomas is currently in Chicago on Broadway as Matron “Mama” Morton.
Published on February 12, 2024
Words by Alison Lea Bender
Alison Lea Bender is a multi-hyphenate who defies conventional categorization and refuses to be pigeonholed. She is an avid champion for diversity, representation, inclusion in the arts, and the AAPI & POC communities. Some have called her the voice of a generation, some have called her a dangerous threat to society, but most of us just call her “my friend.” The self-proclaimed “Hello Kitty meets Marilyn Monroe,” Mizz Bender has performed on many a New York City stage as a muse to her many theatre friends and family. She can be followed on Instagram @alisonleehwa.