The creative team for Token Theatre's Zac Efron, clockwise from top left: Wai Yim, David Rhee, Telly Leung, Helen Young Credit: Courtesy Token Theatre

Zac Efron: two-time winner of the MTV Movie Award for “best shirtless performance,” four-time nominee and two-time Teen Choice “Male Hottie” winner, CinemaCon Comedy Star of the Year, and Golden Raspberry nominee for Worst Actor of 2018: what does he have to do with Asians? (Or Gaysians?) 

“The American ideal: why does it have to be this white male?” says David Rhee, artistic director of new Asian American theater company Token Theatre. “What is it about Zac Efron that makes us feel inadequate?” 

This question is the kernel of Token’s debut play Zac Efron, cowritten by Rhee and actor and Token director of development Wai Yim—a rom-com about gay men looking for love while Asian. The company presents an online reading of scenes from the comedy this Thursday and Saturday, directed by Helen Young and starring Broadway veteran Telly Leung

“Wai and I and another friend were talking about how plays and musicals [with Asians] always seem to end in tragedy. Crazy Rich Asians had just come out. I said, ‘Holy cow, my dating apps have exploded!’ Pre-Crazy Rich Asians, it didn’t exist. Wai was like, ‘Really? It’s not happening for me!’ So we’re having this ridiculous conversation about how Crazy Rich Asians has been a paradigm shift for some Asians but not others. And my other friend says, ‘Why don’t you write a play about two Asians falling in love? No one has to die!’”

Rhee initially resisted. He was dead set on producing an all-Asian Our Town as Token’s first play. “I am a classics/canon fiend,” he says. “If I could do Shakespeare all the time, I would. You will not find anyone who loves Death of a Salesman more than me!” He cites a 2015 National Asian American Theater Company production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! at the Public Theater in New York as a revelatory influence. “They were playing a Jewish family, and not one person in the audience went, ‘Wait a minute!’ They accepted it! Then Hamilton happened. [Our Town] would be a political statement—you keep on saying we don’t belong here.” 

But Token’s board voted and insisted—and thus are we graced with Zac Efron. “The default rom-com leads are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling,” says Token cofounder and managing director Erik Kaiko. “To know that Asian American characters are capable of witty banter and will-they-won’t-they—we’re taking those tropes and claiming them so people can see themselves there. I just watched [an animated retelling of a Chinese myth] Over the Moon on Netflix, and it used words like ‘nainai,’ which my daughter calls my mom. It caught me off guard because we’re not used to hearing those parts of our culture in pop culture. If we put our stories in the forefront, it will give more of those moments for anyone who doesn’t see themselves represented currently.”

Recounting their experiences growing up (and acting) Asian in America, Rhee has actually done it all: appeared on Broadway in a Tony-winning production, worked with Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Lookingglass, and Silk Road Rising, starred on Law and Order, studied for an MFA in dramatic writing at the Tisch School of the Arts on full scholarship. But, he says, “I am not white. I am not tall, blond, blue-eyed. People say you’ve got to love yourself. It’s easy to use that phrase when there’s so many people like you. My whole upbringing in America is defined by what I’m not. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I would say I was from Korea, but no one knew what Korea was. People would say, ‘What’s that?’ I remember thinking, because I didn’t know any better, I’d been in America my whole life, does this place even exist? This thing my mom and dad would always tell me about, this country of yours you keep telling me I’m a part of—I’ve never experienced it!”

Kaiko, who is half Chinese and half white and grew up in Connecticut, says, “I’m one of four kids, and we all have Chinese middle names. Growing up, we were often the only nonwhite kids in class. I would be shy about my middle name and not want to come forth with it—it was so different, it was othering. Without something like that, I could pass in many ways.” But while studying acting as an undergraduate at Northwestern, he found that his chosen profession had a different opinion on the matter. “Despite the fact that I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese, ‘Chinese’ became the forefront of what I was to directors and to other artists. That became the defining thing about me because the industry was treating Asian American artists that way.” 

He acknowledges Silk Road Rising for giving him one of his first jobs out of school in a production of Julia Cho’s Durango—“a nice, meaty, complex role that an Asian American actor would not have gotten, or [would have been] written ten years prior to that.” Though Kaiko has performed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Porchlight Music Theatre, Marriott Lincolnshire, and others, the relative rarity of roles—and the reason why—pushed him to pursue producing. “Those experiences have motivated me to make the industry better for those who are underrepresented. I find I have a closer bond to my Asian roots than I did growing up, even though I’m not living with my family, and it means more as an adult because I see the injustice and discrimination more.”

Rhee also cites the 2019 Wrightwood 659 exhibition “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art” as crucial inspiration. “The artists took what was grotesque and made it beautiful. It was a celebration: ‘This is who I am, you’ve made fun of it, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to make it into art.’ I remember thinking at that moment: ‘This is what it’s like for me to be Asian in America.’ Here, Zac Efron becomes the ideal, everything these two characters are not. One is comfortable saying, ‘I’m not him and I don’t want to be him!’ And the other one says, ‘I’m not him, and the closest I can get is by dating Zac Efron.’ What am I not because I don’t represent this idea? Or, perhaps, what are you?”  v