When Linda Park takes on the role of Maggie the Cat in Antaeus Theatre Company's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she'll be the first Asian woman to portray the character in a professional production. “It was both a dream role and something that I never thought would happen,” Park says.
Park first discovered the role (and the play) when she was in high school and saw the 1994 film Double Happiness, which stars Sandra Oh as an Asian woman who dreams of becoming an actress. In the film, Oh reads Maggie’s monologues in her bedroom and fantasizes about performing onstage. Seeing a woman who looked like her onscreen made Park feel her dreams were valid, and the scene inspired her to seek out Cat as well as Tennessee Williams' other scripts. She fell in love with the playwright, and Maggie — whose monologues Park used throughout college and in professional acting classes — became a touchstone for her.
She never thought she would get the chance to explore the role outside of an educational setting. “There was this feeling of 'I have to love it secretly because it doesn’t belong to me,'” she says. “I legitimately thought I was excluded from that world of the South in the midcentury and from Tennessee [Williams], from being able to do any of his works, because I thought I don’t belong in that world. Yet I felt, as a soul to another soul, I felt such a connection to Tennessee Williams in a way that I’ve felt with no other playwright.”
Her feelings of exclusion didn't merely stem from the fact that she had never seen an Asian Maggie the Cat. At one time, the Tennessee Williams Estate actively denied requests for performance rights to stage productions with nontraditional casting. In the 1980s, it rejected a bid from East West Players (a Los Angeles–based Asian-American theater company) to produce The Glass Menagerie with an Asian-American cast. Former artistic director Tim Dang explains in an email, “East West Players was turned down because the estate thought it would be inappropriate for an Asian-American theater company to be doing the play with an Asian-American cast.”
The American theater has slowly moved to more progressive and equitable casting choices. Broadway has since seen productions of Williams' plays with African-American casts. In an email statement, Antaeus' artistic directors explain, “Yes, change is slow going in the American theater (it has been slow going at Antaeus) but change is happening nonetheless. The pace is maddeningly slow and so much more needs to be accomplished, but the American theater has outpaced American film and television where inclusivity is concerned. … This must go from being a hopeful trend to the norm, and we'd like Antaeus to be a part of leading the way forward here in Los Angeles.”
Director Cameron Watson, who broke barriers with a multicultural production of All My Sons at the Matrix Theatre, was open to casting from a broad palette. “We have to honor the period and the story and the intention of what he wrote in the time that he wrote,” Watson says, “but we’re also living in 2017, so let’s make this everybody’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
For Park, it was not merely a dream come true but a chance to make Maggie her own. “As we evolve and we look back to these classics, we have to let them breathe and expand and fit a world that is more progressive than it was back in the 1950s,” she says. Park and her mother came to America from South Korea when she was a toddler. As an immigrant, she always related to Maggie’s imposter syndrome and desperate need to be loved and accepted. “It’s this deep kind of gnawing hunger to validate my existence, to claim some piece of the earth, to say I belong here,” she explains.
But Park wasn’t content to merely explore the emotional connections and parallels between herself and Maggie. “Something that’s really important to me is not pretending that I’m not Asian,” she says. Park did months of research, discovering two books, Asian-Americans in Dixie and Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton, about the lives and history of Asian immigrants living in the Deep South. She learned that from the late 19th century onward there was a large concentration of Chinese living in the Mississippi Delta. Working as merchants and owning grocery stores, these Asian immigrants became an integral part of these Southern communities, lobbying for their children to attend white segregated schools and occasionally entering interracial marriages. This is the world that Park’s Maggie inhabits — the historical reality in which she has grounded her character.
The production has not altered the script or thrown in scenes that would shed obvious light on this backstory. “It’s up to the audience to put those pieces together if they choose to do that, which is a whole other layer of the play that they’ll get to digest,” says director Watson, “or, to just accept that this is a terrific Asian actress playing an iconic role.”
For her part, Park hopes audiences will want to uncover this history. “I feel a responsibility in not exhuming a ghost but in channeling my particular Maggie,” she says. “I want to give voice to an America in the Deep South in the 1950s that people don’t see.”
Park has already opened the eyes of her creative partners. Watson hails from Tennessee and was unaware of this history. “She found things that [I], as a Southerner, never knew about, our history there — it was amazing,” he says.
Making these discoveries has forced Park to “take a jackhammer” to all of her preconceived notions of Maggie and the baggage that comes with a role immortalized by the likes of Barbara Bel Geddes and Elizabeth Taylor. “I’ve been able to treat it like a world premiere of a new play,” she says. And she hopes audiences will be willing to do the same.
Engulfed in rehearsal and crafting her performance for the show's opening, the first at Antaeus' new space in Glendale, Park says she still finds it difficult to wrap her brain around the magnitude of the moment. For now, she wants to focus on the work at hand without thinking too much about the trail she’s blazing. Still, when she allows herself a moment to reflect, she hopes that she can be to others what Sandra Oh was for her. “I know that it’s really important for me to share with other people because I was that high school girl reading a role that I thought could never be mine,” she says. “There may be those of another ethnicity, or even immigrant kids like me, who may be reading another classic American playwright and feel that they’ll never get a chance.”
What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? For Maggie, it’s “just stayin’ on it, as long as she can.” For Park and those that may be inspired by her, it’s so much more.
Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale; through May 7. antaeus.org/shows/cat.