The Company of Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon at The 5th Avenue Theatre. • Photo by Tracy Martin
The Company of Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon at The 5th Avenue Theatre. • Photo by Tracy Martin

A wider array of actors will have opportunities to perform in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s new adaptation of Paint Your Wagon.  Instead of a cast of almost-entirely white males, the new version will feature a diverse group of performers, including three Asian American men.

Actors Mikko Juan, Ulyber (U.J.) Mangune, and Steven Eng all portray immigrants to 19th-century America, helping to paint a more accurate picture of this historic era. All three performers began studying acting or dance in their youth, and have been developing their careers, as well as their cultural perspectives, in recent years.

Mikko Juan.
Mikko Juan.

In this new version by Jon Marans, Mikko Juan plays a character named Guang-Li. “I think what makes Guang-Li’s character stand out is his willingness to fit in despite the hatred that comes from the others in the mining community,” Juan said. “He still finds it in his heart to be sociable and to interact with everybody in the community.”

The role of Guang-Li represents several firsts for Juan. “This is my first show with The 5th Ave., and this is actually my first professional gig, period, which is really, really exciting,” Juan said. “Seeing all of these people that I’ve admired and looked up to—working with them is kind of a dream come true.”

Juan has been preparing for this role for several months. “I did the developmental lab over the summer, but prior to that I had no idea what Paint Your Wagon was,” he said. “Much to my surprise, I found out that it was a really really old musical and little old me tried to do some research on my character and I found out that this was a new book. My character was new! So it’s just exciting that I’m doing something new and creating something almost new.”

He engaged in a variety of preparation processes along the way. “It’s constantly developing and how I prepared for it is really just familiarizing myself with the show and the era it’s based on,” Juan said.  “So I’d go and watch clips of the original movie with Clint Eastwood and listen to the original Broadway soundtrack, and also refresh what we’ve done for the developmental lab.”  

Ulyber "U.J." Mangune.
Ulyber “U.J.” Mangune.

Ulyber (U.J.) Mangune also did some developmental work on the character of Guang-Li during earlier workshops, but is now performing the role of Wee Cheng in the mainstage show.  His prior work with The 5th Avenue was through Adventure Musical Theatre, The 5th Avenue’s touring company that visits elementary schools across Washington state to present curriculum-based musicals to children. “In 2014, I did the AMT production of Northwest Book Shelf,” Mangune said. “Then the following year in 2015 I did the AMT tour of Baseball Saved Us.”

Mangune sees this new role of Wee Cheng as a good opportunity. “I am actually able to play a character of my own ethnicity,” he said.  “I mean, it’s not exactly my background—I’m predominantly Filipino and my character is Chinese—but being able to tell a story that highlights so much of the struggle that so many immigrants went through, both through social situations they are placed in and the social pressures they have to experience throughout the show.”  

He too has been preparing for this project for months. “In preparing for one of my previous roles when the show was still in workshops, I looked up quite a bit about what it was like to be Chinese and coming over here and going through that whole process,” he said,  “and what the discrimination was like at that time, because that’s actually a very big part of the show—how the Chinese brothers [Ming and Guang-Li] are discriminated against and how they are dealt with by their community.”

The complexity of this ethnic discrimination is explored in this new version of Paint Your Wagon. “When the Chinese first came, they actually weren’t discriminated against as much,” Mangune discovered. “But once the gold started drying up and disappearing, suddenly there was propaganda that was released that blamed the immigrants first, and that ultimately boiled down to the Chinese who bore the brunt of it.”  

But Mangune found that the social conflict was not simply white versus Asian. “One of the things that was interesting to me is that, throughout the show, the other immigrants aren’t necessarily nice to the Chinese,” Mangune said. “There is an Irish character, William, whose background is in a sense very similar to Ming and Guang-Li. They both have come from halfway around the world to earn money to send home.”  

However, these similarities yield only limited cooperation. “Initially, William is very nice to them,” Mangune said about the Asian brothers. “But as the show progresses and William interacts with the other characters that are also white, he starts to throw us under the bus and discriminate against us the same way that he is discriminated against by the ‘American’ white characters.”

This turn-about by the show’s characters was educational for the performers.  “William pits others against us specifically because we are Chinese. It’s like there is a hierarchy of immigrants, and Chinese were at the bottom,” Mangune said. “I feel like that’s something that I have always known, but never fully understood.”

Steven Eng.
Steven Eng.

Similarly, actor Steven Eng has always known that his parents were immigrants, but this is his first opportunity to share this immigrant story with others. “I play the character of Ming-Li, and I think one of the most compelling things is how close his story is to that of immigrants of not too long ago,” he said. “As long as I’ve known, it’s been a very common practice that recent immigrants come to the United States to make money to send back home with the intention of returning. That immigrant story is still very common, even a century and a half after this story takes place.”

Eng’s first role at The 5th Avenue was in Waterfall earlier this season. “I live in New York,” he said. “I had many friends who’d come through on tour or had been jobbed in to work here. I’d always heard really great things. So when I came for Waterfall, it was just such a great experience.”

A key aspect of Eng’s reaction was the ability to focus on the creative process. “I would say The 5th Avenue is certainly among the most creative environments I’ve been in because the company knows how to allow the actor to do his or her work and not worry about a lot of other stuff,” Eng said. “There’s so much involved in going to a new city, not knowing it, having to leave everything behind and just live for a couple of months. A lot of that is really having the opportunity to settle, just mentally. So having to worry about all these other things—groceries, and how am I going to wash clothes—other theaters have solutions to that, but The 5th staff has worked very hard so that I can come and just focus on my job.”

And highlighting the Chinese immigrant story is his job.  “One of the most exciting things about this production is being able to tell the story,” Eng said. “I was having a conversation with playwright Jon Marans yesterday, and I expressed to him how important it was to me that this story be told. The Chinese as a group, a community of people, have not had—certainly not on the musical stage—the opportunity to show their contribution to the development of the country.”

But Eng believes that Paint Your Wagon’s task is multi-faceted. “It’s not about one race, or the tension that exists between one race,” he said. “The show takes a really complex, controversial issue and tries to find its humanity.”

Each of these performers, Juan, Mangune, and Eng, have faced a variety of challenges in their performing careers. For Juan, who is debuting at The 5th Avenue, some of the challenges are just beginning. “From time to time in becomes a sort of routine and it can get hard sometimes to keep it fresh,” Juan said. “I think it’s just a matter of keeping myself grounded and knowing that I get to do this almost for a living.”

Having made a living in theatre before, Mangune has faced challenges in the gaps between projects. “The biggest one actually just hit about eight months ago at the end of the last Paint Your Wagon workshop in August or so,” he said. “The opportunities just ran out for me because most of the shows being produced in Seattle were predominantly white.  There just really wasn’t a place for me. So for the first time, I had to do the starving artist grind and be broke and work dead-end jobs.”

Eng echoed these sentiments. “I’d say the biggest challenge is not letting all of the rejection, the lack of opportunity for me, not weigh down my love for what I do,” Eng said. “Because it’s easy for that to happen: Long stretches of time between jobs, or long stretches of time between even opportunities, can happen all the time.”

Getting support from colleagues and friends has helped during the difficult times. “The good thing for me is that my closest friends are artists as well, so I think we feed each other,” Eng said. “The challenge is not letting that be a burden to continuing to pursue what I believe I have a love for. I think we all know those people who choose not to pursue things because they feel the need to make money or they want to live comfortably, and as a result they don’t pursue that which feeds them.”

Despite the difficulties of the theatre industry, all three actors are pleased with the multi-racial inclusion in this new version of Paint Your Wagon.  “I think this show is a great opportunity and a great show, not only because it’s well written, but because it does give a lot of opportunity to diverse actors and it gives us a voice, not only as actors and performers, but as a race in the show,” Mangune said. “It does highlight what a lot of people went through. And even though we are secondary characters, what we experience is a very big part of the show.”  

‘Paint Your Wagon’ will run from June 2 to 25, at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle. For more information, visit https://www.5thavenue.org/show/paint-your-wagon

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