Impassioned by a clash of cultures In 1982, a Chinese-American was fatally beaten in Detroit. This week, Cherylene Lee's play about the killing premieres at a W.Va. theater festival.

July 05, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Playwright Cherylene Lee never thought twice about being Chinese-American - until the Vincent Chin case.

Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American, was fatally beaten by two Detroit autoworkers in 1982. Convicted of manslaughter, the autoworkers were sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay fines and court fees of $3,780. (Two federal civil rights trials followed, eventually clearing the men of all charges.)

"It was a great frustration in me that was triggered by this event that an Asian-American man's life could be held at such little value and that an Asian-American is not considered a real American," Lee explains. Her play about the Chin case, "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain," will make its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherds-town, W.Va., this week.

"The perception of people not seeing you as a real American ..really bothered me," says Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese-American who was a child actor in Hollywood. "My background growing up - I did mainstream television. I did a nightclub act with my sister. I felt very American. It was shocking. It really opened my eyes."

Lee published a poem about the Chin case and, later, wrote screenplay for actress Beulah Quo, who owns the rights to the story. But even Quo - who has known Lee since the playwright was a child - says, "I did not realize ... that the killing of Vincent Chin impassioned her so much."

That passion took yet another form when Lee received a calfrom Ed Herendeen, producing director of the Shepherdstown theater festival. Herendeen, whose festival specializes in new work, told Lee he wanted to commission a stage play based on the Chin story. It became the first commission in the eight-year history of the professional summer festival, which is in residence at Shepherd College.

"I was specifically looking for a race play," says Herendeen. "I'always looking for contemporary issues, and ... race crimes, ignorance, fear and hate crimes seemed to be rearing their heads recently."

Lee, who had never heard of the festival, was hesitant at firstBut Herendeen won her over. And in a way, Lee's career has come full circle with this play, which stars Quo as Chin's mother.

Although Lee's late father was a dentist, almost everyone else iher family worked as an extra in Hollywood. "It was always difficult to find Asian extras, so if you were in Los Angeles and had any connection to the industry, you would get a call," says Lee, a 45-year-old Los Angeles native.

Her own debut came at age 3 when she played a Korean orphaon a "Playhouse 90" television drama. "I thought it was a lot of fun," she recalls. "It was like play."

"She was a big child star," says Quo, who portrayed Lee'mother on several TV shows and also appeared with her in the 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie, "Flower Drum Song." "She was really a bright little youngster who was so cute and winsome, and she was a great dancer."

By age 5, Lee was dancing at the Meglin Kiddies Dance Studiin Los Angeles, where she was dubbed "the Chinese Shirley Temple." Two years later, she and her older sister, Virginia, had a song-and-dance act.

They danced on "The Dinah Shore Show" and with Gene Kelly oa special that featured Carl Sandburg and Liza Minnelli. "He was incredibly nice. He would have us over to his house so we could learn the steps in a more relaxed environment," she says of Kelly.

For three summers, the Lee Sisters played Las Vegas' NeFrontier Hotel. "It was like a big theme park," she says. "I always had a good time with it."

Then suddenly, at age 15, Lee, whose small stature had alloweher to play younger roles, grew 5 inches in seven months. Hollywood was no longer interested. "I didn't know what was wrong," says Lee, who still looks young for her age.

The La Brea Tar Pits, a paleontological site in urban Los Angelessaved her. Another sister, who was getting a master's degree in earth science, suggested she volunteer for a dig, and Lee found a new calling. "It was a totally different world," she says. "It felt like the spotlight didn't have to be on me."

Lee took to the work so completely, she went on to earn bachelor's degree in paleontology from the University of California at Berkeley. But her early training in show business would not be suppressed.

She was working on her master's degree in geology at UCLwhen she saw a production of "A Chorus Line" at the Shubert NTC Theatre in Los Angeles. Listening to the character of Connie Wong sing about performing from the time she was in "The King and I" at age 5, Lee felt, "What she said on that stage was my life. I knew I had to do that show." Although she hadn't danced professionally for nine years, Lee auditioned for the touring company and was hired, touring for a year before going back to finish her degree.

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