Manna Nichols was still a student at Oklahoma City University when she was cast by a major American theater in a major musical- theater role.
That was four years ago, at Washington’s Arena Stage, and Nichols was playing Eliza Doolittle opposite the great Canadian actor Benedict Campbell, son of former Guthrie Theatre artistic director Douglas Campbell.
As a mixed-race actor of Chinese, Caucasian and American Indian descent, Nichols was thrilled to land a role that would typically go to a white woman. For better or worse, she’s since become a go-to actor for Asian-specific roles. In 2013, she played Kim in a touring “Miss Saigon” that drew protests at Ordway Center, and last summer she took on the part of Liat in the Guthrie staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”
Next week, Nichols returns to the Twin Cities in another canonical Asian role: She’s Tuptim, the King of Siam’s reluctant junior wife in the Lincoln Center touring production of “The King and I.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical about a spunky 19th-century English teacher who disrupts the Siamese court opens Tuesday at the Orpheum in Minneapolis.
Nichols talked about what she has faced when it comes to race and casting, why she tried out for this show, which won a 2015 Tony for best revival, and what was special about the Guthrie’s “South Pacific.”
Q: Why did you want to play Tuptim again?
A: I first did Tuptim right out of school, at Walnut Street Theatre in Philly and North Shore Music Theatre near Boston. I literally had maybe a week off [between shows].
I really, really identify with Tuptim being a strong woman. The women of my family are very much like that. What I really love is that she tries to stand up for what she thinks is right. She’s a very intelligent character but she’s not scared of the consequences. She faces them bravely, knowing that she weighed all the options.
The reason I wanted to do [Bartlett] Sher’s production is he’s re-examining this old material through a 2017 lens. He’s saying, “Can we look at these characters in a way that isn’t just stereotypical — as society sees them — subservient Asian women?” Like we are frail fragile flowers or little porcelain dolls or whatever.
Sometimes Tuptim can be portrayed, like: “I’m an ingénue. I’m a princess. I’m going to sing high notes and love songs and I’m going to fall in love.” When really she’s been sold into concubine slavery, and she’s truly in love with another man, one who loves her and respects her and treats her well.
Q: You weren’t worried about getting tired of the role?
A: No. I really, really love the role. I love the music. I love the arc and the journey that Tuptim goes through. … When she asks Mrs. Anna for the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she writes her own version, so she’s created her own artwork based off this piece of literature. She’s standing up, speaking her mind and saying, “You know what, I’ve had enough, I’m not doing this.”
Q: How is the role of Liat different from the role of Tuptim?
A: Liat has like, six lines in the entire show, and all of them are in French. But in our production at the Guthrie, they added me into some scenes in the beginning. They wanted the audience to clock Liat finding [her lover Lt. Joseph Cable] earlier, so that it isn’t just her mother Bloody Mary prostituting her out.
The story we wanted to tell was: Some enchanted evening, you see a stranger across a crowded room. That was a small moment built in for Liat and Cable. She sees him across the beach and decides, “Oh, my gosh, this is it. This is the one I want.” We didn’t add any lines, but it gave Liat a choice in her romantic partner. … That was Joe Haj’s genius. He is just a brilliant, brilliant man. I would love to work with him again.
Q: What has it been like for you, auditioning for roles as a mixed-race actress?
A: It’s difficult. The joke amongst a lot of minority actors for a long time has been, “You’re the token Asian or you’re the token black person or you’re the token Latino.” You look across the cast lists, all the leads are typically white, and in the ensemble there’ll be that one black and one Asian and one Latino actor. It’s like they are filling quotas.
The majority of my résumé is Asian roles, but I’m mixed-race. It’s so hard. I’ve gone into an audition and people will say, “You look too Asian for this.” Or I go to an Asian audition and they say, “Well, you don’t look Asian enough.” Or I go into a Caucasian audition and it’s like, “Oh, she’s the ethnic option.”
But I think things will change over time. Even though I get pigeonholed and I would like to do other things, I love the role of Tuptim. It’s such a well-rounded role that I don’t get bored.