The cast of Assassins
(left to right) Joan Almedilla, Adam Kaokept, Trance Thompson, Max Torrez, and Aric Martin in Assassins at East West Players | Credit: Steven Lam​​​​​​

“All you have to do is move your little finger … and you can change the world,” goes one song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins.

Like a ghost, for two years the completely finished sets and racks of costumes for East West Players’ production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins lay dormant as the pandemic forced theaters across the county to shut their doors.

The closure was especially painful because it came on the eve of previews in March 2020, after seven weeks of intense rehearsals. Hours before the curtain was scheduled to rise, the lights went out and the doors were locked; a show about ghosts became a ghost itself.

Now the sets and costumes, as well as the original cast, are back and about to bring their production of Assassins to life on the stage of the David Henry Hwang Theater in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Featuring a racially diverse cast, the production will begin previews on Feb. 17, open on Feb. 20, and play through March 20. It’s directed by East West Players’ producing artistic director, Snehal Desai. The music director is Marc Macalintal.

A landmark of Los Angeles theater, East West Players was founded in 1965 by nine Asian American actors, writers, and directors in the film industry who decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. They gathered in the basement of a church in Silverlake (near downtown L.A.), intent on breaking the barriers of traditional racial casting and the constant reinforcement of cultural stereotypes.

Snehal Desai
Snehal Desai

“Their goal was to present plays that offered roles from which Asian Americans were traditionally excluded, like Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, or Bertolt Brecht,” says Desai.

Of equal importance, he emphasizes, was East West Players’ dedication to presenting and promoting the creation of new plays that would tell Asian American stories from an Asian American perspective.

“East West Players never had a problem finding an audience,” says Desai. “There are so many Asian Americans living in L.A., and there were so few opportunities to see their lives reflected on the stage in ways that were genuine and authentic.”

A challenge the company did, and still does face, according to Desai, involves obtaining performance rights.

“In the early years of the company,” Desai explains, “it was a struggle to get the rights to present plays by authors like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee when their agents found out the parts were going to be played by Asian American actors. Those barriers have loosened, but it’s still challenging when we write to a well-known playwright and we say we want to cast your play diversely with Asian Americans and actors of color.”

East West Players’ Long Association With Sondheim

“We’ve done many musicals over the years,” says Desai, “from Mamma Mia! and Next to Normal to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But it was in 1979 when the company staged Pacific Overtures “that our long association with Stephen Sondheim began. Gedde Watanabe, who was in that 1979 production [with original cast member Mako], is playing Charles Guiteau [the man that shot President Garfield] in Assassins. It’s come full circle. It’s also our first Sondheim show since his death.”

The world has also changed in the two years since the production was originally meant to open. Those changes, Desai feels, have refocused the impact of the show.

The cast of Assassins
The cast of Assassins at East West Players | Credit: Steven Lam

“Initially, when we were about to perform it, we were in the midst of a presidential election. The country was on edge. Now the questions that persist focus more on the idealized concept of the American Dream and what people believe is owed to them. It’s a sense of entitlement that can turn to rage. That’s what we saw on Jan. 6.”

The use of diverse racial casting, Desai feels, emphasizes the musical’s theme of political and emotional exclusion.

“The feeling of exclusion becomes even clearer when you see actors of color in these traditionally all-white roles. Today, it’s organizations like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys that are the nurturing grounds for the type of characters depicted in Assassins. You could say our production is doing the same thing that Lin-Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton.”

The action in Assassins, which features a folk music-style orchestration, is set against the background of a macabre carnival game. It originally opened off-Broadway in 1990 to decidedly mixed reviews and died after 73 performances. But like its characters, the show rose from the dead in 2004 to critical acclaim on Broadway and garnered five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.

The Man Who Shot Lincoln

As in Hamilton, the decision to cast Trance Thompson, a Black actor, in the role of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, holds a mirror up to history in a most provocative manner. It will unquestionably challenge audience’s perception of the character. At the same time, portraying Booth presented personal challenges of racial identity for Thompson.

Trance Thompson as John Wilkes Booth
Trance Thompson as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins at East West Players | Credit: Steven Lam

“When I took the role on two years ago, during the Trump presidency, I found it easier to channel my own level of anger toward the administration,” Thompson recalls. “Now I look at the character through the lens of the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.”

But it goes a lot deeper than that, Thompson admits. “Playing John Wilkes Booth from the perspective of a Black man, that’s hard. There’s a lot going on there, trying to figure out how to relate to him. Booth represents the antithesis of everything I’m about in terms of race.”

In the script Booth calls Lincoln an insult that incorporates a racial slur.

“I have a really hard time being Black and saying that.”

Even during our phone conversation, Thompson chose not to say the word, instead choosing “an n-lover.”

“When we were in rehearsal, I asked the cast, which is predominantly Asian, whether they were playing white people as Asians? Most said they were playing the character and race didn’t factor into it. I’ve struggled with that. I recognize it’s weird. But is it any weirder than a Korean playing John Hinckley Jr. or a Thai guy playing Lee Harvey Oswald?”

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