Lisa Helmi Johanson
Lisa Helmi Johanson (Photo by Larry Hamilton/Blue Photography)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

PASADENA — “Waterfall,” a new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, is a showcase for the talents of several Asian American actors and singers.

Set in Thailand and Japan from 1932 to 1945, the play is about a romance between Noppon (played by Bie Sukrit, a major star in Thailand) and Katherine (Emily Padgett), the American wife of Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma), the Thai ambassador to Japan and Noppon’s employer.

Noppon’s best friends in Tokyo are fellow Thai expatriates Santi (Jordan De Leon) and Surin (Colin Miyamoto) and a Japanese American from New York, Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson). They are troubled by the increasingly militaristic and anti-American atmosphere in Japan.

Noppon’s dream is to go to America, and in one scene his friends sing “America Will Break Your Heart,” warning that the U.S. is not all that he imagines it to be — at least, not for Asians.

Johanson, who has toured with “Avenue Q” as Christmas Eve, says that “Waterfall” is a sign of progress. “It’s been so long that the roles for Asian Americans in theater and even film and television are always based on stereotypes, and ‘Waterfall’ provides a perspective that is beyond such stereotypes. For starters, the romantic lead is an Asian man, which is virtually unheard of especially when the female counterpart is (gasp) Caucasian. ‘Waterfall’ is also an opportunity to share a potentially new perspective with audiences, which is always a step forward.

“The next step beyond, in my opinion, would be to have shows that have Asian Americans in them that have nothing to do with their ethnicity and have everything to do with the human condition.”

Johanson auditioned for the role of Kumiko in New York and was intrigued by the audition song, “America Will Break Your Heart.”

“I had been in callbacks for the same role of Kumiko back when they did the workshop in New York the previous year, but didn’t book it,” she recalled. “The audition song back then was very upbeat, fun, and had a real swing to it. So I was surprised when I went back to audition for this co-production [with 5th Avenue Theatre]  that the material was completely different and a bit meatier. That definitely caught my attention because it showed more dimension to her character.

“I often, and happily, go in for purely comedic roles, but know that I’m capable of more, so opportunities like this are ones that I am grateful for.”

She hopes to continue with the show when it goes to Seattle and then to Broadway.

Kumiko echoes the experiences of many Japanese Americans of that era when she says that she’s looked down upon as Japanese when she’s in America, but in Japan she’s treated badly because she’s a Nisei.

“I did do research about what life was like for Japanese Americans back in the 1920s because that would have been the time that Kumiko was growing up in America, which, of course, would shape her as a person,” said Johanson, who is of Korean and Finnish descent. “It was a very unique thing to be part of the Nisei generation of Japanese Americans because you were American-born but persecuted because you looked different. Then in Japan, you looked the same but were almost treated like a traitor even though being American was not an active decision you made yourself. It’s a sad and very tiny pocket of history and, in my opinion, would shape a person in very harsh and specific ways.

“I am fortunate that I have only experienced contained incidents of racism in my life, but know many who have experienced worse, both actively and also on a personally psychological level … I grew up very proud of my two ethnicities and lived in an area where being politically correct was the absolute way of behaving (the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). It actually wasn’t until college and moving to New York to pursue a theatrical career that I ever had feelings of not belonging cleanly in a certain category.

“A very prevalent experience for biracial Asians both in the industry and, well, everywhere, is the feeling of not being Asian enough or, conversely, being too Asian to fit into people’s preconceived notions of what an American is. For me, it has mainly been a frustration, but I have heard many hard stories of very poignant sadness that has come from feelings of not belonging. Thank God we’re not dealing with internment camps anymore, but there is still a struggle that exists.”

Kumiko makes it clear that she is interested in Noppon, but he remains focused on Katherine even though their relationship appears to have no future — particularly when the ambassador and his wife return to Bangkok and Noppon remains in Tokyo to pursue his diplomatic career.

“I find that people are sometimes drawn to things that are ‘exotic’ to them, particularly if they are trying to break away from a specific upbringing that would not encourage said exotic thing,” Johanson observed. “So basically, Katherine’s being Caucasian and Western was the polar opposite to the arranged marriage and set livelihood deigned by his culture and family. Since Noppon was so fixated on making his life ‘matter’ in some bigger and better way, Katherine appeared to him as a sort of vehicle towards that, whereas Kumiko was not quite different enough.”

Lisa Helmi Johanson (Kumiko), Thom Sesma (Chao Khun Atikarn) and J. Elaine Marcos (Nuan) were among the cast and crew members participating in "Talkback Tuesday" after the June 9 performance of "Waterfall" at the Pasadena Playhouse. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Lisa Helmi Johanson (Kumiko), Thom Sesma (Chao Khun Atikarn) and J. Elaine Marcos (Nuan) were among the cast and crew members participating in “Talkback Tuesday” after the June 9 performance of “Waterfall” at the Pasadena Playhouse. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Asian American actors can find roles in Asian-themed musicals like “Pacific Overtures” and “Flower Drum Song,” or in shows that have an Asian character, such as “A Chorus Line” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” But when asked if producers are open to casting Asian Americans in non-ethnic-specific roles, Johanson said they are in isolated instances, but not overall.

She and co-star J. Elaine Marcos, who plays Atikarn and Katherine’s servant, Nuan, “have talked extensively about how in order for us to book a role that is non-ethnic-specific, we have to be so many LEAGUES beyond what other people do in that audition room to even shift the mold that is the perception of the casting and/or creative team. We have to rock their socks off and prove that we specifically are so incredibly right for the role that they can ‘overlook’ our ethnicity.

“Is this something that is generally admitted? No. Is it malicious? Generally, no. Is it even intentional? In most cases, no. But it’s still a lingering truth. Now, that being said, have I been part of wonderfully color-blind cast shows or booked a role that has had nothing to do with my ethnic background? Graciously, yes, and they always and every time feel like a victory.

“While I’m incredibly grateful for every victory, I still yearn for the day where I’m not the ‘wild card’ or that I don’t feel like booking a role where I’m portraying the American that I am warrants a celebration entailing a fireworks display and parade.”

Her New York credits include “Three Sisters,” “Women Beware Women,” “Rescue Rue,” “Taming of the Shrew,” and “4,000 Miles.”

“I think that every role you take on will shape you and the experience that you have while living in that role,” Johanson said. “In college, I was cast as Thomasina Coverly in a production of ‘Arcadia,’ which was my first victory in color-blind casting that was incredibly rewarding. But even as the zanily stereotyped role of Christmas Eve in ‘Avenue Q,’ I realized that though I was performing with a Japanese accent, which provided many jokes in the show, there was still so much heart to her that truly touched people.

“And when it really comes down to it, that’s what our art is about. Affecting people and giving them a perspective they didn’t have before they entered. Sometimes it’s through laughter and sometimes it’s through tears — it’s not for us as the artists to decide, but merely to provide. And provide we will!”

Johanson also weighed in on the current controversy over the casting of Emma Stone as a character who is one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth Hawaiian in the movie “Aloha.” The issue of white actors playing biracial characters is nothing new; examples include Jonathan Pryce as the half-Vietnamese, half-French Engineer in “Miss Saigon.”

“I have to be careful to not get too heated with this subject material, but it certainly is a sore spot for all minorities, really,” she said. “While, yes, we are Americans and proud of that, there are distinct differences that being of an immigrated ethnicity to this country make that are vital to our accurate and true representation. This country is made up of such an incredible diversity of cultures and it is shameful how disproportionately the entertainment business represents ‘American life.’

“Referring more specifically back to incidents where Caucasians are cast as Asians (sometimes not even just half Asian), I really just have to ask, why is it that performing in blackface is absolutely not acceptable but performing in yellowface is? I mean this to not remotely detract from the hardship that African Americans have and continue to go through in this country, but to truly challenge the perception that one ethnicity can’t just go off and pretend to be another under the flippant guise that it’s ‘just art.’

“A wonderful article providing a link to a huge database of mixed Asian female actors, all with significant IMDB [Internet Movie Database] credits, came out during the ‘Aloha’ debate to PROVE that the issue in casting wasn’t really an issue. It was a decision. I’m sorry, but save money on the offensive eyeliner and yellow-toned foundation and just audition the right people. Everyone deserves it.”

“Waterfall,” with book and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire, both Broadway veterans, and directed by Tak Viravan, an influential figure in Thailand’s entertainment industry, runs through June 28. Remaining showtimes are Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. For ticket information, call (626) 356-7529 or visit To get a 20 percent discount, use this code: RS20.

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  1. I knew Lisa back in college. I’ll never forget the choir tour we were on in Vienna where the tour guide pointed out a Samsung Europes HQ and asked if there were any Korean Americans in the choir. Lisa raised her hand. He mentioned that Nokia also had their European HQ in Vienna and asked if there were any Finnish people. Lisa was again the only person to raise her hand. The man looked perplexed and a little amused and made some joke about phones. That’s Lisa in a nutshell. I’m glad to see she is involved in such an interesting project and wish her all the best!