Baayork Lee: Bring It ON!

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Photo credit Kacey Anisa Stamats

Happy Chinese New Year! It’s the Year of the Dog and Baayork Lee blew us all away with her own fireworks at the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History series Monday, February 12th at The Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  Honoring an Asian woman for the first time not only made this an exceptional evening of distinction, but also showcased an actress who is one singular sensation!

Her vast career spans from being cast as a five-year-old in the original Broadway production of The King and I to creating the role of Connie Wong in A Chorus Line.

Baayork’s career arc was consistent and auspicious:  “You gotta know somebody to be somebody,” she quipped when asked about how fortuitous opportunities struck. None of this, of course, happened without the support of her mother, her friends, and her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with The National Asian Artists Project.  In 2017, she was recognized for her work in theatre education globally with the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award.

Robert Viagas & Baayork Lee

Photo Credit Kacey Anisa Stamats

Deftly interviewed by Robert Viagas, a journalist and theatre author with more than thirty-five years’ experience on Broadway, Baayork shared her story with energy and enthusiasm, insight and inspiration. The conversation between these two friends who met over four decades ago and became collaborators and biographers on their book, “On the Line: the Creation of A Chorus Line” was funny, smart, and sassy with Baayork never resisting a beat to deliver comical asides to her adoring audience filled with fans and former cast members. But as the entertainer made way for the woman, it was her wisdom about her culture, her craft, and her stamina that was most telling.

She knew from the very moment when her mother brought her from Chinatown to audition for The King and I that “this is what I wanted to do.”  Atypical of “Tiger Moms” who have specific agendas for their children who have no say in their career paths, Baayork’s mom “listened to me at five.  And supported me.”  Encouraging Asian talent that “You don’t have to go to Harvard. You can go to Broadway” is among her mantras.

But in order to make it in this business she gave some practical advice:  “It’s about being ready to survive.  If you want to be in this business . . .  you have to be ready to survive because it is very, very hard to first of all live in New York, the competition is so much more than when I was growing up and you have to have the tools to survive first in the city, and then second of all you have to be ready with your talent which is singing, dancing, acting, taking your classes, and be ready when the door opens for you to walk in. “

I had the opportunity to chat with Baayork about the vital importance of the arts and how they change people’s lives; without any hesitation she emphatically pointed to herself:  “Sitting right here. Changing lives.”  And why she is so dedicated to the National Asian Artists Project, showcasing the work of Asian-American theatre artists through performance, outreach, and educational programming.  Her work as Master Class teacher, the children at P.S. 124 “even if I get ONE [child] in the theatre, then it’s all worth [her time and talent]. “ As the dedicated voice of an Asian role model Baayork has been representing her community for the last 50 years:  “I was one of the very lucky ones to do twelve original Broadway shows, to do television, to do films, to do all of those things.  I always felt that I was representing my community.”

She is best known as a choreographer and director, internationally, although none of her work has been performed in America, she persists. “I love being in the theatre. I keep that spirit, in me. Keep that child within me. [I don’t] get bitter. Don’t give up on your dream.” Her dream project is “to have her company go on to the next level [in order to] sustain itself” and to “open up the eyes of parents – there are choices.”

Proud to be an American, Baayork has no regrets: “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.” The League of Professional Theatre Women is indebted to her commitment, creativity, and passion for defying the obstacles so that ALL women can create their own fireworks!

The Oral History Project is an ongoing project made possible by generous grants from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the Robert and Betty Sheffer Foundation, and private sponsors. The Oral History Project is produced by Betty Corwin and LPTW Members Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Oral History chronicles and documents the contributions of significant theatre women in diverse fields. Interviews with such outstanding women are videotaped and housed in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. For further detailed information, kindly email Sophia Romma at sromma@theatrewomen.org or Pat Addiss at paddiss@gmail.com.

 

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