To Manu Narayan, BIPOC Actors Are Commonly Cast in Side Roles, But Rarely As the Lead | Playbill

Checking In With... To Manu Narayan, BIPOC Actors Are Commonly Cast in Side Roles, But Rarely As the Lead

Narayan, who currently stars in the all-Asian Off-Broadway production of A Delicate Balance, also recalls how he pranked Katrina Lenk in Company.

This week Playbill catches up with Manu Narayan, who plays Tobias in Transport Group and National Asian American Theatre Company's partner-produced revival of Edward Albee's Pulitzer-winning A Delicate Balance, the first to feature a full cast of Asian-American actors. The limited engagement, which opened November 6 and continues through November 19 Off-Broadway at the Connelly Theater, is directed by Jack Cummings III and also features Tina Chilip, Carmen M. Herlihy, Paul Juhn, Mia Katigbak, and Rita Wolf.

A Delicate Balance explores the complicated family life of suburban couple Agnes and Tobias and Agnes' alcoholic sister, Claire, who lives with the retired couple. Consistently cast in side roles, this is the rare time that Narayan gets to play the lead (and he has theories about why BIPOC actors are consistently overlooked for the lead roles in revivals).

Narayan was most recently seen on Broadway as Theo, one of Bobbie's paramours, in the gender-switched revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, winner of the 2022 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. His previous Main Stem credits include Robbie in Gettin' the Band Back Together, Karpathy in My Fair Lady, and Akaash in Bombay Dreams.

The actor has also been seen Off-Broadway in Merrily We Roll Along, Yeast Nation, Falsettoland, subUrbia, Fucking A, and The Lisbon Traviata, while his screen credits include Anything’s Possible, 99 Homes, The Love GuruThe Last Airbender, Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, And Just Like That, Prodigal Son, Emergence, Bull, Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, and Law & Order: SVU.

Manu Narayan and Mia Katigbak in A Delicate Balance Carol Rosegg

What is your typical day like now?
Narayan: It is always amazing to be working as an actor—that is especially true when you get to work on a classic masterpiece like A Delicate Balance. The days are long though, especially because my wife and I and our two dogs moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, in late 2019 and had our daughter about a year later. Typically, I get up early to see my daughter before I have to leave for rehearsal. We are currently in previews, so I spend the day in the city rehearsing and doing our play at the Connelly Theater on 4th between A and B in the East Village. I leave home at 10:30 AM and get back around 11 PM—very long, but highly fulfilling days. I am supremely thankful to my wife Laura who, even with her busy work schedule, holds down the fort for our family while I do this play.

Are there any parts of your role or the play that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
Delicate Balance was written in the 1960s, but it could’ve been written today. When I first read the play, I knew that I had to do it. The undefined terror in the play, coupled with a multi-generational family being under one roof, was the experience of so many of us during COVID shutdowns. As we were dealing with COVID, so many of us had to refocus our time on ourselves, our families, and home lives. We were discovering different ways to help neighbors and relatives in what ways we could. All of this was going on as we experienced a vague but growing terror for our own health and for the survival of our society: from mask mandates to increasingly overt racism—violence against Asians and the ever-present violence that Black Americans experience. From our climate crisis to the political lies and scary authoritarianism, to the anxiety of social media fueling lies, there has been and continues to be a lot to be concerned about. Our play echoes these ideas though it was written decades before.

Ben Steinfeld, Manu Narayan, and Jessie Austrian in the Roundabout's 2019 Off-Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along

During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
One thing that comes to mind is that artists of color continue to have limited “at bats” at the great roles in the theatre because of the systemic racism in our business. Most theatres and productions now see the benefit (first to themselves) of having diversity on their stages. But what that usually means is that the supporting and minor characters are the ones that are cast cross culturally, or non-traditionally. So often in the U.S., especially in New York City, actors of color, especially those of Asian descent, are not given the opportunities to play the iconic, great leading American stage roles because we continue to not be thought of as Americans. This happens even if we were born and brought up in the U.S. The actors who are usually considered and then eventually given the opportunities to portray the iconic roles in the American theatre are actors who typically are considered to be “traditional” casting for the role—usually actors who can pass for white, no matter where they were born. 

Where does this leave actors of color? At a distinct disadvantage.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and though I may be of South Indian heritage and have a deep affinity for my heritage, I am an American. If I were a white American, there would be no question whether I should play Tobias. But that my skin is brown brings up the question of, “What does it mean to have an Asian Tobias?” No matter that my experience and imagination may be better suited for Tobias than many of my white colleagues. I, and every nontraditional actor, have to push to play roles that are not specifically written for my perceived ethnicity. When we have an opportunity, such as the one I have now in A Delicate Balance, it’s automatically an uphill battle.

Even though we as audiences are constantly asked to suspend our disbelief in the theatre (such as murder on stage, a helicopter landing, rain falling, etc.), that suspension of disbelief is not applied to cross-cultural casting. Actors of color are constantly having to prove that we are “believable” and “good enough” to do Albee, Sondheim, Williams, O’Neill, Inge, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so many others. No one questions whether white actors are “good enough” to do a role because of the color of their skin, yet we actors of color constantly have to jump through hoops to prove that the choice made to cast an actor of color is worthy. Hopefully, we as a theatre community can start to look past color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to start casting the best talent for the role regardless of what expectations have been previously. It’s important to see representations of Americans as faces of all colors, not only white.

What did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
Narayan: I think my capacity for empathy, and my ability to sit quietly with my thoughts, has grown over the pandemic. My relationship to time at home has grown fonder during the past few years. I’m a big extrovert, as anyone who knows me can attest, and I love a good social gathering. I would have thought that being socially-distanced for the number of months we were isolated would have driven me crazy. But, actually, my wife and I had an amazing time slowing down, spending time together, and getting ready to welcome our daughter. It was a scary time, and also a magical time for us personally.

Claybourne Elder, Manu Narayan, and Bobby Conte in Company Matthew Murphy

Can you share one or two memories that particularly stand out from your time in the company of Company?
Narayan: I think the thing that really made my experience in Company so wonderful was the outstanding leadership shown every single day by both Marianne Elliott and our producer, Chris Harper. My experience at Company was artistically wonderful. Marianne is such an actor’s director; it is clear she has great trust in what we do and how we explore a piece. It is so fulfilling to be working in that way and, of course, with a wonderful scene partner in Katrina Lenk.

One memory that warms my heart is just hugging both Marianne and Chris Harper in the middle of the Plaza Hotel after we won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. I am so glad that my wife captured that moment in a photo.

At the top of the show, I was on the same side of the stage as Patti LuPone, and I enjoyed getting a chance to just pick her brain each night about this or that. What a legend and a true actor’s actor. On a totally different note, Claybourne Elder, Bobby Conte, and I (the three boyfriends to Bobbie) pulled a memorable prank on Katrina during tech rehearsal one day. Katrina had this really unique, plaid outfit that Clay, Bobby, and I secretly also ordered. When we each appeared during rehearsal for “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” all three of us were wearing her exact outfit. I don’t think Katrina knew, but to see her face as it dawned on her what we had done was hilarious. I will always treasure the memories of that beautiful show and all the friendships I made on it.

Mitchell Jarvis, Manu Narayan, Jay Klaitz, and Paul Whitty in Broadway's Gettin' the Band Back Together

Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
Narayan: I did get a chance to do this beautiful movie directed by Billy Porter called Anything’s Possible, which is on Amazon Prime. I encourage everyone to watch it. It is such a charming, romantic high school comedy about a trans girl and a cisgendered boy who fall in love. It was Billy’s feature film directing debut, and he can truly do it all—another actor’s director. We shot it in Pittsburgh and has some wonderful appearances from Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans.

What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?

Narayan: I think it’s outrageous that women in certain areas of our country have lost the fundamental right to safe, legal abortion, so I’m going to say Planned Parenthood. Also, please look out for the theatre companies, big and small, that want to take the risk of programming new plays by emerging playwrights of color.

Photos: See Inside Opening Night of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance

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