Liat, the role played by Li Jun Li in South Pacific, has almost no lines. "Some people have said, 'You're so lucky: All you have to do is show up onstage and look pretty.' That used to make me livid. But once I realized that it usually wasn't actors who were saying that, I calmed down."
And why was that a calming thought to Li, who was born in Shanghai and moved to New York with her family at age 9? "Because actors usually know that doing scenes with no lines can actually be harder than when you're speaking. Just look at Liat's three scenes. In the first, she falls in love with Cable. In the second, she gets her heart broken. In the third, she finds out that the love of her life dies." Li adds, with a laugh, "It's not an easy assignment!"
Humor comes easily to Li, unlike to Liat. "I'm much more outgoing and goofy than my character," she says. "It's almost ironic that Liat's big moment comes in 'Happy Talk.' Because Liat isn't exactly light-hearted." As Li plays her, however, she is light-handed. The dance she performs during the number is executed with expert grace.
The choreography draws on Li's training in Chinese classical dancing, which as a child she studied in New York's Chinatown. (She grew up on the Upper East Side, and attended the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, just behind Lincoln Center.) "At first," Li says, "the 'Happy Talk' number was balletic. But we" - she is referring to choreographer Christopher Gattelli and director Bartlett Sher - "were pretty sure Liat wouldn't know ballet! So we dropped that. We devised something based on Chinese handkerchief dancing, and based also on peacock dancing, in which dancers use their arms in a way that resembles a peacock."
Li, whose biggest credit before South Pacific was a non-Equity touring production of Miss Saigon, says that one of her biggest thrills this year came from Broadway star Bernadette Peters. "She told me how much she liked the 'Happy Talk' dance. That meant a lot." Perhaps Li's biggest satisfaction, though, came after opening night in April, when the reviews were published. "I was so pleased that they mentioned my performance, especially in The New York Times. Liat is so easily overlooked - as if she's merely this Asian girl who's being whored out by her mother."
Li's performance avoids being reduced to that simple notion partly because of her grounding in research. "I did a lot of looking into the role, especially before my second set of auditions." (She was seen in April of 2007, and again at an open call in Chinatown the subsequent summer.) "I learned all kinds of things," Li says. "For example, that Tonkin - Liat and her mother are Tonkinese - used to be part of China." (It is now part of Vietnam.)
Li did some more research of a sort last month, when, on her vacation, she visited the real South Pacific - Moorea, Bora Bora, Tahiti, and Tahiti Iti. "I expected it to be a kind of paradise," she comments, "but my imagination couldn't do it justice. The solitude and wonders of nature that I found in those places were indescribable. I really understand now what Cable means in the show when, speaking of South Pacific islands, he says, 'All I care about is right here.'"
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com