Drawing: Jon Jon Briones in Miss Saigon

Jon Jon Briones

Manila-born Jon Jon Briones was only 22 when he came to London’s Drury Lane in 1989 to be part of the original ensemble of the hit musical MISS SAIGON. Now, twenty-five years later, he has returned in the lead role as the Engineer in the show’s revival which completes its run at the Prince Edward Theatre this month. His is a true ‘rags to riches’ story.

“I had never before spoken English and there I was, living in my own apartment and earning money and appearing on the West End.”

Having played the Engineer in Germany, on the US, Asian and UK tours and in his native Philipines, Los Angeles-based Jon Jon slipped across the Atlantic take on the part for the latest West End engagement, which began in May 2014.

Being part of the original production, Jon Jon worked with the great Jonathan Pryce, who originated the role of the Engineer. “He basically provided the blueprint for all the Engineers to follow” said Jon Jon when asked about his inspiration. “I really love what he did and I was privileged to have watched it take shape,” but he has also added some of his own interpretation. “My take is darker than usual,” he said.

“Growing up in a very poor part of the Philippines, I was constantly confronted with people who struggled through life, people who were completely desperate. As an actor, these first hand experiences have proven to be vital in getting the characters desperation across to the audience every night.”

He’s obviously got the formula right with by the critics and the audience, winning a WhatsOnStage Award and a nomination for an Olivier.

Drawing: Gemma Chan in Yellow Face at The National Theatre

Gemma Chan

This mischievous comedy was performed in The Shed at the National Theatre last month featuring Gemma Chan in its ensemble cast. Written by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang, it starts with his key role in the US Actors Equity Association protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian engineer in the Broadway version of Miss Saigon.

Many Asian-Americans and others regarded this as an example of “yellow face” casting – a caucasian actor applying make-up to portray a character of Asian descent.

Its a ‘mockumentary’ about an Asian-American playwright who, after protesting the casting of Price, accidentally casts a white actor as the Asian lead in his own play Face Value believing him to be of mixed race. He discovers that he is 100% white and tries to cover up to protect his reputation as an Asian-American role model.

It is notable that the National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner was the director of Miss Saigon. He amusingly programmed Yellow Face to run in the exact month Saigon returned to the West End. Oxford educated Gemma hailed her breakthrough in “colour-blind casting” when she won her first classical role in theatre, playing the war goddess Athena in Our Ajax at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013. The Sherlock and Jack Ryan actress still believes that actors of East Asian descent still don’t get opportunities white actors do. “I have to fight hard to get parts that don’t have something to do with China,” she said in a recent interview.