Auditioning for roles as a biracial actor can be a confusing process, and no one know that better than Devin Kawaoka.
The emerging storyteller whose past credits include Good Trouble, Criminal Minds, Goliath, and Lucifer, was most recently in Broadway’s hit production Slave Play, which completed its Los Angeles run last month. Starring as Dustin, Kawaoka’s character brings an LGBTQ Asian American perspective to the play, and there is a lot to talk about surrounding that. Relevant, raw, and revolutionary, Slave Play is being hailed as “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up in years” by The New York Times.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Kawaoka dreamt of competing in the Olympics as a downhill skier, but life took him on a different course after he discovered his passion for acting.
Instinct caught up with the artist to talk more about Slave Play, being biracial in Hollywood, and keeping Asian Americans in the conversation about race.
Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Devin! You played Dustin in Broadway’s Slave Play, which wrapped up its run at the Mark Taper Theatre in L.A. last month. What’s next for the show?
Oh, you’re asking something way above my paygrade [laughs]. There was a New York Times spread saying that we were going to London, but I would say what’s next for the show is having more people see it and having bigger audiences. We had a very successful L.A. run. We were sold out in our last week, packed houses, people were DMing us from all walks of life trying to get tickets, and I think it’s a play that says something that people want to hear. It also confirms what they thought no one else understood. The more cities we visit and the more people that see this play, the better.
Slave Play has been met with critical acclaim and controversy. How does it feel to know you made your Broadway debut in such a polarizing production?
I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened, and I think theater should be like this. This is what theater is. I’ll probably regret this when I get an audition for the revival of some old play, but I recently said that this is the only kind of theater I really want to do. Theater that makes people want to walk out, makes them want to leave, makes them feel enraged and engaged.
There were Broadway dreams when I was a kid, but that’s because I only knew that Broadway existed. Many people still don’t realize that Off Broadway exists. Then you go to New York and you’re like, wow, there’s this whole other artists’ community and all these theaters are producing such amazing plays with amazing work that are not seeing as many eyes because of the size of the theaters.
As soon as I moved to New York, my dream became, I want to be in The Laramie Project. I want to be with Tectonic Theatre Project. I want to be in Unnatural Acts. I want to be in all these hit plays that are saying something. Then to combine those two things with Broadway, and a hit Off Broadway play together in one moment to make my Broadway debut, it was a dream.
What have you taken away from this experience?
I came in wanting to teach Dustin what Devin knew. That’s what I wanted to do. I was like, Dustin doesn’t understand this, Dustin doesn’t understand that. As I lived in the play, as I saw my life through the lens of the play, and as I created deep, trusting, and lasting relationships with both of my Garys, first Ato Blankson-Wood, and then the second, Jakeem Dante Powell, I started to realize that Devin could also learn from Dustin. So, the thing that I’m sort of taking away is, it’s almost like I’m a little bit more alive than I was when I started. I’m a little bit more aware of what rooms I’m in, what I’m talking about, and who I’m talking to in a way that’s exciting to me. I will forever be grateful for that.
You kind of touched on this a couple seconds ago, but can you talk more about what you ultimately hope audiences take away from the show?
Beyond the conversation about the racial identity spectrum, I hope audiences take away from the show that art is not meant to make you feel comfortable, and I hope they have more of an opening into the complexity of what that argument is, rather than staying on their own side. Of course, that’s the given.
On top of that, one of the things that I found fascinating about doing it in L.A., we performed at a theater that have subscribers. With Broadway, people are paying for single tickets. People who play to have a single ticket are asking for that experience, whereas subscribers are asking for the experience of 5-6 plays. I think for so long, that model has been made to please subscribers because they are paying a good chunk of money ahead of time.
However, all theater goers need to realize that they are paying to be challenged by art, not to be made comfortable by art. That should be exciting. It shouldn’t be like, well, why would I give my money to these people ever again because they challenged me? It should be like, you know, I don’t know if I agree with that play, but I’m going to keep talking about it at dinner until I understand why I agreed or disagreed with it. Instead of saying, no, don’t want to hear it, don’t want to listen to it, I’m going to use my veiled threat of not subscribing again.
Dustin is a character written specifically for biracial actors like yourself?
Yes. He’s not described as biracial; he’s described as a ‘dusky white.’ The lowest of the whites. It’s like, he’s part something. Then in the casting breakdown, they’re like, he’s part something, but he just can’t be part Black.
Because you are biracial, have you encountered a lot of challenges in the industry and finding work?
Yeah, this is a complex issue. When I came into the business, there was this really fun idea of ethnically ambiguous, which is like, we don’t quite know what he is, but he’s something. Therefore, we can put him in this show. He’s like a palatable person of color. I think what’s hard about that is, first of all, it’s based in racism. Like, there’s some sort of palatable anything. Then the other side of that is, it kind of erases who I am and how I feel.
Because TV, film, and theater are visual mediums, audiences are looking at you being like, are you the Asian person, are you the Black person, or are you the white person? Because I need to know. I need to be able to see it. That’s sort of the old thing, and that’s what’s been happening in my career. I’ve sort of fallen through the cracks a lot of the time because being biracial, I don’t fit the breakdown of Asian man or white man. Unless it’s specifically biracial, I’m sort of out of the picture.
Also, I can’t be in a family. I can’t be in a family of white people or a family of Asian people. I have to be the son of a white person and an Asian person, so it gets a little complicated. There are a lot of limitations and there’s a glass ceiling to be biracial because for some reason, the industry cannot imagine that there are families that have many races in them.
Robert O’Hara recently directed a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night with two white parents and two black sons, and he didn’t make any effort to explain why that family exists. He was like, this family just exists and there’s no reason why I have to explain how it happened. There are so many multicultural and multiracial families on the spectrum. I have an Asian cousin and a white cousin. They may be different, but they’re both my cousins, and we need to start seeing that lots of different people exist in families and worlds.
I read in another interview that you believe Slave Play reveals the possibilities and dangers of prioritizing Asian Americans in discussions of race. Can you talk more about that?
The racial conversation in America right now is dominated, and should be, by slavery. It’s America’s sin and it has affected our country. White supremacy has affected our country in a way that is systematic, undeniable, and tragic, and we need to address that original sin of slavery. Asian people, we were in America at that time, but we weren’t a part of that conflict. So, when you prioritize Asian voices, it can sometimes feel a little bit like it’s pulling away from that conversation.
At the same time, there’s a danger of not acknowledging the Asian presence in this country because Asians are experiencing a 300 percent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and they’re starting to feel the effects of their hard work, like studying for school, to be affected because it’s like, well, there are now too many Asian students at the school who did all these things. There are all these ways in which the Asian community is starting to be pushed away and they’re not being included in the conversation. I think that’s dangerous.
You grew up as a downhill ski racer with dreams of competing in the Olympics. How did you fall into the world of acting?
Oh, man. I was skiing around five days a week at one point. I was ranked in New York State, I was competing in the Northeast, and I still love to ski. It’s something I really wish I got to do more often. How I fell into acting, I saw the movie Newsies when I was younger, and I started taking acting classes. People were then like, audition for this community theater thing, audition for that community theater thing.
Slowly over time, I stopped being able to go to practice as much because I was rehearsing so much. I was splitting my time, but I couldn’t be a master of two things at once, especially with school and other responsibilities. I could probably do it now, but I was at the point where I had to make a choice, and it was hard because my dad was my coach. I felt a lot of shame because I knew how much he loved skiing with me.
Do you feel like acting was the right career path?
Now that I’ve been on Broadway, sure! [Laughs]. I feel like I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I love stories in any medium. I love good television, good film, good theater, and being a part of that is all I’ve ever wanted.
We have seen you appear in multiple television shows including Lucifer, Criminal Minds, and Marvel’s Runaways. What are some future goals you would like to achieve with your career?
I can bring this back to Six Feet Under, which was a very formative show for me. The complexity, the funny, and the drama of that series, like how devastatingly sad and how laugh out loud funny that series was, it really hit me to my core. Ever since then, I wanted to be on a series that got to have that much time to develop character, relationship, and family.
When that show ended, spoiler alert, and how they show each one of the main characters die, I wept for hours afterwards because they were my family. I had grown up with them. Claire was my age when I started watching the show, and to have them go on with their lives and to actually see what happens in their lives was so heart wrenching. To be a part of something like that, something that makes such a cultural impact would be very special to me.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you’d like to mention or plug?
I have a new film coming out called Under the Lantern Lit Sky that’ll come out sometime this year, I imagine. It’s a beautiful story about a man who is experiencing what it’s like to live in the south, hide his homosexuality, and the effects that it has on his marriage.