Hapa On A Boat Pt. 1
Finding Inner Peace As the Ping-Pong Ball Trickster of PRISCILLA
A Message for Broken Hearts:
My Relationship With a Scene-Stealing Role in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical.
By Rebecca Lee Lerman
I think that, as humans, we’re always plagued with the question, “Am I enough?”
Am I smart enough? Am I beautiful enough? Strong enough, sexy enough... whatever we feel we lack, we always want to do more. To be more. To be loved. To feel like we belong.
I have been fortunate to book the role of Cynthia in the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert two times. (Anyone familiar with the musical or film of the same name surely remembers Cynthia and her famous ping-pong ball trick!)
And both of those bookings came at exact moments in life when I felt lesser than; when her character and the show came to my aid and led to healing.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert tells the story of two drag queens and a transexual who take a road trip through the Australian Outback on a bus named “Priscilla.” They encounter hatred and homophobia, but also journey to find family, friendship and ultimately self-love and acceptance.
“We Belong,” the show’s anthem, is the healing song that the world needs to hear right now; a cry that we are all human and we are all equal.
Cynthia is one of the characters that the trio encounters on their travels. On paper, she is a stereotype: a mail-order bride from the Philippines. She walks around in her lingerie. In her number, “Pop Musik,” she pops Ping-Pong balls out of her vagina. (Nevermind that the trick is from Thailand, where, I might add, the circumstances surrounding these women, are quite upsetting).
Foreign and over-sexualized, Cynthia is a familiar sort of role for Asian actors.
However, my relationship with Cynthia is quite personal. Her essence falls in line with the theme of the show. She is a welcomed challenge and a message for broken hearts.
I first booked Priscilla at the wonderful Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas… and not long after, the boy I had been in a 14-year relationship with emailed me a breakup letter. The relationship lasted so long, in part, because I didn’t think I could do any better. He cheated on me, and actually pointed out what I was lacking. Either I was “looking a little tubby” or I didn’t “explore the world enough” or I wasn’t “interested in enough.”
He asked me once, “What else do you have to offer, besides theatre?” His stinger that lead to a full-out screaming match was, “I relate to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Revolutionary Road because… there is a girl at work that understands him better!”
These are phrases from him that are still etched into my self-esteem. More tragically, I thought that he was right. If I traveled more, worked out more… understood him more; if I fixed myself, he would stop looking elsewhere and start loving me.
The second time I booked the show was after plunging into the wonderful world of Internet dating (insert sarcasm here). However, I actually found someone who I thought I connected with on a mental, emotional and spiritual level. He made me realize that I could, in fact, love another. I cared deeply for him. I had sex with him on the third date. I didn’t see anything wrong with that. We continued dating until I felt him pulling away.
When confronted about it, he said to me, “We moved really fast. This is a purely physical relationship. The sex will get in the way of getting to know you better. I want something deeper.”
Again, those words will stay with me forever. All of a sudden, I felt like sex was all I was good for. He made me feel like I somehow gave my body to him too soon and I didn’t have the brainpower, the depth or the emotional capacity for a relationship. Again, I felt lesser than. It’s amazing how we let others dictate how we feel about ourselves.
My heart was, again, broken.
It is strange and cosmic that I got a call to audition for Cynthia again, the very day after that conversation, this time aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines.
The character, Cynthia, meets Bob, her husband, to take her away from her difficult life in the Philippines and live in the Australian Outback. However, Bob has grown tired of her performance tricks and tries to control her, demanding that she put her act to bed. To him, she is an embarrassment. It is shameful to be so sexual, to put her body out on display that way. She needs to be modest. She needs fixing.
But Cynthia has no shame. She draws so much pride and joy from her performances. It is her way of celebrating her body and herself. She won’t let her husband prevent her from following her joy. And she performs without any inhibition or self-doubt. She performs with the knowledge that she is the best, most fabulous person ever.
When she is done with her number, she packs up her things and leaves Bob. She knows her worth, and she will ultimately attract the environment and people that know it too. It is absolutely empowering to play her.
We can learn a lot from Cynthia and this show. She is the definition of confidence and courage. If someone tries to shame you, lock you up, tell you that you aren’t enough… tell you, you can’t love who you want, dress the way you want, tell you that you are somehow inferior because of the color of your skin --
Recognize you deserve to be loved by being exactly who you are, recognizes that the environment has turned toxic, and choose to vibrate higher. Don’t be afraid to let go. Follow your truth. Follow your joy. Be proud of who you are.
Now, I have booked Cynthia the second time, with the Norwegian Cruise Lines production, where I will get to spread the message of love and acceptance around the world. Just like the Fierce Drag Queens on the bus of Priscilla, the journey we all take is the one back to loving ourselves. You don’t need fixing. You deserve to be loved by you, exactly how you are. Right now.
So here I go! "Hapa on a Boat," setting sail. Completely and utterly enough. I will report back from the ship and recount my experiences for you.
Until then, Love.
Rebecca Lee Lerman is a New York City based writer and performer. Her plays and screenplays were featured at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, The Midtown International Theatre Festival, Universe Multicultural Film Festival and We So Hapa, which celebrates people of mixed race. Most recently, PheLerm Productions, for which she is writer, participated in the 72 Hour Shootout competition, and their short film was selected as the top 40 out of 400 to be screened at the Asian American Film Festival.