Monday, November 28, 2011

Profile of Zhenhua Lim

Zhenhua Lim's Broadway debut may be one of the best reviewed of the year, but audiences would have a hard time finding her name in any Playbill. That's because she is listed under her American name, Jennifer Lim, which is kind of appropriate given the play that she's in. Jennifer is currently performing in David Henry Hwang's new play Chinglish, which is about the linguistic and cultural barriers that separate China from the United States, particularly when it comes to doing business.

Ms. Lim's performance in the play is one of two that spans the language divide, performing some of her lines in broken English but most of them in Mandarin. Her debut performance on the main stem has garnered strong reviews, calling her performance "strident and sensual" (Ben Brantley of The New York Times) and "a Tony-worthy triumph in any language" (Scott Brown in New York Magazine).

In a recent interview she did with the New York Times, she stated that “I’ve always had a strong sense of who I am and where I’m from. I may have a very Westernized education, but my upbringing is very much traditional, conventional Chinese, and the values that have been instilled in me since birth are very Chinese: honor, respect, loyalty, sacrifice, all the things that this character embodies.”

The playwright, David Henry Hwang, knew right away that Lim was right for the part. “Obviously she’s very attractive and sexy, with the whole package necessary to do this part,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “She’s got great comic timing and she’s able to convey the determination and fierceness of this woman, but at the same time she does not convey the sense of being a Chinese-American woman playing a Chinese national.”

But Ms. Lim wasn't always this way. According to Stefani Katarina, Lim's classmate at Yale Drama School (where Lim graduated in 2004), “When she arrived, she tended to have a British accent, and she was very quiet and reserved. You could see her go through and figure out what emotions needed to be played, as opposed to going straight for the raw emotion. So she grew tremendously as a person and an actor during those three years.”

Ms. Lim's involvement with Chinglish dates back to 2009 when she appeared in an early reading of the play. But, even after having done a few readings, her continued appearance in the play as the show grew to its out of town tryouts in Chicago, and then to Broadway, was not guaranteed. The producers "were trying to do our due diligence and keep our options open [and] didn’t really commit to Jen. [But] she made herself irreplaceable." Leigh Silverman, the play's director said that, "she brought a varied intellectual background and a deep sense of worldliness to the part, and as the play and her character changed, I was always kind of amazed at how much she knew and understood about playing a woman who is both a party official and a little older" than the actress herself.

Even with all her success with this play, Ms. Lim is always thinking about her next role. “It’s still tough to find roles specifically written for Asian women that play against the stereotypes of the dragon lady, the submissive one or the more current ones of the manicurist, the doctor or the lab technician, which you see on film and TV a lot,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “I had read nothing like this before, so it almost feels like I’ve lived my life to this point in preparation for this role.”

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