Finding character

mA new production M. Butterfly has offered ASAP's cast and creative team a way to explore identity, sexuality and theater. For Eric Cheng '20, meeting the actor who originated the Broadway role of Song Liling (BD Wong!), added depth and assurance. 

By William Swett ‘22

Eric Cheng ‘20 is one of the most energetic people I’ve ever met. During an interview at the Smith Campus Center, he explained his role in the production of M. Butterfly Nov. 1-9 at the Loeb Ex, and could barely contain his excitement. Cheng is co-president of Asian Student Arts Project, which is producing M. Butterfly, for which Cheng plays one of the lead characters, Song Liling.

“Shows like this very rarely happen at Harvard – a show with a cast that is as driven and talented,” Cheng told me. “They are all so good. It’s going to

Eric Cheng
Eric Cheng '20 during a master class with BD Wong PHOTO: Jake Belcher
be something very special and we are all going to be incredibly challenged onstage in so many different scenes and in so many different ways.”

In the original Broadway cast of M. Butterfly, which was written by David Henry Hwang in 1993, Song Liling was played by Tony Award-winning actor BD Wong, known for his many TV and screen roles, most notably in Law & Order to Mulan. John Lithgow '67 ArD '05 played opposite Wong on Broadway.) On October 3, Wong was in residency through the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers program. Wong gave a public masterclass featuring four students monologuists, and he also lead a two hour rehearsal with the cast and creative team of M. Butterfly.

The visit left Cheng stunned.

“It’s the hardest role I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s one of few roles in popular media and Broadway that really represents this identity, which BD Wong and I both share. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it in the first place. Because this is a show through ASAP, we wanted to tell a new story. You don’t see many people who are leads in a play who are queer- and Asian-identifying. For this I really wanted to challenge myself, to take this role and do my best with it. Having someone who was the original guy was something I was so grateful for.”

BD Wong
BD Wong during an OFA master class with Harvard students on Oct. 3 Photo: Jake Belcher
During the masterclass, Wong emphasized the significance of establishing mood in a monologue, explaining that a monologue shouldn’t be too controlled or even, but rather needs to appear natural and honest, like a piece of music. Indeed, Wong advised Cheng to “not be afraid.” “What [Wong] said that really struck with me,” said Cheng, “was: Don’t be apologetic about wanting something. It’s something that a lot of Asians I’ve spoken relate to. In that they don’t want to admit they have this passion for acting or directing or being an artist.”

After the masterclass, Wong shared memories of his Tony Award-winning performance with the cast as they drilled a scene in rehearsal. “He cared so much about giving us feedback,” said Cheng. “He was like, Try this again. Try it this way. He was doing way more than we needed him to or that we were ever hoping he would. So by the end of the rehearsal it was in such a different place than it was beforehand. Everyone got to do something in front of him, which was really nice.”