from India Abroad, 11 April 2003
Under his colored skin
Devanand Janki, choreographer of the hit musical Zanna, Don't! tells Arthur J Pais color doesn't matter behind the scenes.
by Arthur J Pais
For over three months Devanand Janki has been trading one bleak winter for another. In Sweden, he has been acting in the hit musical Miss Saigon as a Vietnamese Communist. And he has been flying to New York directing and choreographing his first musical Zanna, Don't!
A funny and wise love story about a gay world where it is subversive to be a straight, the musical is New York's newest hit. It started in a small theater in downtown NewYork about a month ago but quickly moved to the 299-seat John Houseman Theater uptown.
Critical acclaim followed the show, which is shaping into one of the biggest hits in New York. The New York Times called it a charming, inventive show. 'Few shows have the appeal of Zanna, Don't!' the reviewer concluded.
Looking back at his career Janki, the only choreographer and director of Indian descent attached to a hit New York show, says ruefully he can today afford to have a good laugh at his struggle to be an actor. He began dreaming of acting when he was a school student in Ontario, Canada about three decades ago.
"But it wasn't always laughing matter," says Janki, son of Guyanese immigrants. His mother named him after her favorite actor, he says.
"When I was nine auditioning for the musical Oliver! the director told my mother I couldn't audition because there were no orphans of color in the time the show was set," he recalls. "At 14, my ballet teacher told me I had to be good enough to be a soloist dancer, because no company was going to put me in the chore de ballet - who wants to see a group of 29 white swans and one black one?"
But he persisted with his dream.
"Coming to NewYork to pursue a musical theater career, where it seemed like I was the only actor of Indian descent who sang or danced and acted - and not in Hindi - no one knew what to do with me," he continues. "I was told I'd never work, but they told me I could write a book or direct a play or a musical."
Janki, who has choreographed and directed many Broadway benefit shows, says he had met the producers of Zanna, Don't! several years ago hoping to get a part in the show. "Now I have ended up directing it," says Janki, now a well-known name in gay and lesbian causes. "I thought it is a sweet, silly show but it also has a message, about love and tolerance, and I think that is terribly important especially after 9/11 and the current war."
When he came to New York about two decades ago to study acting and dancing, he did the usual odd jobs. "I was even a singing waiter on a cruise ship for a few months," he says. "In between I was getting small parts in the theater."
He was not surprised he felt like an outsider in the predominantly white community of actors and directors.
"I had also felt like an outsider in the small Indian arts community," he says. "I have felt just as ostracized for not really knowing the Indian culture or for not speaking an Indian language," he says.
"Many times I have auditioned for Indian-specific roles and been told I am not Indian enough," he continues. "I am pretty much as non-traditional as they come. I am very proud of where I came from but I have a hard time identifying with many traditions that are so many generations removed. It is just that I grew up very differently!"
Janki was 21 when he was cast in Andrew Lloyd Webber's phenomenally successful Cats on Broadway.
"Physically the hardest work of my life," he says of it. "I did the show for three years and it pretty much wrecked my body. I sustained so many injuries. I played a lot of different roles - the biggest being Mr Mistofelees, the magical cat who had some of the hardest dancing on Broadway ever! It was the biggest thrill."
"No one would sign me," he says with a sigh. "They told me that I was 'uncastable.' So I had to do it on my own. Ever since, I have never really stopped working. And I still don't have an acting agent."
While waiting for a big break, he directed several prestigious Broadway events including the 25th anniversary original cast reunion of the legendary show Chorus Line. For eight years, he has also directed the celebrity burlesque show Broadway Bares to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
"But there wasn't any money in many of these benefit shows and I had to keep working as an actor," he says.
The huge international success of Miss Saigon has helped many actors of color, he notes.
"Personally, its success has really been a saving grace for me over the years providing me - and many other actors of color - with a job whenever I needed!" he says in a telephone interview from Sweden, "Like now, when I am playing the character Thuy in a new production here in Malmo, Sweden. I play a Vietnamese Communist soldier, a cousin of the lead girl Kim, who is betrothed to me and has a child with an American soldier. I try to kill the child out of jealousy. Very dramatic, and very fun to play an evil character," he says.
As a director he has made a conscious choice to be as multiethnic as possible, he says.
"I am very proud of my casting in Zanna Don't! We have one of each - African American, Asian, Latin, Scandinavian - and it goes with the themes in the show: it is about tolerance, acceptance and love of everyone different. As our producer Jack Dagleish says: 'Zanna Don't! is about individuals, not stereotypes.'
"I hope in future projects I can continue to make a difference by including more South Asians and other people of color in my work. And perhaps even inspire others to do the same."
And that could happen if he succeeds in adapting the coming of age movie My Beautiful Laundrette revolving around a gay Asian in England, based on Hanif Kureishi's work, into a musical.
"When I first saw the film as a teenager I was so moved by it," he says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, there are characters up on the screen who look like me and who are real people. These are three-dimensional characters. They are people who are happy and sad, good and bad.' The themes were so appropriate to me."
Janki, who has lived in more than a dozen countries as his scientist father worked for a number of international organizations, says the film addressed interestingly the issue of identity.
"Where does one belong?" he wonders. "Being of Indian descent and yet never really identifying with being what my skin dictates," he continues. "Of course the movie is about so much more than just that.
"I think the story is one that is still very relevant even 20 years later."
Recently, he signed with a directing/choreography agent.
"The color of my skin has less of a bearing when you work behind the scenes!" Janki says.