Sean Sekino is nervous.
The 31-year-old Los Angeles-based actor is starring, along with Helen Hayes Award-winning D.C. favorite Regina Aquino, in Mike Lew’s play “Tiger Style!” at Olney Theatre Center. And he’s concerned about what his parents might make of his character when they come to Olney to see him.
“Albert has some pretty mean things to say about — and to! — his parents,” said Sekino with a chuckle. “I warned my mom, in no way do I actually believe these things; separate the character from the actor!”
“Tiger Style!” is somewhere between “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua’s book about relentlessly strict “traditional” Asian parenting techniques, and “Crazy Rich Asians,” the bestselling Kevin Kwan novel that became a hugely successful and groundbreakingly representational Asian-American rom-com. A satirical look at Asian-American identity through the lens of family dynamics and generational biases, “Tiger Style!” is Lew’s answer to the stereotypes that Chua’s book reanimated about high-pressure parenting.
It’s the story of two siblings, Jennifer and Albert, affluent third-generation American millennials, who go through a sort of late-adolescent identity crisis. Like the playwright, and Sekino, Aquino and double Helen Hayes Award-winning director Natsu Onoda Power, the siblings are Asian American, and their story is at once all-American and race-and-ethnicity-centric.
Which Aquino, the Maryland-born daughter of an immigrant who spent a chunk of her teenage years in the Philippines, can identify with. “I felt like I didn’t belong in either place,” confessed Aquino, who attended D.C.’s Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts before returning with her mom to the Philippines when her grandfather became ill. “That’s a unique experience that I am able to articulate.”
Aquino’s family came to the U.S. when her physician uncle was recruited to immigrate here in the 1960s to be a doctor in rural Prince George’s County, and brought along his sisters — including Aquino’s mom. “I’m very much American, she said, “but my mother would bring me ‘home’ every year.” In both places, Aquino explained, she felt like a minority — an “other” — who never quite belonged. “I think, for a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants the desire to come back to that culture that our parents came from is so strong,” she observed.
She went to the American school in the Philippines, eventually learned to speak (but not read or write) Tagalog conversationally, and straddles two cultures in a way her co-star does not: Sekino is Japanese American, and grew up in Utah.
“I really had a wonderful upbringing,” he said. “The Boy Scouts, the neighborhood boys — there were seven of us in the neighborhood, we were all the same age.” But growing up in suburbia meant Sekino was always aware of the contrasts between his household and others, starting with his grandmother’s emigration from Japan to California, and the family’s forced incarceration during World War II.
“It’s a paragraph in an American studies history book, maybe a page,” he said, adding that, after internment at the Topaz War Relocation Center — “just a white, gleaming desert,” the family decided to stay in Utah and start over. And happy childhood notwithstanding, Sekino admitted, “The themes of the play — accidental systemic racism — for me, are truly heightened.”
The themes transcend racism, though. Sekino said it carries a message about identity that most people can relate to, regardless of their race or ethnicity. “It’s so universal,” he observed. “It’s a comedy about siblings who try to find a place in the world, try to redefine their history, to take a stand.
“This is a Millennial/Generation X story, a modern-day ‘Wizard of Oz.’”
Albert and Jennifer, he said, talk about their parents being tough, unwavering “tiger parents,” but Sekino said, “When you actually meet them, they’re supportive and kind and rational—strict, but just because they want to raise good children. But not rigid tiger parents.”
Indeed, the very notion of “tiger parenting” is something Aquino sees from a different perspective. “My mother let me do any extra-curricular activity I wanted to do as long as I was passionate about it,” she said. “I rode equestrian, I played piano and guitar, I was a cheerleader — and my mother always tried to help me find my outlet.”
When theater, music and dance became her priorities, her mother was adamant that Aquino pursue her career at the highest level possible. “She said, ‘I’m not insisting that you become a doctor, although you have the capacity to,’” Aquino said. “She said that I should be the best actor I could possibly be.” And now, as an Asian-American actor, Aquino sees her achievement as “moving representation forward in a positive way.” It’s something she see as important, putting herself out there to represent people of Asian descent in every role she takes on.
Sekino tells a similar story, of strict but supportive parents who grounded his love of music with lessons and books and encouraged his acting career. He was a child actor, appearing on the Disney Channel and in “Touched by an Angel” with Roma Downey before studying orchestral classical percussion and piano, earning a bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of Utah, working as a music teacher and segueing back into television (“Grey’s Anatomy” and the Netflix series “American Vandal”) and theater again.
His parents were unwavering in their support. “I had it really good,” he laughed, and noted that he still does. Coming to Olney Theatre has been an experience to cherish.
“The cast is so funny, sharing and laid back,” he said. “It’s been a dream of a team.” And he’s confident that when his parents do see him play confused, self-centered, disrespectful Albert they’ll roar — in approval, and with pride.
Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style” runs through Aug. 18 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A sign-interpreted performance begins at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8. Tickets begin at $54, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.