LOS ANGELES — Filipino American Rodney To portrays several characters—including a food item—in the dramedy “American Hero,” in the Los Angeles premiere of Bess Wohl’s play at Pasadena Playhouse.
In the play, being staged by Iama Theatre Company until Oct. 21, a franchised sandwich shop is used as a microcosm of recession-era America—serving as commentary on the struggles and perseverance of the working class.
An overwhelmed immigrant franchisee and three disparate and desperate “sandwich artists” attempt to keep the store, and themselves, afloat.
No spoilers on what food item To portrays in the show. However, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that working in the food-service industry is not alien to To.
“My very first ‘official’ job ever was back in Chicago working at McDonald’s. I was 14 and had to get a special permit to work. My mom didn’t want me to, but I was insistent on making my own money.”
After overcoming hurdles at home, he then had to face challenges in the workplace.
“I was such a little guy that I couldn’t fit into the size 28-inch pants, so on my first day I panicked because smallest size pants they had were still too big on me.”
But he did not let costume, er, uniform issues stop him. “I took the shoelaces off my shoes, tied them together, and used that as a belt.”
Baptism of fire
The determination to get and to stay at the job came with a literal baptism of fire.
“When you worked at McDonald’s back then, you started at the grill making the larger burgers, like Quarter Pounders. I remember I was too short to reach far back on the grill to flip burgers and I burned my arm several times. I was the worst burger-maker ever.”
It is perhaps to the benefit of fast-food chain patrons, theatergoers and To himself that To shifted to acting and directing.
Now based in Los Angeles, To’s recent theater credits include “One of the Nice Ones” for Echo Theater Company and “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” (written by Fil-Am playwright A. Rey Pamatmat) for theater group Artists at Play.
Last year, he directed Fil-Am playwright Boni Alvarez’s play “Fixed” for Echo Theater Company.
To has worked across the country, collaborating with groups such as Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf, La Jolla Playhouse, Northlight, Center Theatre Group, South Coast Rep, Hartford Stage, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, East West Players, Playwrights’ Arena, and Ma-Yi.
His television and film credits include “Rosewood,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family,” and “New Girl,” among others.
Hard work and kindness
Directed by James Eckhouse, this production includes Anna LaMadrid, Laura Mann and Graham Outerbridge in the cast. Costume design by Melissa Trn, set design by Justin Huen, lighting design by Josh Epstein, music composition and sound design by Peter Bayne,
“This gem of a play—a dark, slightly absurdist tale about the plight of the American worker—has become even more powerfully relevant today than when it was written in 2014,” says Eckhouse. “It’s not only wickedly funny, but deeply moving as well. We witness these three sandwich ‘artists’ fighting for their well-being, their dignity, their souls in the face of a soul-less corporate bureaucracy. The cast is amazing, I’m thrilled to be the director of this production.”
To adds, “I hope the audience walks away having a deeper appreciation for the opportunities we have here in America. Let’s face it, we are in such precarious times right now that it’s hard to remember how wonderful our country is and always was.
“It has never, never lost its luster with me, so this whole notion of needing to make it better ‘again’ is just asinine. We have always had tremendous opportunity in this country. I hope people walk away remembering that.
“We are very, very lucky to be citizens of a country where opportunity is yours for the taking—with dreams, dedication, hard work and kindness.”
To conclude this interview, To is challenged to craft a sandwich with Filipino ingredients and condiments. His response is, “I would make a sandwich out of some flavored meat, like adobo, and wrap it in some sort of doughy bread. Basically, I’m not that original, I would just make siopao.”
“American Hero” runs until Oct. 21 at Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena California. Visit IamaTheatre.com.
READ about Rodney To directing Boni Alvarez’s play “Fixed” here.