Reinventing Marina

Mia Katigbak ’76 enlivens a classic role

By Tom Stoelker

Mia Katigback '76

When Mia Katigbak ’76 founded the National Asian American Theatre Company in 1990, the mission of the company was to produce plays set anywhere other than Asia and then cast only Asian American actors. Over time, the New York theatre world caught up to the concept — to a degree, in the sense that color-blind casting has become a thing.

Now, nearing 70, the formidable downtown star is finally making her Broadway debut as Marina in a multicultural production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Lincoln Center Theater — but there’s the rub! In this new translation by actor and playwright Heidi Schreck, Marina is the family nanny who has stayed on long after her charge, Sonia (played here by Alison Pill), has grown into adulthood. “When the whole nontraditional thing started, I’d say, ‘Sure, they’ll cast Asian Americans, but we still tend to play the maid,’” says Katigbak.

Marina’s place in the social pecking order of the household remains below that of the professor, who owns an estate with a working farm, of his glamorous young wife (Tony winner Anika Noni Rose), and of his brother-in-law Vanya, who is the brother of the professor’s late first wife, Sonia’s mother.

Upon accepting the role, Katigbak says, she worked with director Lila Neugebauer toward a conception of Marina that didn’t rely on nanny cliches. For starters, the original text had Marina entering the play with knitting needles in hand. That had to go, says Katigbak. “We don’t want her to be the babushka sitting in the corner knitting,” she says. In addition, because this production takes place somewhere in America during an unspecified future and in economically hard times, it’s apparent that everyone, regardless of their station, has to pitch in to keep the estate running.

The updated setting alters questions of who the nanny is and why she is still there, Katigbak says. “I don’t think you have to explain why she’s Asian American. There doesn’t have to be an illusion about, ‘Oh, she’s an immigrant, blah, blah, blah,’ none of that stuff,” she says. “But in terms of the dynamics of who she is in the family unit, yes, then there are interesting things to play. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother doing it, quite frankly.”

katigbak on set
Katigbak as Marina (Photo by Marc J. Franklin, courtesy Lincoln Center Theater)

Making his Broadway debut as well, Steve Carell plays Vanya, a character also beholden to the professor. Though the play was written over a century ago, Katigbak says the characters’ economic realities could be familiar to any New Yorkers doubling up to make ends meet. “You know, just think about housing near Barnard, where you have these beautiful apartments with extended families living together.”

When Katigbak attended Barnard, the school had just instituted an arts program. She could concentrate in theatre, but she also had to take courses in dance, visual arts, music, and, of course, the standard foundational curriculum. “It was very Barnard, truly liberal arts,” she says. “Yes, be artistic, but make sure that you’re also informing yourself intellectually.”

Despite a lifetime of success in the theatre, Katigbak says she’s still somewhat surprised to find herself on Broadway. “I used to run around here when I first came to this country,” she says, gesturing to the famed Lincoln Center plaza. The limited-run play closes on June 16, the day Katigbak turns 70. “I always say, you know, you live long enough, sh*t happens,” she says with a laugh. 

Photo of Katigbak on the plaza by Tom Stoelker

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