As a young girl growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, Shoba Narayan would put up a show for her parents and her two brothers every night. She was the producer, director and the actor. There were homemade constructions paper tickets and a pre-show speech including a request for no recording devices.
Narayan has come a long way from those home plays. On Dec. 16, Narayan made her debut as Wicked Witch of the East, Nessarose, in Broadway’s ‘Wicked!,” becoming the first South Asian American to play the role.
Narayan was most recently seen as Eliza Hamilton in the national tour of the blockbuster musical Hamilton. She made her Broadway debut in the Josh Groban-starring musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” as the first South Asian female in a principal role since “Bombay Dreams.”
Narayan says the casting in “Wicked!” is a “full circle” of sorts for her. Her first role on a stage came in middle school when she got the opportunity to play Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” She is excited to wear those slippers again, this time as a witch.
In an interview with India Abroad before her Dec. 16 performance, Narayan said she was excited about her role. “It is not something I take lightly,” she said, adding that the role is a privilege and a responsibility. As a little girl growing up, Narayan said she didn’t see anyone that looked like her on Broadway and decided that against all odds that she would try to create that space and break barriers for not only herself but for others like her to follow. “It has been amazing to meet and hear so many South Asian Americans express how much it means to see themselves represented on stage,” she says. There’s been dozens of handwritten letters and fan art with messages from kids who feel grateful to finally have someone that represents them and from parents thanking her for being a role model for their kids. “I’m proud that even for a small few, I’m able to be that person I wish I had growing up,” she said, and added: “I’m reminded of the power and privilege I have as an artist have to promote positivity and social change, and how much representation matters.”
She says it was hard work, perseverance and support from her parents that has allowed her to pursue a career on stage as well as on TV. Some of her TV credits include “Quantico,” “Growing Up Smith,” “Gossip Girl,” “Coin Heist,” “Mistress America” and” Halal in the Family.”
Speaking about her initial exposure to the stage and musicals, Narayan recalled how her parents recognized her “fascination” for the arts and began taking her to classes in various classical art forms from both the East and West. “I began studying ballet and violin which gave me a great foundation in dance and music,” she told this correspondent. “I then started training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music and fell in love with it, especially as it deepened and furthered a connection to my cultural identity.” and it was shortly thereafter that she discovered musical theatre, and she would never be the same. “All of my passions were seamlessly blended together in the most profoundly powerful way and the vision of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be came into full bloom,” she says. Add to that her parents’ commitment to expose her to live performances – “whether it was a Broadway show, a ballet or an Indian arts event.”
Even at school, Narayan was involved in every music and theatrical group. “I’d constantly be looking for creative outlets, whether that was performing in our school musicals, playing violin in an extracurricular honors orchestra, dancing in the ‘Nutcracker’ every year, competing in international Bharatanatyam competitions, or listening to Mozart concertos on my iPod on my way to school.” She remembers how having art in her day made her feel alive. “Growing up and feeling a bit like an alien and an outsider, art gave me a sense of belonging, purpose, and a way to express myself,” she says.
Fast forward another few years and it’s time to go to college. She was determined and ready, she says. “I decided that rich or poor, the performing arts were going to be my future.” and with that resolve she went to The Boston Conservatory at Berklee to study acting and musical theater and she’s never looked back.
After graduating from Berklee, she moved to New York City to begin her journey into showbiz. Narayan feels she’s lucky to have a diverse experience straddling both television and Broadway. Although both the genres are “technically different,” Narayan says she enjoys the change, going back and forth between the two.”
Theater is more visual and “there are no retakes,” she says that while TV requires the same energy, it can be a “tight ship.” But, theater she says is a “train that never stops.” She also acknowledges that while TV has gradually been moving away from stereotyping ethnic actors, it is still a challenge, mo matter what medium.
“There are very few roles written for Indian or South Asian actresses,” she said, adding that “whatever is written is not multidimensional.” The challenge, she says is to be cast in a role written for a Caucasian and catch that characters essence and inner vibes, and make it your own.