Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1998
“I make more money than you, Mommy,” the 4 year-old said ingenuously. And she was right, too. For four months this year, Erika Kiyomi Johnson is earning two thousand dollars a week. Her mother, Eileen, a South San Diego obstetrics nurse, can’t top that.
Erika is appearing in “Miss Saigon”, the melodramatic mega-musical-with-helicopter that finally makes its San Diego debut this month (Civic Theatre, July 23-August 22). Ever since the 1989 smash-hit went on the road, it picked up locals to play Tam, the heroine’s 3-year old son. He’s the product of a war-time romance between a Vietnamese girl and an American G.I. (set in 1975, the story is loosely based on the love-her-and-leave-her tale of ‘Madame Butterfly’). For a few months, a young child gets to go on the road and on the stage, alternating with another lucky 4-5 year old.
The San Diego open casting call was for a male or female Asian or Asian-American no taller than 41 inches. Erika met all the requirements: she’s 39” tall and weighs 29 pounds. Her mother is Japanese and white, her father is Mexican and Indian. “She’s a quarter everything,” says her mother, Eileen Johnson. And, as Erika’s resume puts it, she’s also “energetic, friendly, mature… with a large, articulate vocabulary and a great imagination.”
“I was interested in acting myself,” says Eileen, 28, “but I always felt I started too late.” So she got Erika started at age one, and she’s already done pageants and print modeling.
It’s an experience of a lifetime for a little kid, but there are some downsides. Erika had to have her beautiful, hip-length hair shorn to a boy-cut. Her working mother couldn’t accompany her on the tour, so her grandparents are standing in. But family isn’t allowed backstage. That’s when the “Tam-wrangler” takes over.
“I prefer to call myself the ‘Tam chaperone,’” says Donna Downey, whose full-time job is handling the touring Tams. Tams-in-training get three weeks of instruction before they actually go onstage. “All the preparation is made into a game; there’s the drawing game, the sleeping game, all the things Tam does for an hour of onstage [non-speaking, non-singing] time. The kids have fun, but they understand they have a job to do… I teach them about the Vietnam war, but I tell them onstage, it’s all pretend…
“Erika is great for Tam. She’s an incredibly intelligent little actress, very spirited. I have to rein her in a little, but that’s good; they have to have the fire, a certain energy that speaks to the audience.”
In her first performance in May, Erika was thrilled, according to her mother, because she got a rose at curtain call. “She loved every minute of it. She was a little distracted by the sign language interpreters, and she picked her nose onstage, but I don’t think everyone could see.”
By the time Erika gets back to her hometown, she will undoubtedly have been wrangled into ignoring all Tamtations.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.