Following Our Friend: BD Wong & the Golden Thread.

(From left to right: the author; the artist/activist BD Wong; the anchorman, Dan Rather, educating the world about HIV/AIDS.)

“Swifties” have nothing on me, except, perhaps, more disposable income, and a die-hard’s determination to stand in line for hours to get tickets, or at the barricades of sold out concerts. The question is, whether they’ll still love her tomorrow, and whether her work and life will open their eyes to the “Golden Thread.”

Before the talented Taylor Swift was performing, and packing stadiums and arenas worldwide, BD Wong was there. And, so was I.

Before the members of the “slay” (my 15-year old granddaughter’s word) all girl group Boy Genius were born — and, winning Grammy Awards — BD Wong was there. So were we.

No, BD didn’t pack stadiums, nor win Grammies, but in his breathtaking, gender-bending Broadway debut in M. Butterfly, he won every award in the Broadway universe, including the Tony Award. And, the highly acclaimed bright, new Broadway star, born in San Francisco of Chinese ancestry, was six years younger than the 34-year old Taylor Swift when he arrived, as the talk of the town.

His role as the remarkable Chinese cross-dressing spy/opera singer Song Liling, starring opposite John Lithgow, may not have earned him a billion dollars, but the accolades for this astonishing young actor poured in from around the world, paying priceless dividends for Wong and his adoring throng, as well as for other Asian-American actors, for decades to come.

Years later (2015–2019), in the wildly popular USA Network series Mr. Robot, BD Wong –channeling a little of Song Liling — played the role of a transgender Chinese government official, White Rose, whom GQ’s Caity Weaver described as: “ a hacker and a politician who schemes in Mandarin and lies in English.”

Yet, unlike the calculating character he played in David Henry Hwang’s revolutionary M. Butterfly, some 30 years earlier, Wong actually likes his fans, and makes them (us) feel like part of his extended family. Memorably, Song (not Wong) told us how he/she felt about “loyal fans”:

“I love them for being my fans. I hate the smell they leave behind. I too, can distance myself from my people. ‘Art for the masses’ is a shitty excuse to keep artists poor.”

And, unlike his character of Song Liling, who knitted an intricate web of deceit over 20 years to ensnare a French diplomat in a Chinese Spy ring — flipping the entire premise and script of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly — BD Wong’s artistry and insightfulness about all of the characters he would come to play on Broadway, on Television and in the movie — is informed by an honesty, humanity and a gift of being able to touch audiences deeply. That’s how those gifts affected me, and connected me to BD on so many levels, well before we became friends.

Ironically, the themes of sexism, racism and colonialism, which M. Butterfly brilliantly unveiled, reared their ugly heads in the real world, after M. Butterfly’s 2-year, 777 performance run was concluded. Those realities transformed BD Wong from a young actor revealing these harsh truths on stage, to an accidental activist, who would open multiple doors of opportunities for Asian actors, and many, many others from underrepresented communities.

An equivalent action for Taylor Swift today, would be for the superstar to use her vast resources to confront the chilling crusade of Christian Nationalists aimed at crushing anyone who is different, especially if they are LGBTQ, female, or free from their Taliban-like tentacles. There is no media-acceptable middle ground.

In 1990, both Wong and David Henry Hwang, led an organized protest to Broadway’s Actors Equity Association, when the London production of Miss Saigon, announced it was coming to Broadway. In London, the white, Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, played the lead role of Engineer, an “Euroasian” pimp, for which he wore a prosthetic device to make him “look” part Vietnamese.

Wong and Hwang — fresh off their enormous success with M.Butterfly — made it clear that Pryce’s portrayal (they had seen the play in London) was demeaning to Asians, and that the entire tone of the play was racist and sexist. It was an updated version of Madame Butterfly, with a helicopter, instead of a boat, reeking of racism, misogyny, and imperialism — precisely the central themes eloquently exposed in M. Butterfly.

Initially, Actor’s Equity sided with Wong and Hwang, urging the play’s producers to “break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.” However, in one of the earliest nationwide backlashes against diversity, equity and inclusion — foreshadowing the twisted victimization of people of privilege in 2024 — editorials in the LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal all supported Pryce. Miss Saigon opened in NYC in the spring of 1991, with Pryce in the lead role. When producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to close down the already pre-sold out show if he couldn’t have his Pryce, the actor’s union relented.

I was working with Governor Mario M. Cuomo at Two World Trade Center in lower Manhattan at that time, and found BD’s courageous campaign for greater diversity, representation and inclusion — especially by a new, young actor with a lot to lose — to be on the front-lines of what we were confronting in the early, nearly-frozen MAGA embryos of the Reagan/Bush years.

Almost daily, especially during most of 1991 when Mario Cuomo was everyone’s favorite presidential candidate who never ran, we were battling to defend difference itself, and against anti-Italian stereotypes in government and the arts. Roger Stone, scumbag supreme, and still a fetid, festering infection on the American body-politic, told the great New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, “ I saw a poll from Texas a week ago, where three people asked if Cuomo was an American name.” Italian-Americans, like Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and the LGBTQ community, were considered the “others.”

It didn’t help that Gambino Family Crime Boss John Gotti was on trial for murder the same year the national political boomlet for Cuomo hit its’ peak. Gotti became a daily tabloid darling, with publications like New York Newsday glamorizing the gangster garb Gotti graced the courtroom with each day. Gotti fit what the media imagined Americans wanted to believe about Italians.

What compounded my urgency to smash the stigma against us, was that my own brother served prison time as a bag man for Gotti, while I was quietly serving the public with Cuomo. I was obsessed with showing that only a tiny fraction of Italian-Americans were mobsters.

I detected that same obsession in BD’s fight against ethnic and racial stigma aimed at Asian Americans. His fearless example, and Cuomo’s, inspired me to work even harder against ethnic or sexual “othering” and discrimination. In a few short years, BD Wong took the celebrity he earned from his extraordinary work in M. Butterfly, and used it to pry open a tightly closed casting club, and let his people in.

Despite my work with Mario Cuomo, it took me another 25 years to make my case, culminating in my 2017 book Tightrope: Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother. (Heliotrope Books, NY). If only I was as graceful, elegant, articulate and effective as BD was in letting loose his primal scream.

Without much fanfare, BD demonstrated that just by persisting, by not backing down, nor accepting second-rate material, or selling himself short to meet someone else’s perceptions, he would overcome. He did it, initially, in opening doors for Asian-American actors — and later for the LGBTQ community — by simply showing how good he was, and what the world was missing by not tapping into such a pool of outstanding talent. More importantly, once he opened the door for others, he held it open, and he was comfortable in continuing to use his celebrity and his prodigious skills to advocate on his communities’ behalf.

He did this in the many television and movie roles for which he became known, dating from in the 1990’s on through the present day, including: Father of the Bride (1991, 1995); Jurassic Park (and all its’ progeny) 1993–2022; Mulan I & II (1998 & 2004); Law & Order, SVU (Dr. George Huang), 2001–2015, Oz (Father Ray Mukada), 1997–2003; Mr. Robot, 2015–2019; and, presently as Wally, in Awkwifina Is Nora From Queens, 2020-present.)

BD’s Broadway roles were as diverse and demanding as those he nailed in front of the camera, and the mastery and craftsmanship he showed on stage, shaped every production, and political action, in which he was involved. Anything involving BD Wong was elevated to a new level of professionalism and quality, and was something I had to experience. In his years of performing, the only one of his stage productions I missed was his portrayal of Lucy’s battered younger brother Linus, in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown (1999).

Over the next two decades, BD Wong’s live stage performances around the country enriched my life in Pacific Overtures (at the old Studio 54 Stage in NYC), 2004; Herringbone, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Massachusetts), June, 2007; The Orphan of Zhao (SF’s American Conservatory Theatre, ACT) 2014; The Great Leap (SF’s ACT), 2019; and Big Data (SF’s ACT), 2024. Each performance was magical.

Astonishingly, while Wong was immersed in his work on stage and screen, his circle of activism was expanding to include advocacy for not just the Asian-American and LGBTQ communities, but also for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was through that work that we became not just fellow activists, but friends.

I was running a national HIV/AIDS Advocacy organization of the Cable Television industry named Cable Positive, which produced 30-second Public Service Announcements (PSA’s) and documentaries, educating millions of Americans about HIV/AIDS. One such set of PSA’s produced by Kismet Film’s Greg Pace, and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, was entitled “Join the Fight,” with the goal of reducing anti-LGBTQ, anti-HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination across the country.

BD Wong didn’t hesitate for one moment to, once again, use his growing celebrity to spread the message of inclusivity, understanding and compassion — not an easy task in communities of color and Asian American/Pacific Islander communities, where LGBTQ individuals were often ostracized, and people with HIV/AIDS treated like lepers. Donating their own celebrity to deliver such powerful, pro-bono messages, along with Wong, were actors Jose Llana, Wilson Cruz, Rosie Perez, Gloria Reuben, Judith Licht, Wilmer Verderama, Hill Harper, and others, giving greater credibility and attention to an urgent, life-saving cause.

Wong was a persuasive spokesperson in our “fight,” with television industry insiders, and the viewing public, and his strong support and willingness to speak out never wavered. It was a profound commitment BD — being both Asian American and Gay — never forgot, and I could not let that go unnoticed, traveling across the country to support him in his live stage performances. I felt a little like Linus Van Pelt (Peanuts) when asked about his favorite teacher, “ I never said I worship her, I just said I’m very fond of the ground on which she walks.”

When my partner, Carol Villano, and I traveled to Williamstown, Mass., to see BD in his mesmerizing performance in the one-man musical Herringbone — where he played 11 roles — he gave us a big, family-style welcome when we met him, his mother Roberta (now, 94) and his then 7-year old son, Jackson, at a local ice-cream store.

Each time we saw him in person over the past 10 years during his trilogy of performances at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (2014, The Orphan of Zhao; 2019, The Great Leap; and just this week, 2024, in Big Data) he welcomed us like members of his family, which lives in San Francisco. For Big Data, a fascinating story of the seductive power of social media, with BD playing the ubiquitous “M”, or media, we sat right in front of his first-cousin.

I remarked to her how the 1500 seat theatre, where BD always longed to play as a student attending San Francisco’s Lincoln High School, was pretty full for a Sunday matinee.

“That’s because most of us are family and friends,” his cousin joked.

While most of Sunday’s big crowd wasn’t, many of us were, either by birth, geography, or by virtue of sharing some of life’s battles for justice along the way. That day, BD was having a special reception in ACT’s downstairs lounge for some of his former classmates from Giannini Middle School, just down the block from his mother’s house where he grew up, in the Sunset District of SF.

We were welcomed into the reception, the way we always were — with a hug — and I took a few group photos of the Giannini classmates and families as they posed on a stairway with a brass handrail, because I’d do just about anything for BD Wong in gratitude for the all the joy, enlightenment and support he’s given us.

I looked at this happy crowd of the kids BD grew up with, and remembered the “Golden Thread, “ that he wrote so beautifully about in the story of the birth of his two sons, Boaz Dov Wong, who lived for 90 minutes, gifting life to Jackson Foo Wong, his twin brother.

As the father of one son, I rode up and down the roller-coaster of emotions shared by BD in his 2003 book, Following Foo: (the electronic adventures of the Chestnut Man, Harper Collins, NY.)but one passage in particular stuck with me for years. It comes at the very end of the book in it’s “Upilogue,” a fantasy taking place sometime in the “Spring, 2025”, which is, amazingly, almost upon us.

The futuristic and fun final scene occurs on the set of “The Okra O’Donahue Show,” where a now grown Jackson Foo Wong, who turns 25 years old in 2025, is being interviewed by the ever-omniscient “Okra.”

Musing on the events of his life to this point, Jackson quotes his Dad, a lover of words and subways:

Dad says a funny thing always happens when you are waiting for the subway. In some stations, about a minute before the train comes, before it actually turns into the station, there’s often a kind of a reflection of the headlights as it bounces off the curve of one of the rails of the track.

“You always see it very gradually way before you see the headlights, or the train, or hear it, or feel it rumbling. And that reflection looks like a fine golden thread, glowing brighter and brighter in the tunnel, and no matter how long you’ve been waiting for the train, when you see the golden thread, you always know that the train is coming, and that everything’s gonna be okay.”

I looked at the warmth and love flowing between BD and his friends and family in Fred’s downstairs lounge at the American Conservatory Theatre on dreary Geary Street in struggling San Francisco, and I could swear I could see that “golden thread” lighting up the brass railing on the stairway leading up toward the street behind them.

And I knew, once again, that everything’s gonna be okay.


(Link to BD Wong’s 30-second pro-bono Public Service Announcement on HIV/AIDS:

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