Actress sees real-life ties to character in 'Disney's Mulan'

Imagination Stage is giving Manna Nichols her second chance to portray Mulan.
Imagination Stage is giving Manna Nichols her second chance to portray Mulan. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

When "Disney's Mulan" hits Imagination Stage on Wednesday, the adaptation of the 1998 film about a strong-willed Chinese girl who disguises herself as a boy and goes to war will attempt to bring all the action of the animated musical to life. Even the climactic avalanche scene will be evoked by the descent of an enormous swath of white silk studded with chunks of plastic-foam "snow" and blown by strategically placed fans to create a dramatic, slo-mo effect.

The treatment is less literal than suggestive, according to director Janet Stanford. "We're all going to believe together," she says, "that this a great big piece of snow."

When it comes to the casting of Manna Nichols in the title role, however, there's an aspect of the 24-year-old actress's real life that is remarkably similar to that of her onstage character. And it isn't that the Oklahoma-born, New York-based Nichols is half Chinese. (Her mother is from Hong Kong; her father is half Native American and half Caucasian. "I'm a little bit of Mulan, a little bit of Pocahontas," she jokes during a break from rehearsals.)

Rather, it is that the path Nichols took to the stage involved overcoming the same kind of parental doubts the show's young heroine faces. Mulan's father chides her for resisting his wishes and not knowing her place and, as Nichols tells it, her own parents -- both educators and very practical people -- were dead set against their daughter's dreams of singing and acting. "They were not very supportive of a career in musical theater," Nichols says, describing their resistance as "my own 'Mulan' story."

Despite growing up on a steady VHS diet of classic Disney musicals such as "Sleeping Beauty" (her favorite), by the time Nichols got to college and abandoned plans to study pre-med biology for the pursuit of vocal studies, her parents drew the line. "If you're going to do music," Nichols remembers them saying sternly, "it's going to be music education. You are going to pay bills."

Unlike Mulan, who defies her father, Nichols complied, training at Western Michigan University to become a choral conductor. But her undergrad years found her doing more and more singing and performing, and not just Disney tunes in the car and shower. In grad school, she switched wholeheartedly to musical theater and, with her parents' slightly grudging blessing, has never looked back.

"I just missed performing," Nichols says. "I always did summer stuff at the community theater, and the more I did it, I just kept thinking, 'If I'm good enough to get a lead role here, and I'm good enough to get a lead role there, maybe I should just audition at a bigger place.' "

Earlier this year, Nichols moved to that bigger place: New York, where until recently her "survival job" was hostessing at a Times Square tourist restaurant. Not long after, a friend spotted an announcement about the Imagination Stage casting call. "My friend said, 'Manna, they're looking for their title role of "Mulan." You have to submit yourself for this.' "

When she was cast, it was like a dream come true, Nichols says.

And perhaps most remarkably, it wasn't the first time. Just before her senior year of college, Nichols was hired to play the role of Mulan. At Disneyland. The job wouldn't have entailed much acting, and no singing. Just dressing in Mulan's costume and walking around the park and posing for pictures, for the most part.

"My parents wouldn't hear of it," says Nichols, who instead returned to school. Looking back now, the actress says she has no regrets. But she admits that there was something nagging about the decision to say no to Mulan that, perhaps until recently, she just wasn't willing to let go of. "I still have my [Disneyland] hire packet at home," she says. "I could never bring myself to throw it away."

Disney's Mulan Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. http://www.imaginationstage.org. Wednesday-Jan. 10. $10-$21.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company