In 1995, SLANT Performance Group made its theatrical debut with the provocatively titled show, Big Dicks, Asian Men. The group’s initial performance pieces satirized pop culture stereotypes surrounding Asian American masculinity, with later work paying tribute to Asian American history, taking aim at cultural appropriation, and presenting vaudeville-style family entertainment.
Now, founding members Rick Ebihara and Perry Yung are set to perform both new and old material at the CAATA Performance Showcase on Thursday, October 9 as part of the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival in Philadelphia. The third founding member of the group, Wayland Quintero, has relocated to Hawaii so is not part of the group’s latest artistic efforts.
I recently sat down with Ebihara and Yung to talk about their past and present work. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
DAN BACALZO: How did you get involved with the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival?
PERRY YUNG: When the first conference happened in 2006—it was called the Next Big Bang, out in LA—somebody contacted us, and asked if we wanted to participate. At that time, I had two young children, and Wayland was deciding if he wanted to stay in New York or go back to Hawaii to take care of his parents. So we didn’t think we could make the trip. Then when the festival was in New York the next year, my wife and I had relocated to Northhampton and Wayland had actually left for Hawaii, so again SLANT didn’t participate. But it was in our minds that we were going to do this one day. We were so happy to see that it was happening again in Philly and Gayle Isa of the Asian Arts Initiative invited us to look at the submission process.
RICK EBIHARA: Perry and I had been talking about wanting to do an acoustic sit-down, because with SLANT, we had written a lot of music, and we’re still writing stuff. We could put together an evening of story and song, and we thought this would be a good place to try to put it out there.
PY: We’re thinking about it like MTV Unplugged. It’s fun and humorous, yet there’s intimacy and it’s moving. And there’s always an ironic twist in our work somewhere.
DB: What will you be performing?
PY: We’re doing “MTA” from The Second Coming and “Big Dicks, Asian Men” – the duo, unplugged acoustic version.
DB: With props or without props?
PY: Oh, you know it’s going to be with props! Yeah, that’s the part with the ironic twist in this song. [Note: To find out how ridiculously over-the-top these props are, you really have to see the show.] It’s fun. And then there’s a new song that Rick wrote, “Go for Broke,” which is a very personal story about what happened to Rick’s uncle who fought in World War II with the 442nd.
DB: Right, the predominantly Japanese American infantry regiment. Rick, can you talk more about that particular song and what it means to you?
RE: My uncle passed away in 2007 and he was very proactive in getting the memorial for the Japanese American veterans going at the JACCC [Japanese American Cultural & Community Center] in Los Angeles. Sometimes when I visited him he’d talk about stuff during the war. But I always wanted to know what was going on in his head, because he joined the army barely 18 years old, and this was after his relocation to the internment camp at Tule Lake. He lost his best friend in his first campaign in France. And then with the 442nd, he was involved in saving the Lost Battalion up in the Vosges in France. What is it like to go through that? I have no idea. At 16, 17, I was playing video games. So that inspired this song. Perry and I were talking about relocation and World War II and how it had affected the whole Japanese American community from here on in—my grandmother, my mother, my father, all the way down the line. This is just one little story. But you hear more and more stories, especially from my aunts and uncles. They’re getting older and starting to open up more about things that happened in camp. When I was growing up, I never heard a lot about what went on.
DB: One of the things that I talk to my students about when I teach the subject of the internment camps, was that there was a lot of shame immediately after the war because Japanese Americans had to face the reality that they were incarcerated because the U.S. suspected them of being enemy aliens. They felt there was some guilt there, even though they had no reason to feel guilty.
RE: Right, they were ostracized. And I know a lot of Japanese American veterans in the 442 felt like they had something to prove.
PY: Their loyalty was questioned. Rick also wrote a song about the Japanese American internment called “Coffee in Topaz.” It was about not being able to ask his grandfather what happened before he died. There was all that regret because the grandfather never talked about it. I think we write songs like “Coffee in Topaz” and “Go for Broke” mostly because it provides a forum for discussion. We are able to make art on this, so it gives us an opportunity to talk about it. Rick wrote the song, but I’ve had a lot of input. I’m asking, what’s this verse mean? How does it feel? What’s the emotional road map and storytelling we’re going through with this song? There’s anger and acceptance and finally peace. We discover our ancestors through these songs. The most amazing thing in working with Rick is we talk about a story that happened in our family and then we do research into historical facts. And because our ancestors are gone, we sort of piece it together. It’s like, “Holy shit! This is what they faced!” Run out of their camps on the railroads, they were lynched, you know? I’m transitioning now into Chinese American history, but that’s how my grandfather ended up in Chicago. I had to piece my story together through our art. It’s such a gratifying thing as an artist to be able to discover that.
RE: Even my uncle and my aunts didn’t know what they were going through; they just had to live. They just had to keep on going. But to look at what the history was, and just see what maybe, emotionally, they could have been feeling at that time—that’s the whole process.
DB: Do you see a shift in your artistic work since the beginning of your time with SLANT? The three songs you’re doing are quite interesting as a trajectory. “Big Dicks, Asian Men” is the big stereotype-exploding song. “MTA” is looking back towards the Chinese railroad workers but putting it into a different context and reinventing it for a 20th or 21st-century identity. Then “Go for Broke” is a very personally based story.
RE: Perry and I talk about this all the time, and that’s kind of what this “Unplugged” performance is, to look back and see from 1995 what has changed. Have things really changed? Are we still fighting stereotypes? Have things gotten better in terms of our exposure in the media? We’re still, I think, put in boxes.
PY: Boxes are a little bigger these days.
DB: We do have John Cho as a romantic lead in Selfie.
PY: Yeah, that’s true. NPR is like, “unlikely romantic lead” – unlikely! In America, of course it’s unlikely. But there are Asian romantic leads all over Asia, you know? But in terms of our aesthetics and approach to theater-making, it’s definitely changed. We’ve changed as people, and as your sensibility changes, your sensibility towards what you make and what you craft is a response to your intellect or your emotions. In the beginning, we were just interested in making some raw, experimental theater that was cutting edge and difficult to define formally. Like it wasn’t just beginning, middle, end with a climax and maybe a little conclusion, tied up in a little package. We knew we didn’t want to do things like that. We wrestled with that creatively, because we’re three different individuals, with three different ideas of what’s happening. The critical part is keeping an open dialogue and understanding what the audience might see as aesthetic in storytelling. That’s what makes SLANT accessible so often, because it took the three of us to wrestle that out, even though there were a lot of different tastes involved in what we wanted to communicate. That happened through six or seven shows with the trio. It was always very democratic. Two against one. That was kind of easy! Rick and I haven’t really created a full evening yet, although we’ve collaborated with other people.
But, you know, I’m still gravitating towards very raw, unpredictable, in-the-moment theater. Sometimes the artifice of lights and mics take things away. I’d rather do things in very not theatrical spaces. But that’s up to the producers. And since we fit into a festival, we’re working with a proscenium stage, so we understand that there’s an audience and we’re entertainers. There are a lot of things we have to adhere to, to be seen as a performance group or professional musicians. But at the end of the day, we want audiences to go home and think about an experience that they felt.
DB: On the evening you’re performing, it’s not just you, right?
PY: It’s a showcase with four other groups, and that’s wonderful. We love performing and meeting other Asian American performers.
DB: Do you know any of them already?
PY: I don’t. But they sound very interesting.
DB: I don’t know them either. I was just curious. Sometimes I’m a little myopic in New York-focused theater and don’t know what’s going on in other parts of the country. Which is one of the reasons why a national Asian American Theater Festival is such a good idea.
PY: Exactly. Meeting people who are doing interesting work all across the country. The thing about New York City is we want to be the cool kids of theater. But that’s not necessarily what works in the rest of the world. It’s what are you saying, and how are you saying it, and who are you reaching, and how are you reaching them.
DB: After the festival, are you looking to do a full-length show, the two of you together?
RE: We had talked about it, but right now in our lives it’s a huge, huge time commitment. And even Wayland has contacted us, “Can we do a show?” And we’re like yeah, but again that would be a huge time commitment. Not just for him to come from Hawaii, but for us in our own lives. Even to try to get these few hours to rehearse is kind of a push for us right now. But in 1995, it seemed we had all the time in the world. We’d sit there all summer at La MaMa and just mull it out.
PY: Since Wayland’s departure, Rick and I have created new material. We’ve performed it during little shared evenings, and it’s always been fun. SLANT’s original mandate was for us to have fun. If we’re not having fun, we’re not making good theater. And it is really fun, because we have this long relationship of just playing music and laughing and we try to hang onto that. In terms of future work, we thought we could easily string together an evening of storytelling and songs that SLANT has done in the last 20 years. Just telling why we wrote the song, and then play the song! In a more stripped down presentation or performance, the audience can feel more intimate with us and know who we are and that can help the work sometimes. And yes, of course. I think it’s all about time commitment and how time is so valuable these days. I don’t know if it’s because we’re older. As Rick was saying when we created Big Dicks in 1995, we had a whole day to sit around.
RE: It seemed like!
PY: None of us were married at the time. We had day jobs, but it was like “hey man, why don’t we just chew the fat on this scene?” But now, we’re looking at the clock. “We’ve got two hours. Let’s have fun in two hours.” It’s a time commitment.
DB: To finish up, what are you looking forward to in the festival?
PY: I’m just excited to hang out with a bunch of theater-making people and the fact that they’re Asian Americans is awesome.
RE: I’m jazzed that there still is an Asian American theater. It’s fantastic. Sometimes I feel like we’re getting old and closed in and we don’t know what’s happening. So this is our way of trying to find out the other voices and other stories that are being told out there. It’s very exciting.
For more information on SLANT Performance Group, visit SLANT’s Facebook page.
For more information and full programming details for the National Asian American Theater Festival, visit http://2014.caata.net.