A wealth of Asian American theatrical talent descended upon Philadelphia this past weekend for the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, organized by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) and co-hosted by Asian Arts Initiative. I gave an account of the conference part in my last blog post, so in this one I’m taking a look at the productions I saw as part of the festival.
Among the highlights was Dan Kwong’s What? No Ping-Pong Balls?, a moving tribute to the artist’s deceased mother, Momo Nagano Kwong. The writer/performer tells us of Momo’s rebellious streak as a child, her formative years in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II, her college education where she was the only person of color on campus, her marriage and divorce from Kwong’s father, and her award-winning career as an artist who specialized in weaving.
A show about motherhood, written and performed by a man, is fraught with potential representational landmines. Kwong addresses the issue upfront with a humorous rapidly delivered voiceover disclaimer acknowledging his limited perspective. In addition, the video component of the performance includes interviews he conducted with single Asian American moms (some, like Nobuko Miyamoto, are artists like his own mother) that also help to give a broader context to what could become an overly sentimentalized story.
Kwong also breaks up the narrative in whimsical ways, such as depicting himself as a newborn baby boy via the use of a puppet body. Vintage black and white commercials are shown, amusingly demonstrating the rampant sexism within the society in which Momo grew up. And Kwong reads excerpts from his mother’s autobiography (which has the same name as his own show), represented by a ridiculously oversized book. Best of all is the live musical performance by musician Kenny Endo, who underscores parts of Kwong’s narrative and lets loose with an incredible drum solo that closes out the first act.
At times, Kwong tries a little too hard in his efforts to provide adequate social context. For example, a video segment featuring Free Speech Movement activist Mario Savio didn’t seem necessary to the story Kwong aimed to tell. And a little trimming of the overly long first act would likely help the flow of the show as a whole. The second act is much tighter. I was particularly fascinated by the weavings created by Momo, and her growth and recognition as an artist is poignantly contrasted with her body’s physical decline.
Soomi Kim presents a theatrical portrait of a very different female artist in her show Chang(e), about Kathy Chang whose career came to a fiery end when the artist/activist self-immolated during a protest on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The show paints a multifaceted picture of a fascinating figure. What was presented in Philadelphia was a workshop, so it is not open to review. But I look forward to seeing the next incarnation of the piece when it comes to New York’s HERE performance space next fall.
Both Kwong and Kim’s shows were held at Interact Theatre, as was Sue Jin Song’s solo, Children of Medea, which interweaves the classic story of Medea with a more contemporary tale of two Korean American sisters, and a reworking of Alice in Wonderland.
Song’s Medea initially speaks with a guttural accent that marks her as Other, before transitioning to speech patterns that have a more classical inflection. Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole hits a snag when she’s asked to present proper documentation for her stay. In both cases, there is an emphasis placed upon border crossing and the lengths that the characters will go to in order to find their place within lands that are not so eager to assimilate them.
The writing is poetic and fragmentary, and Song’s performance is consistently compelling. She enacts all of the roles herself, and is most effective as Medea and the elder sister Cynthia. Her portrayal of younger sister Julianne is marred by an occasional tendency to be too cutesy. However, one of the most effective moments of the show occurs when Julianne witnesses a horrific event and matures before our eyes.
The final production I attended as part of the festival was also the most non-traditional. Presented by the Toronto-based fu-GEN theatre company, Sex Tape Project was a site-specific performance limited to an audience of five at a time. A guide brought us to a Philadelphia hotel, where we became witnesses to a series of intimate exchanges enacted by members of the company.
In the first piece, we used binoculars to gaze down at an altercation occurring on the street below while the audio for the scene played in the room that we occupied. Next, we followed a male actor down the hallway, into an elevator, and into another hotel room where a young woman was waiting. It soon became apparent we were about to watch the couple lose their virginity to one another. But the scene was given a further twist with the entry of a third character.
The final scene involved a phone conversation in a darkened room as a woman presented an ultimatum to the married man with whom she was carrying on an affair. With all three scenarios, the curtains of the hotel rooms were left open, further enhancing the voyeuristic quality of the proceedings.
It’s worth mentioning that the company put together the performance in the space of six days, as their previously planned presentation was scuttled due to a loss of venue. This might account for a little unevenness in the writing, but the experience of watching these scenes play out in such close quarters gave the production a powerful immediacy.
Fu-GEN is a multi-ethnic ensemble, and while three of the performers were identifiably of Asian ethnicity, the scenes they were in were not built around racial identity. In fact, the only piece that dealt in any depth with race was the first, which centered on two black men on the down-low working out their issues with intimacy and public displays of affection.
The piece’s inclusion in the festival pushes the boundaries of what can be considered Asian American performance. And I am glad to see a diversity of subject matter and performance styles included as part of the programming.
For more information on Dan Kwong, visit www.dankwong.com.
For more information on Soomi Kim, visit www.soomikim.com.
For more information on fu-GEN Theatre Company, visit www.fu-gen.org.