Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rick Shiomi's Book Tour Logbook

Last week, Mu Artistic Director hit the road to spread the word about Mu's latest venture. Here's what he had to say about his trip!

My East Coast book launch tour for the new anthology Asian American Plays for a New Generation, published by Temple University Press, began in Philadelphia on July 24th. I went directly from the bus depot to InterAct Theatre for a reading of a new play by Lauren Yee at the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference. It was so packed it might have been 110 degrees in the dark (I can’t imagine what it felt like for the actors on stage under the lights). The play, titled A Man, His Wife and His Hat, is a very clever, absurdist play about life, love, and marriage when things don’t work out very well but there’s always time to recover. As usual with Lauren Yee, there is always wacky humor, like talking to walls and golems in this piece, but there’s also a humanist point to be considered in a surprising way.

The next day, I attended a meeting with Gayle Isa of Asian Arts Initiative, Seth Rozin of InterAct Theatre, Margie Salvante of the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and several others to discuss the possibility of having the next National Asian American Conference/Festival hosted in Philadelphia in 2013. Asian Arts Initiative is a member of the board of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists), which produces the event, and Gayle, the executive director of AAI, is holding exploratory meetings to see whether there would be broader support for such an event. Both Margie and Seth were very supportive of the project and I thought there was real support for hosting the convention.

That evening, an anthology book launch event was held at InterAct Theatre. It was co-hosted by InterAct and AAI, and about thirty people showed up. The event included short talks by Josephine Lee, the senior editor of the anthology, Lauren Yee, the playwright for Ching Chong Chinaman in the anthology, and myself. We also had short scenes read by four actors, Bi Ngo, Justin Jain, Victoria Chau, and Catzie Vilayphonh. The cast was terrific and the audience really responded to the readings. The whole presentation was a big hit and I told several people that the cast for the readings would be a good mix of actors to start an Asian American theater company in Philadelphia (no more need to bring in actors from the Big Apple!).

The next day I boarded the Greyhound (I spent a lot of time on Greyhound Express buses and want to recommend them to people touring east coast cities, though I don’t recommend any overnight trips!). The next stop was Washington DC where I spoke on a panel at the Library of Congress for a book launch event at the Mary Pickford Theater, sponsored by the Asian Division of the Asian Pacific Islander Collection. Franklin Odo, the new chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, introduced the event. It was a smaller gathering of employees and members of the public, but so many important results came from that event. Reme Grefalda, the curator of the AAPI Collection and organizer of the event, proposed that Mu Performing Arts and I as an individual playwright archive our production and script materials there as part of the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. The Library of Congress’ goal is to establish a national Asian Pacific American holding with a nationwide outreach. I was honored and ecstatic to have both Mu’s and my records kept at the Library of Congress and felt that alone made the whole trip worthwhile!

But the most fun part of the event was having Lia Chang read a monologue from one of the plays in the book. With only a few minutes of time to think about it, Lia beautifully performed a wild speech by an imaginary character, Queen Elizabeth II, and got instant applause. Lia was also on the panel and spoke about her work as a photographer, referring to her exhibit of 36 photos on display at the Asian Reading Room titled In Rehearsal, the Lia Chang Theater Portfolio. It’s a beautiful exhibit of photographs covering the backstage and rehearsal process for such productions as Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, Heading East by Robert Lee and Leon Ko, Disney’s The Lion King Las Vegas, and Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri’s pop opera Bakwas Bumbug!, along with images from her other theater work. Lia also took a number of wonderful photos of us in the Asian Reading Room. Here you can see her article with photos on the book launch and her exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Then it was back on the bus and bound for NYC. The event there was hosted by Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma at their apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. It was packed with leaders from the Asian American theater community like Tisa Chang of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Jorge Ortoll of Ma-Yi Theater, Carla Ching of Second Generation, old friends from Soh Daiko and my previous life in New York thirty years ago, prominent writers Henry Chang and Ed Lin, fellow theater artists including Raul Aranas, Lia Chang, and Henry Yuk, and many more people involved in the arts. I even met Cathie Hartnett of My Talk Radio in St Paul and Carol Connolly, the poet Laureate of St. Paul, both of whom were visiting New York. It was a special kind of evening and I signed a lot of books!

This time I spoke along with Aurorae Khoo, whose play Happy Valley is in the anthology. We were fortunate to have scenes read again, this time by actors Cindy Cheung, Fay Ann Lee, Amy Chang, and Sean Tarjoto. They did a lovely reading and the response was great again. With all the food and drink supplied by Tamio and Julie, I owed a lot to their support and hospitality. Lia Chang wrote an article about this event and took photos as well.

The next day I caught the airporter to LaGuardia and headed home, full of the excitement of so much support for the new anthology, energized by contacts new and renewed, and exhausted by the energy it takes to do a book tour.

by Rick Shiomi

Photo by Lia Chang

Sunday, March 20, 2011

UCLA student's rant says more about us than her

"Hey you guys...we did it! High fives," a friend recently wrote on his Facebook page.

By "it," he presumably meant forcing Alexandra Wallace to leave school. The UCLA student last week told the Daily Bruin she's leaving campus because of a YouTube video she posted ranting against Asian students in the library.

"I made a mistake." Wallace wrote. "My mistake, however, has lead to the harassment of my family, the publishing of my personal information, death threats, and being ostracized from an entire community. Accordingly, for personal safety reasons, I have chosen to no longer attend classes at UCLA."

I do not share my friend's happiness. In fact, I'm downright sad. What exactly did "we" accomplish? Harassing an immature college student so she quits school because of some dumb YouTube video?

Yay us.

To be clear, Wallace's video, in which she uses mock Asian accents to complain about Asian students speaking on their cell phones in the library, was stupid, ignorant, and, yes, racist. Wallace deserves a lot of the criticism and ridicule heaped her way.

But death threats? Insults? Publishing her personal information? Is that the best we have to offer?

What possessed Wallace to post such an inflammatory video is anyone's guess. But I do know this: she's certainly not the first person nor the only person to post racist crap on the Internet, Tweet something stupid, or rant on talk radio.

Yet we focus our ire on an inconsequential teenager.

With her blond hair, Valley-girl intonation, and sizable cleavage, Wallace presents an easy target. I suspect it's easier to attack her than, say,voting in a mid-term election. For all of the self righteous critics spewing hate and venom at Wallace, I certainly hope you're doing something meaningful to combat racism and improve society.

So Wallace quits school. Now what? Although Wallace apologizes for the video, she makes clear she left UCLA because of harassment, not because of any real epiphany about racism and tolerance.

Frankly, Wallace took the easy way out. If she really felt any contrition, she would stick it out and work to regain the respect of her peers and community. Wallace, after all, was a political science major.

In the end, is Alexandra Wallace a better person from this? Are "we?"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Guest post: When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.

A reflection on Little Shop of Horrors from one of the show's stars.

I was famous once.

No, seriously, I was. During my study abroad trip to China, I performed in the University's talent show. Little did I know, talent shows are a huge deal in China.

The other kids in my study abroad group and I frequented this one hole-in-the-wall noodle stand on campus. Around lunchtime the tables would fill up with students. After the talent show, the proprietor started bringing me from table to table. He’d say something in Chinese, the students would laugh, say hello and wave at me, and we'd be on to the next table. One day, he was able to eek out the words "English Student" during one of our table stops so I asked, "why does he keep doing this?"

"Everybody knows you eat lunch here."

Everybody? Who's everybody? Next thing I knew, strangers who barely spoke English knew me by name and were saying hello to me on the street. I was signing autographs, I was being asked to spend whole afternoons posing for pictures in front of different landmarks around campus with groups of strangers. No joke: whole afternoons. It had become the kind of thing that everyone in my study abroad group had an, "I had to leave Pogi at such-and-such-place to take pictures with some randoms," story.

Growing up, I often wondered what it would be like if I were rich and famous. Now here I was, in a city where you could get a good meal for about 12 American cents, and my mere presence sitting at the tables outside the restaurant was apparently doing wonders for the aging restaurant owner’s business. And what I learned, during my (albeit brief) bout of fame, is that being famous sucks. It's nothing like you'd imagined it.

In the immortal words of Biggie Smalls, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." And as I watch what happens to Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, I can't help but think, "Damn, Biggie was right." Another, possibly more apropos, quote that comes to mind is from Oscar Wilde: "When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers."

I recently watched a documentary on the Dalai Lama, and having seen the poverty of Tibet first hand during the aforementioned study abroad trip, I was struck by one section of this documentary where the Dalai Lama talks about how the poor in Tibet can always be seen smiling, juxtaposed with stoic, even glum, images of Tibetan and Chinese elite. The Dalai Lama's insight is that the Have-Nots of the world tend to be grateful for the little bit they do get while the Haves are overcome with worry about either maintaining their wealth, or preoccupied with strategizing how to amass more wealth, and are therefore unhappier with their current state.

But the rise and fall of Seymour isn't specific to the streets of Skid Row. We've seen a Seymour-like pedestal ascension recently. Remember Ted Williams? "The man with the Golden Voice." But his man-eating plant wasn't from outer space. His "God given gift" got him on YouTube, and when it went viral via Facebook, he found himself having to try and satisfy the insatiable hunger of the American media in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.

For a few days, he was an American Hero. Many people on both YouTube and Facebook were saying that he deserved a second chance. It all seemed innocent enough. Everybody was pulling for him. After all, he was just this sweet older guy who had fallen on hard times. And as he stood at that off ramp hoping for some spare change, I suspect that he dreamed, like many of us have, about how much better his life would be if he were rich.

But what I started to wonder, and what I wonder about Seymour and the other inhabitants of Skid Row, is would he have been better off without all the attention, all the fame and fortune? They say it’s better to have loved and lost, but is it better to become famous, even if it ruins one’s life, than never to have had the attention at all? For those of us who say “I’ll be happier when…” are we capable of seeing the downside of what we might otherwise consider our big break? When that proverbial snowball of “good fortune” begins innocently rolling down the sledding hill of life, can we keep our wits about us and be able to hit the brakes before things get really out of hand? The Dalai Lama would encourage us to find our bliss in the present moment, and, since hindsight is 20/20, I suppose Seymour would, too.

by Eric "Pogi" Sumangil

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guest post: When the minority is the majority on stage

Mu will soon be opening Little Shop of Horrors, a classic American musical loosely based on the 1960 film. Clearly, it’s a popular, beloved, iconic musical complete with cranky Jewish shopkeeper, blonde bombshell, nebbishy hero with a heart of gold, and trio of African-American women paying homage to the girl groups of the 1960s.

And now a bunch of Asian-Americans are producing it. Perhaps it will be weird at first to some people. Some may continue to think it’s weird even after seeing the show. (You are coming to see the show, right? Excellent!) However, I feel that if we do our job well, it won’t seem weird at all.

Let me backtrack for a moment. My name is Sara. I’m a Korean-American adoptee who spent the majority of the last five years living in Seoul, South Korea. It was a fascinating experience on many levels. One of the more intriguing was that for the first time in my life, I felt what it is like to be part of a racial majority. It ROCKED. I wish minorities of any kind could step into the shoes of their opposing majority and truly experience life from that point of view, and the same for majorities of any kind. It does really cool things to your perspective.

As a result, for me, having an all-Asian cast performing a classic from the American musical cannon seems. . . normal. The productions I saw in Seoul usually had an all-Asian cast. I saw all-Asian casts of Puccini's Madame Butterfly (fascinating!), Billy Elliot, an amazing adaptation of Macbeth, and a rehearsal of Rebecca Gilman’s Dollhouse.

Musical theater especially has been hugely popular in South Korea over the last five years. There are currently all-Asian productions of Billy Elliot, Aida, and Monte Cristo, among many others, playing throughout the city. Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been so popular since its debut in Korea in 2005 that nearly every famous Korean musical actor or rock star has played the title role.

I am by no means an expert on Korean society or non-traditional casting practices around the world, but I have the impression that to the average South Korean, it's not weird to see another South Korean playing a character of Caucasian or other ethnicity in a show. From my experience, attempts to justify the casting of all-Asians in a Western production by changing the setting, for example, typically aren’t made. It’s usually all Asians, all the time; that’s just the norm.

For me, seeing Asians playing Caucasian, African, or mixed-race Americans or Europeans was fascinating for a few moments, but if the performances were done well, I soon got lost in the world of the play. Afterwards, I would sit down with friends and discuss the show. What was amazing? What was distracting? Who was drool-inducingly hot? How did the casting affect our experience? There are Caucasian and other non-Asian actors in Seoul, so why weren’t they cast?

South Korea is much different from our American standards of racial sensitivity. It’s true that the country doesn’t have the history, context, or experience to understand how offensive certain actions, such as blackface, are to other cultures. With these considerations in mind, the decision of a South Korean director to use non-traditional casting is, clearly, much different from that of an American director making a similar choice. Perhaps race is simply a non-issue during the casting process. I don’t know.

What I do know, as I slowly sort through everything I’ve learned from life overseas, is that the United States is an incredibly unique country. We Americans have such a complex history of racial, gender, and sexual struggles for equality and independence that we have the opportunity – the luxury, even – to speak with a shared vocabulary. Our uniquely American need to define and categorize our identities causes discussions to occur, theoretically leading to in-depth conversations about race and identity where everyone has the potential to learn and understand.

Sadly, this should be neither amazing nor unique in the world, but at least in my experience, it is. I often attempted to explain why blackface was racist or tried to define racism with my friends and students in South Korea, only to meet puzzled, polite faces. Much of this was due, of course, to our lack of shared language skills. I have acquaintances from Europe who have to converse about race in English, their second or third or even fourth language, because their first language doesn't have a vocabulary to talk about racial issues. Can you imagine that? It’s lead to a lot of heartache for many European Korean-adoptees, but that’s a topic for another time.

Will it be weird for you, our most excellent audience, to see an all-Asian cast performing Little Shop of Horrors? Initially, perhaps it will. However, hopefully as you fall into the world of this fabulous show, you’ll forget that you’re seeing Asian-Americans. You’ll see the characters in all of their quirky, beautiful lives. You’ll laugh and cry and have an all-around great time with our immensely talented Asian and Caucasian American cast, crew, and creative team. And afterwards, perhaps you’ll reflect on the experience and think a little differently about this incredible, one-of-a-kind, racially diverse country we all share.

And if that happens, then I, personally, will feel we’ve done our job well.

by Sara Ochs

Photo: Sara Ochs in Mu's production of Flower Drum Song, (c) Michal Daniel 2009

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can Thia Megia erase the memory of William Hung?

I'm not yet ready to place Thia Megia in the ranks of Gary Locke, Connie Chung, Michael Chang and other trailblazing Asian Americans.
But the 16-year-old's accession last week to American Idol finalist is quite impressive, a victory that puts her within striking distance of instant pop culture relevance.
Say what you want about American Idol's fading popularity but should Megia ultimately triumph, she could be the first recognizable Asian American pop music star...well, at least for her first album. (Sorry folks, Norah Jones doesn't count- hardly anyone knows she's part Asian. Her music is also more adult contemporary than pop.)
But more importantly, Megia can finally give American Idol audiences an Asian American to think about other than William Hung.
With his thick accent, sexless demeanor, and off key warbling, Hung has done more damage to Asian American heritage than the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese interment camps combined.
Not just because he sucks, but because Hung symbolizes every negative stereotype about Asian men. Worse yet, Hung has openly exploited his infamy, the modern day star of yellow face minstrel shows. I'm still not sure whether Hung knows he's the butt of jokes or if he even cares.
That either makes him the world's greatest idiot or the world's shrewdest capitalist.
Megia, on the other hand, is the complete anti-Hung. The former NBC America's Got Talent contestant has plenty of that. Her semi-final rendition of "Out Here On My Own" was technically superb.
Megia's youth also serves her well. From past champ Jordin Sparks to former runner-up David Archuleta, American Idol fans have embraced teenagers with fresh, pretty faces who sing beyond their years.
Will Megia actually win? Judging from American Idol's recent history, I'd say no. Since Sparks' triumph in Season 7, the American public have chosen three relatively dull white guys. (Can anyone really tell the difference between Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze?)
But having made the Top 10, Megia has secured a spot in the American Idol road tour and probably a recording contract of some kind. Unfortunately, unless Megia wins or finishes second, we'll probably never fully wipe clean the nightmare that's William Hung.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We DO all look alike

Way to represent!

Take a good look at the world's most typical face, at least according to National Geographic. The image is actually a composite of 7,000 photographs of a 28-year-old Chinese man of Han descent.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. China, after all, is home to 1.4 billion people (the majority belong to the Han ethnic group), which represents about 20 percent of the world's population. Of the world's 7 billion people, there are 9 million 28-year-old Han Chinese men.

That face will change in about 30 years. With an estimated population of 1.5 billion, India's population will surprise China by 2040.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A "Tiger" awakens in writer/journalist Cheryl Tan

Most mid-career adults facing a professional and personal crisis would see a therapist or perhaps buy a motorcycle.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan wrote a book about food and family. The former newspaper reporter’s memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, has earned excellent reviews and is rapidly climbing the charts on

Kirkus Reviews called “Tiger a recipe in itself—a dash of conjuring the ancient stories of one's past, a sprinkling of culinary narrative. The result is a literary treat filled with Singaporean tradition, including the surprisingly significant role food plays in the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts and the Moon Festival, among others.”

Born in Singapore but a long time resident of the United States, Tan unspools the thread of her life through the most universal of human experiences: cooking and eating.

You wrote Tiger after your parents got divorced and the Wall Street Journal cut your job. How did those events influence your desire to write the book?

When the earth moves under your feet all of a sudden, it does make you take stock of your life and your state of happiness. Looking back, though, I think I've always had this book in the back of my head. It took many years of being away from Singapore, from home, from my family to miss it all (and the food) to the extent that it nudged me to take a year off to travel back to discover the recipes, the dishes and the important people of my childhood.

Tiger seems like an attempt to reconnect with your roots in Singapore. Did you feel you had become "too American?"

In many ways, I was very westernized as a child -- I grew up not knowing how to speak Teochew, the Chinese dialect that my family speaks, and not really knowing a lot about my heritage. Like many Singaporeans of my generation, I was raised on McDonald's as well as Singaporean dishes like chicken rice and chili crab. It wasn't until I was actually in America for many years that I felt a yearning for a lot of the foods I grew up loving and taking for granted. It was lovely to have a year to reconnect with it all.

You draw a strong relationship between food and family. But does that relationship necessarily apply to modern American society, where people eat on the go and the idea of a traditional sit down family meal seems almost quaint?

Even though many American families don't often have the time to have sit-down family dinners, I think many have fond memories of dishes that they grew up loving -- when I first wrote about going home to learn how to make my late grandmother's pineapple tarts for the Wall Street Journal, I got emails from readers -- many of them not Asian -- who all had a dish that the story reminded them of. One reader talked about her grandmother's sugar cookies; another mentioned her father's sloppy joes -- all of them expressed a deep regret that they had not taken the time to learn how to make them. I think that's something universal -- so many of us are so busy these days we don't often have the time or think to make the time to sit down with our family members to learn how to make these dishes that have defined us. It's a pity.

Reviewers have compared your book to everything from Women Warrior and Julia and Julia to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. How do you feel about that?

It has been very humbling for me -- I read the Woman Warrior as a teenager and was in complete awe of Maxine Hong Kingston. To be compared to her in any small way -- that really blew me away. I couldn't believe it. And I adored Julie Powell's book when I read it -- it's certainly been a wild ride.

Any thoughts of turning Tiger into a movie or a play? If so, who would play you and your family?

I haven't thought that far ahead! I do love Maggie Q in Nikita-- I understand that she spent some time in Asia and knows Singapore. I hope she reads the book and likes it!