September 12, 2018

Actor and writer Anu Bhatt graciously detailed her experience at the 6th National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, which took place in Chicago this August.  Below is her continued story...

Playwright Christopher Reyes and me ! Photo by Andrew Fillmore

We had three plenary speakers all brought three different perspectives to the table. I’ll cover our first two, and leave David Henry Hwang to close us out! First, University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker spoke about the repression and attempted erasure of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language), when it was banned by the United States in 1893 after the overthrow of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy. It is an act of defiance to speak it, she said. As a linguist and language-lover, I enjoyed hearing about the intersection between history and language, especially seeing the similarities between repression of Hawaiian people and India’s long history under British colonization.

This also came at the same time as a planned protest against Chicago-based Aloha Poké Company’s for its attempted trademark of the word “aloha”. The conference designated time for us to attend this peaceful protest, where we chanted in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i and held signs with the hashtags #AlohaNotForSale and #NoAlohaPokeCo. Check out this link to see an example of founder Zach Friedlander’s cease-and-desist letter to native Hawaiian businesses.

Our second speaker, playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and known for such plays as BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO and GUARDS AT THE TAJ, which recently had its Chicago production at Steppenwolf. He spoke to the baffling and sadly hilarious microaggressions and misrepresentations of South Asians in such films as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (where, famously, Indians eat monkey brains as a delicacy.) As a South Asian growing up in Southern California, all I had was Gilmore Girls and Friends. It was so rare to see brown skin onscreen in the ‘90s, that I could totally relate to Rajiv feeling such pride as kid in the ‘80s, seeing this moment of “Indian-ness” while also being aware, deep down, that it wasn’t accurate or even a positive image. (I had an ex who legit asked me if I ate monkey brains.)

It was gratifying to see Rajiv speaking and to relate so personally to what he said, because South Asians were still very much in the minority at ConFest, and continue to be a minority among the Asian artists in Chicago. I was glad, of course, to see South Asian stories onstage, and I will speak to that presently, but I think the larger issue is that South Asians are grappling with their particular identity in the larger movement of artists of color reclaiming their space. How do we support other communities who are long overdue for representation and simultaneously create and claim our own space? How long do we wait for the lead roles with companies that are now embracing diversity, but still not including our community? I think we are still “waiting our turn” while also trying to unify as other communities have done, and there is no quick fix. What I am doing to help improve it is to keep supporting South Asian artists who are creating their own work, and continue create my own work as well. Thanks to the ConFest, I have now connected with people across the country whose goals are similar to mine. Now, I have places to take my show!

That leads me to talk about some amazing play readings and productions that I saw at ConFest. The full productions consisted of: a young Japanese woman trying to become an assassin in 893/YA-KU-ZA by Daria Miyeko Marinelli; a heartwrenching exploration of fractured identity and personal history through hula and contemporary dance in PŌHAKU, written, directed and performed by choreographer Christopher K. Morgan; four women imprisoned in 1980’s Pakistan during Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamic regime in ACQUITTAL by Shahid Nadeem, translated by Tahira Naqvi; the intersection of race, gender and class in an interracial couple’s relationship in PILLOWTALK, written and directed by Kyoung H. Park; and Dell’Arte International company member and actor Pratik Motwani’s brilliant multimedia exploration of our addiction to social media in EMBEDDED.

Pratik Motwani in EMBEDDED. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis Photography.

In the new play readings: a Japanese man living in Havana struggles to balance marriage and fatherhood with the pull to return home to Japan in FACE TO THE SUN by Alison Minami, presented by A-Squared Theatre; married couple Noa and Onda become refugees escaping war with only a few precious instruments from their music shop in INSTRUMENTAL JOURNEY, a devised work by Ric Oquita, Julie Trappett and Bernardo Mazón Daher, and presented by Leslie Ishii; a father and his late son’s ex-boyfriend retrace memories and address human loss in THE BOOK OF MOUNTAINS AND SEAS by Yilong Liu, presented by East West Players; and the epic Hindu tale The Ramayana, about Prince Rama and his “ideal wife” Princess Sita, is creatively turned on its head by Lavina Jadhwani in THE SITAYANA, presented by Tradewind Arts.

What’s perhaps most exciting about seeing a new play is being in the audience when history is made. Northwestern graduate Preston Choi’s THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY, presented by Artists at Play, was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation for its incredibly innovative reimagining of the “tragic” lives of famous Asian female characters of the stage (think Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon.) It was an uproarious comedy, subverting the trope of the “weak Asian female” who depends on the white man for identity and validation. It was a special (and charged) moment for the audience to witness these characters claim their identity without the help or influence of a white male.

Left to right: Director Peter J. Kuo, playwright Preston Choi, and cast of THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY.

Speaking of victory, Crazy Rich Asians was released on August 15 (which happens to be India’s day of independence from Britain. I think they did it to honor us.) So of course we all went to see it! Yes, we cheered and whooped through it all.

CAATA’s Not So Crazy Rich Asians at a late showing of Crazy Rich Asians. Photo taken from Kathy Hsieh’s Facebook page

That brings me to our final day at the conference and our third and final speaker, David Henry Hwang!

When interviewed by Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury, David spoke to the fact that he’s been the only Asian-American director on Broadway for the past thirty years. Did you know that? That’s wild! Now there are more people coming up, and quickly, like playwrights Young Jean Lee, Ayad Akhtar, and of course Rajiv Joseph. When asked if this wave of diversity was genuinely a sea change, not a flash in the pan, David said a wise thing. “Lack of diversity is a bad business model”, he said. If people of color are going to be the majority by approximately 2040, then producers would be smart and forward-thinking to start representing onscreen what we are starting to see in real life. We have proof, of course, that we can bring in the money, with the success of movies like Get Out, Black Panther, and now Crazy Rich Asians. Of course we are a good business model. We can be proud to see ourselves not as stereotypes or sidekicks, but as full-fledged, flawed, intelligent, empowered and sexy characters onscreen.

David Henry Hwang speaking at ConFest on August 18, 2018. Photo by Andy Lowe.

Here we are, at the end of my first ConFest. The thing I valued most was the people. I met people I felt I truly connected with, whose passions were similar to mine, who were either theatremakers in casting, direction or up-and-coming writers and actors like me. There was no stress about walking into a room and sitting next to someone. I knew that no matter where I sat, the person next to me would likely turn to me, smile, introduce themselves and start a conversation.

And so when I was sitting in the theater, watching David Henry Hwang speak to representation on Broadway, I looked around at all of these people I now knew. Guess what? All I could see was black hair and brown skin. Below me: brown people. To my right: brown people. All around me: brown people. (Toto, are we still in Chicago?)

ConFest attendees on the last day. Photo by Mia Park.

I saw my larger community for the first time. I felt seen for the first time in a long time. It takes a village, as we know, and it made me emotional to see a village of people who looked like me, who are first-generation people of color with immigrant parents, who are balancing a culture at home and a culture outside, who are often bilingual or trilingual and whose identities are often in question within ourselves as well as outside.

A director on the SDC panel said, “What is truly revolutionary is writing myself into my own work.”

Our revolutionary act starts now.

Anu Bhatt is an actor, playwright and performance artist. She is represented by Paonessa Talent Agency. You can follow her work at http://anubhatt.com/

September 6, 2018

It’s been two weeks since the sixth annual Asian-American Theater Festival (ConFest), hosted by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), took place right here in Chicago, and I am only finding the words right now. This conference was from August 13-18, 2018 in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater and the Theater School at DePaul University.

Let me just say: it was…incredible. Asian-American theatremakers from all over the country (including Hawaii) came to our wonderful city to celebrate our stories onstage, and help empower each other to continue moving the bar forward for Asian-American artists.

In the words of CAATA  president and Theater Mu artistic director Randy Reyes: “As a collective of Asian American theatre leaders and artists, we bring together local and regional leaders to work nationally toward our shared values of social justice, artistic diversity, cultural equity, and inclusion…This year’s conference, Revolutionary Acts, continues to build momentum, is inclusionary in nature, and hopes to disrupt systemic and structural oppression, and create a new vision built by, about, and for us in this room.” Check out Randy’s full article in American Theatre.

This is an attempt to cover six days of a conference as well as my personal experiences. Obviously, I won’t be able to address everything, but I’ll try to give you a taste of how special this week was for me.

I was excited just to be performing in the August 13 opening night celebrations. I was an actor in the Our Perspectives staged reading series, featuring three short plays written, directed and acted by Chicago artists. The plays were 2 MINUTES, by David Rhee; BATTLEGROUND, by Tanuja Jagernauth; and LUCY AND CHARLIE’S HONEYMOON, by Matthew C. Yee.

BATTLEGROUND by Tanuja Jagernauth, featuring Marissa Lichwick, Priya Mohanty, Vahishta Vafadari and me. Photo by Jonald Jude Reyes.

Thanks to CAATA, I also had a ten-minute slot in the Hot Asian Everything: Revolt opening night cabaret, along with Chicago’s Rasaka Theater, Definition Theater Company, and Stir Friday Night (these people are hilarious, I want to be their fraaand.) The gracious and charismatic company of Honolulu Theatre for Youth, led by Moses Goods, opened and closed the cabaret with selections of their world premiere KINOLAU, about the Hawaiian gods appearing in the earthly realm.

For my slot, I performed ten minutes of Hollow/Wave, my autobiographical one-woman show which had its first production at Silk Road Rising this past May. How can I describe to you the feeling of performing a show about being South Asian in America to an audience full of Asian-Americans? It was electric: the room vibrated with positive energy, the laughter was uproarious, and everyone got my jokes about microaggressions! (Think “where are you really from” and that silence when the substitute looks at the roster and sees your name. Yeah.)

I felt right at home.

The cast of Hot Asian Everything: Revolt. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis Photography.

Throughout the rest of the week, there was a wealth of panel discussions, breakout sessions, workshops, play readings and performances. I expected to only be able to attend a few things a day; instead, I rode a wave of adrenaline and sleep deprivation, and practically lived at the Fullerton Red Line stop.

I attended as many workshops as I could. In one, devised theatre maker and actor Anu Yadav (and yes, my new name twin) hosted “Listening as a Revolutionary Act”, exercising our ability to provide space for others to be vulnerable, and to provide community and support through listening and energy rather than reaction.

(Personally, I found this surprisingly difficult. I had to remind myself not to nod so much when someone else was talking.) In another, spoken word artist and actor Ken Yoshikawa and Chisao Hata of Dance Exchange, both out of Portland, Oregon, hosted an incredible “move-back”, a space to explore a movement-based response to a piece. (Think “talkback”, but with your bodies.) Ken shared his profound poetry and we, the participants, explored our physical responses to it. The result was a release of many emotions, a more grounded connection between our words and our bodies, and the creation of a safe communal space to be vulnerable with material that was specific to the Asian-American experience. In a third workshop, storyteller and longtime sociology professor Ada Cheng took us through her journey to owning her identity and power, and encouraged participants to work through fear and anxiety to connect to their personal stories. Finally, improviser and Stir Friday Night founder Avery Lee taught us ensemble-building improv exercises through an excellently structured workshop that helped us release our inhibitions and leave behind our fear of “failure” and “perfection”, resulting in a clear, structured guide to creating sketch comedy onstage.

Left to right: moderator Laura Penn, May Adrales, Chay Yew, Tim Dang, Mei Ann Teo, and Jess McLeod. Photo by Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists.

One of my favorite panel discussions was sponsored by the Society of Directors and Choreographers (SDC) and featured five amazing directors. We had Milwaukee Rep’s Associate Artistic Director May Adrales (and latest recipient of TCG’s Alan Schneider Director Award), Chay Yew of Victory Gardens, East West Players’ Artistic Director Emeritus Tim Dang, Musical Theatre Factory’s new Producing Artistic Director Mei Ann Teo and Chicago’s own resident director of Hamilton Jess McLeod. This powerhouse panel talked about their generational experiences as directors of colors working in theaters across the country. My main takeaway from their discussion was the growth from tokenizing directors of color to humanizing them. For example, May cited that she, as an Asian-American director, has experienced being approached to direct all plays of color, regardless of content. That’s tokenization: not every white director wants to work on every white play, do they? As Asian-Americans get behind the table more frequently and producers look past race, we can be humanized so that we can direct what we want and what resonates with us, regardless of whether it is a “play of color” or not. “We can’t access every play of color just because we are POC,” said Mei Ann Teo, “…what I do know is we need room to have multiple opinions. We need room to fail [like white projects].”

Stay tuned for part 2 of Anu Bhatt's coverage of ConFest! 

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