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ConFest and What I Saw, part 2

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

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