Under the producing guidance of undergraduate Eliza Wu, the University of Washington held a one day conference on Asian American theatre issues May 30. Called Stories from Chinatown, the conference was a blend of talks by prominent Asian American theatre figures, installed theatre pieces in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District and a panel discussion by producers from Seattle’s diverse Asian American theatre companies.
Leading off the conference was keynote speaker Philip Kan Gotanda, a seminal Asian American playwright, now a professor at UC Berkeley. Author of such classics as Yankee Dawg You Die, Song of a Nisei Fisherman, The Wash and The Ballad of Yachiyo, Gotanda recounted his journey as an artist, from typical Asian American student to law student to budding playwright. Among the many observations he made during the talk was that “I don’t know where Asian American theatre is going in the future, but I know where it’s been, and I know how it got to where it is now, and it’s going to change on the basis of those two things.”
Next were a trio of site specific theatre pieces, a specialty of Seattle’s Asian American theatre artists. Conceived as short pieces anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes in length, these site specific pieces are intimately tied to their sites, evoking and relying upon the history of the place (as well as that of the surrounding neighborhood) to tell a story. Part of the proceedings this day were
- Lessons, by Julia Hoang, set in the Chong Wa Chinese School (the fabled Chinese school where Chinese Americans went to school to learn Chinese, after attending public schools); following a typical day in Chinese school;
- Canton Alley #3, by Seayoung Yim, set in Canton Alley (in the West Kong Yick Building, home and business for many Chinese American immigrant families in the mid 20th Century), a mood piece chronicling the good times and the bad times of a Chinese American family living in an apartment there;
- Pocket Rhythm, by Tom Dang, set at 709 1/2 S. S. King Street (used by local Chinatown social and gambling clubs), exploring the social life in the realities of Chinese immigration in the early 20th Century.
(And Eliza Wu directed all three pieces….)
- Andrew Tsao (longtime director of Asian American theatre pieces and now the head of the undergraduate drama program at the University of Washington);
- Kathy Hsieh (producer/actor, founder of SIS Productions and Community Liaison for the Office of Arts & Culture Seattle);
- Aya Hashiguchi (founder of Dukesbay Productions, in Tacoma, Washington);
- Richard Sloniker (actor/producer and founder of Azeotrope);
- Manuel Cawaling (Executive Director, Youth Theatre Northwest).
The panel wrestled with several questions during this lively discussion, including the inevitable “What is Asian American theatre?” (“I dunno, but I know it when I see it””Asian American theatre is what’s done by Asian Americans””The social forces that form Asian Americans also affects our art; the ideas and themes of foreign-ness and other-ing have echoes that reside in our work”) as well as “What are you working on next?” (“Instead of adapting directing, working from the center to the margins, I’m working margin to margin; I’m doing “The Jamaican Wash”, translating the themes of “The Wash” to Jamaican Americans.”).