Mamma Mia – Finding Representation in the Theater Community

Theater is another one of the mainstream entertainment arenas where finding Asian (or even minority) representation remains difficult. With the exception of dedicated Asian companies (like East West Players), it’s rare to find an Asian American in the cast of a musical or play, and when you do it’s hard to avoid the discrimination like the kind Diana Huey faced as an Asian American Ariel in the touring Broadway cast of “The Little Mermaid“.  That’s why I think it’s important to find Asian American representation in theater, even if it’s just a local production, like San Jose Stage’s “Mamma Mia, which opened on June 1st, and runs through July 7, 2019.

While none of the main characters are portrayed by an Asian American actor, Mike Wu plays the role of Pepper, one of the workers at Donna Sheridan’s Taverna and a friend and best man at Sky’s wedding, a role he reprises after performing the same role in Pacific Conservatory Theater’s production of “Mamma Mia” in 2018.  The San Jose Stage production also features Vinh Nguyen in the cast as part of the ensemble. 

Mamma Mia” is a always a fun production, showcasing many of the songs of ABBA.  San Jose Stage’s version is probably a little raunchier than most I’ve seen, so you may want to skip having the little ones attend this version (they do show a dildo on stage and mimic sex acts).  San Jose Stage is in its 36th year of productions, and you can find tickets at www.thestage.org

Before leaving I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that for the first time, Cosette from Les Miserables is being played by a person of colorAmara Okereke is staring as Cosette in the show at the Queens Theater in the West End in London.  This follows the historic introduction of Aisha Jackson as Anna in Frozen in NYC’s Broadway production.  And with these milestones, there’s hope that we’ll see more representation in theater.

8Questions with Brian Jian

Former 8Asians writer Brian Jian has just published his very first graphic novel, Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines, so we’re asking him the really important questions (hint: it’s the last one).

1. Your book has a pretty intense plot. What was the inspiration?

I’m not quite sure! The “Cliff Notes TL;DR” version of that answer is “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Wu Tang Clan.” 

2. I love that you dedicated Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines to your readers. What do you hope they come away with?

There are so many options now for entertainment. For anyone to take time out of their day and spend it on anything I do, I’m extremely grateful. I’m just trying to tell a story that hopefully resonates with anyone who likes a good story, with characters who seem genuine and relatable.

3. Have you always wanted to create a graphic novel?

I was heavily into comic books and superheroes as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s (this was DECADES before this whole superhero staple in our entertainment diet). Becoming a comic book artist was probably my first career goal, but then school, college, sports, etc. got in the way. Next thing you know, 25 years have passed and I decided, “It’s now or never!”

4. What’s something you wish you’d know before you started the process?

Everything. I self published this book so it was all on my shoulders; from the drawing, writing, researching, editing, lettering, tech support. And copyrights! There was one page where I used the lyrics of a KRS One song (it fit nicely with the narrative of a scene I wrote) but thank god I looked it up and found out lyrics are copyrighted (not just the music) and you can’t print a line from Hey Jude or Hotel California without being sued. Who knew . . .

5. Ok, fun stuff. Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines is being made into a movie. Who would you cast?

Most the characters in this story tend to skew older than the characters featured in most of the typical properties put out by our youth obsessed culture. That was completely serendipitous and not by design but I do like that it turned out that way.  My dream cast would include people like Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Whoopie Goldberg. One of the main characters is a woman named Amaka who’s in her mid 40’s. I didn’t realize Gabrielle Union was in her mid to late 40’s! She’d be perfect!

6. What are you reading right now?

Just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and just started “X” by Chuck Klosterman.

7. Where can people find your work? What’s next for you?

www.brianjian.com or instagram.com/jianbrian. I’ve already started writing/illustrating Broken Toys Extraordinary Machines Book 2!

8. And last–the classic, the most important–what is your favorite Asian comfort food?

Soup dumplings. What else?

8Books Review: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” by Yukiko Motoya

By Timmy Pham

The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, contains eleven stories wrapped in a dark fantasy. Drawn from a collection of stories originally in Japanese, the work was only last year translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and published by Soft Skull Press in November 2018. This collection is Motoya’s English-language debut.

At the heart of the stories is “An Exotic Marriage”, a new translation of “Irui konin tan” (previously translated as Tales of Marriage to a Different Sort), for which Motoya won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The novella-length story centers on a troubled wife who has noticed her individualism slipping away both figuratively and literally as her marriage continues. The story builds itself around the realism of neighbors, an apartment dog park, and her husband’s obsessive media consumption, but, as with all the eleven stories, takes turns of dark whimsy, their faces begin to droop and metaphors of snakes devouring one another become more reality than figurative gestures.

The other stories of the collection are similarly haunting in a way that feels like Motoya has brought Grimm Brothers to the 21st century. In the story “Typhoon,” a child waits at a bus stop and learns about flying umbrellas from a raggedy man. The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is the quiet journey of a housewife who channels her quiet determination into a newfound hobby. “How to Burden the Girl” is especially odd, centering around a new neighbor with an anime appearance and Oedipean backstory that sounds like it was lifted from bloody video game. The stories are indeed dark, but demure in a way that is haunting. To call the stories feminist is an easy, but lazy label, as Motoya is able to offer a range of dark insights from capitalism and consumption in “Fitting Room” to women in corporate culture in “I Called You by Name.” Give The Lonesome Bodybuilder a read, as Motoya’s work will undoubtedly leave you confused and amused.

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

8Books Review: “Blame This on the Boogie” by Rina Ayuyang

By Timmy Pham

There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.

But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.

Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.

(Editor’s Note: Check out more of the gorgeous interiors over at Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

Chopso One Year Later

In November of this year, it will be Chopso’s one-year anniversary. It’s amazing to me we’ve made it this long. But we won’t be able to go on forever unless we continue to get support from our community. I can’t speak for my friend, filmmaking partner, and my partner in Chopso Quentin Lee but when I do anything for Chopso  I always feel like this is our gift to the community. Something that has been needed for a long time, been tried a few times, but has never completely worked. And instead of waiting for someone else to try it again or hope we get more representation by the mainstream networks and studios, we went ahead and did it ourselves.

For those of you who don’t know, Chopso is a streaming service for movies, documentaries, shorts, and digital series featuring Asian stories and faces. I use the shorthand Asian American Netflix as a description of what the company is when asked by my friends. However, that’s not completely accurate. While Quentin and I were putting the company together, we realized pretty quickly that our audience was bigger than just Asians living in America and that Asians around the globe (especially those living outside of Asia and in English speaking countries) shared a lot of common experiences. So in addition to Asian Americans, we’ve made it a point to reach out to Asians around the globe — so that meant Asians living in Canada, UK, Australia, etc.

The first year of Chopso has been both the most challenging but also been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in my career. Some of the challenges include acquiring content and getting subscribers, things every streaming platform I’m sure has to go through. And with no outside funding and no major support from traditional Hollywood, we’ve had to do it all on our own.

Knowing that, I think you can guess one of our biggest challenges: getting noticed. With so many places to watch content nowadays, it’s sometimes difficult to rise above the noise. But I’m proud to say that almost every month our viewership and subscribers have gone up. We’ve made dents in social media and our following is growing all the time. We hope with more time and maybe with a marketing/advertising budget in year two we can grow even more.

The other challenge is something that continues to surprise me. The Asian American community largely ignores anything that hasn’t been done by the mainstream networks and studios. For example, when I talk to people about Chopso, most of what they tell they’d want to see on the site are the famous studio movies like Joy Luck Club or Crazy Rich Asians. Both of which are great, however,  it completely ignores the fact that there has been and continues to be so much amazing Asian (American) content out there. Most of which has never been seen outside the Asian American film festival circuit.

We, as a community, need to do a better job of supporting Asian content from the students and youth who are making their first projects to the grizzled veterans making hard-hitting documentaries about our communities and independent movies featuring Asian actors and of course the studio movies. Only when we, as a community, can show that these movies have a viable market, will the studios and networks make more of them. This isn’t just a pipedream. Other communities of color have shown us that this is possible. Chopso was my answer to this issue. Yet, one year later, it’s also the reason that Chopso has not taken the huge leap that I had hoped it would take.

So how can you support us? First and foremost, we need more subscribers. For the price of a cup of artisanal coffee, you can watch a large selection of Asian-centric movies and shows on Chopso for one month. In addition, we need your help spreading the word about Chopso. Follow us on all the social media platforms, and then tell a friend or two or three or four. Go ahead and even tell an enemy two as well.

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And if you’re a creator, we need more amazing content. Hit us up and let us know what you have.  We’d love to feature you and your work on Chopso!

NYC Theater Review: “The Chinese Lady” by Lloyd Suh

Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.

Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.

We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.

Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.

The Chinese Lady is playing at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 18. Cost: $30-$42.25. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chinese-Lady/ or through TodayTix at https://www.todaytix.com/x/nyc/shows/12360-the-chinese-lady#noscroll

Photo by Eloy Garcia

8Books Review: Though I Get Home by YZ Chin

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin is an intricate series of short intertwined vignettes following a small host of characters tied to Malaysia. Isabella Sin’s time in a notorious prison. Grandfather’s stories about working for a white man when Malaysia was still Malaya. Howie Ho in Silicon Valley. Howie Ho in Malaysia looking for a wife. Isa at a protest. Bets predicting whether the monsoons will come. Ibrahim on patrol, on a mission.

Threads weave through the stories, often invisibly. Together, they offer a deft commentary on life in Malaysia, on individuals living within a globalizing world and a country on the precipice. Some stories occupy just a few pages, others stretch out. Each unfolds carefully into the nitty gritty of humanity. Chin does not shy away from exposing tensions within attitudes about race, democracy, class, family expectations, the state, and more.

I confess, I was often unsure where the book was headed, but found the ride intriguing. Here are ordinary people in all their oddities, trying to make sense of and make decisions in a world that is changing on many dimensions. They are not glamorous, the picture painted is not flattering, and in this there is something fresh and refreshing about Chin’s writing.

There he sat, and there he waited, to see if anything could truly happen to anyone.

8Books Review: “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a delightful graphic novel about friendship and secrets and identity and love. Prince Sebastian is supposed to be looking for a bride. But at night, he secretly dons fashion forward dresses and emerges as the mysterious Lady Crystallia with the help of his friend and dressmaker, Frances.

Set in Paris, Jen Wang has created an extraordinary array of imaginative and beautifully drawn dresses and costumes that pepper a story full of heart and growth. What lengths will Frances go to to protect her friend’s secret? And at what cost to her own dreams? As Sebastian and Frances’ friendship evolves, so do the complexities of their choices. Though set in another time, in another place, the two are eminently relatable and lovable for their flaws and successes. Who do they want to be? Who will they be? Neither is perfect. Each encounters obstacles–the weight of expectations, the burdens of secrets, the freedoms of self-expression, the limitations of what looked like success. Together, and individually, they find a way through and the journey is truly charming.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a book to get lost in for an afternoon. A curl up on the couch with a hot cup of tea and go from one cover to the other. One huge, satisfying whirlwind ride.

NYC Theater Review: ‘Panorama’ at La MaMa

Maura Nguyen Donohue in Panorama. Photo by Theo Cote

Panorama is a world premiere play from Italian duo Motus showing at La MaMa (66 East 4th Street) as part of The Public’s Under the Radar Festival until January 21.

Though the description for the show is a bit dense–“proposing a post-nationalistic identity for all the populations of the world, focusing on the concept of fluid identity and nomad identity”–the play itself is actually an intimate look at the lives of the artists who make up La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company.

Sure it plays out in unique ways with shifting identities and the help of some expertly executed projections, life-feeds, and other technological boosts. But in the end, it’s about people. An inordinately human play about belonging and not belonging, about morals and identity, about taking a stand, about becoming an artist, about moving, about the emotional toll of today’s political climate.

Perry Yung in Panorama. Photo by Theo Cote

The play is based on interviews done with the actors, a refreshingly diverse group. Maura Nguyen Donahue, for example, who reveals in the course of the play that she added Nguyen so people would know she was Vietnamese, only to find out that her family’s surname was actually Tran (her mom purchased papers). There’s a wonderful camaraderie between the actors that bleeds through even beyond the lines.

There are some odd moments, some jarring notes, some nudity (this is after all, experimental theater, what do you expect), some delightful one-liners, and a whole boatload of honesty.

Panorama is playing at La MaMa, The Downstairs at 66 East 4th St. until January 21, 2018. Tickets $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors. Run time: 80 minutes.

NYC Theater Review: Once On This Island

Once on This Island, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre (W. 50th), is an utter delight. Your heart will swell and weep and swell again before the night’s over. The musical, set on a Caribbean island, follows Ti Moune, a young girl who’s fallen in love with someone from the other side of the island. Kept apart by class and culture, Ti Moune is guided by the gods on a remarkable journey. An amazing and diverse cast is captivating and engaging. And there’s a live goat on stage to boot.

I first heard about this revival because of Lea Salonga, who plays one of the gods. If you don’t already know who she is, I’m not going to tell you, except to say that I would see her in anything. But as amazing as she is, the whole cast of Once On This Island really blew me away. From the debut performances of Haley Kilgore playing Ti Moune (girl, those vocal cords are no joke) and Isaac Powell as her love Daniel, to Alex Newell’s blow the house down number “Mama Will Provide” and the tenor that hums in your soul from Quentin Earl Darrington, to the “Storytellers” who round out the cast.

Continue reading “NYC Theater Review: Once On This Island”

8Books Review: “Pashmina” by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani is a delightful graphic novel about a young girl looking for herself, navigating two worlds and two cultures. Priyanka is your average Indian American teenager until she finds a magic pashmina in her mother’s closet. Her mother won’t ask questions about the India she left behind or about Priyanka’s father, but the pashmina opens a new window.

The story follows Priyanka’s eventual journey to India and back again, all along insightfully considering questions about the choices we make, about family and growth, about when to hold on and when to let go. Priyanka is imperfect in the way all teenagers are, but I was charmed throughout by her audacity and spunk and her journey of self-discovery. Beautifully illustrated, Pashmina is a quick and enjoyable read.

8Books Review: “Origami Peace Cranes” by Sue DiCicco

September 21 is International Peace Day, what more fitting a day than to talk about origami cranes–or at least a book on cranes. Origami Peace Cranes: Friendships Take Flight by Sue DiCicco is a children’s book about friendship and making connections despite differences. Emma–pictured center on the cover–is nervous about going to a new school and thinks no one will want to be her friend. That is of course until her teacher invites them to all make paper cranes and write messages to one another. Then, Emma makes connections with her (very multicultural) classmates. It’s a very straightforward story about accepting others and accepting yourselves. The book includes easy to follow instructions for how to make an origami crane as well as paper.

I appreciate that the story touts self-acceptance and features a diverse crew (Kumar, Juana, Takako eating a bento box for lunch…you get the drift). That being said, I really did wish reading through it, that the main character was not white. And while it may not be traditional to write on your origami crane, the author is clearly interested in fostering creativity and self-expression in all forms and I can’t criticize that.