Over the past two days on June 24th and 25th, I had a chance to check out six of the numerous performances (much thanks to Ami Patel for providing the hookup) at the 3rd National Asian American Theater Festival in Los Angeles, including Sunoh! Tell Me Sister, Dictee, Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star,Archipelago, Pull, and Encounter. Read my honest reviews of each of these performances after the cut.
Emphasis on honest since I don’t believe in giving rave reviews to every single Asian American artist or performance just because they are Asian. Because these reviews will be somewhat comprehensive, for those who want 6 reviews in a nutshell: None of them were crappy. Hooray! The purpose of my reviews is to point out what worked for me, as well as what didn’t work.
Sunoh! Tell Me, Sister
Performed by the Post Natyam Collective
Sunoh! Tell Me, Sister uses multimedia and contemporary Indian dance theater to bring to life women’s stories of being silenced, finding voice, and the importance of sisterly community. It is a transnational choreographic collaboration between members of the Post Natyam Collective, largely created long long-distance through internet technologies.
I had a chance to see a preview version of this performance last year during a Teada Productions Workshop showcase and I was definitely looking forward to seeing what the full version would be like. I admired the strong theme of silence and empowerment throughout the performance and several of the individual pieces were incredibly moving.
I completely dug the Skype sessions with the four ladies interacting with each other and I could honestly see the whole show if it was done in that format. There was one segment performed by Shymala Moorty that was especially haunting where without a word, she used her large cloth to represent suffocation and combined with the eerie music, provided an exceptional aural and visual experience that will linger in my mind for a while. I also enjoyed Cynthia Lee’s honest monologue of her Taiwanese identity conflicting with her classical South Asian training as well as Anjali Tata’s hyperactive dynamic performance of being the loud mouthed kid but then having her tonsils removed. Without voice, Anjali perfectly conveyed the frustration of being silent and the sheer frustration and anger that comes with having such an integral part of you taken away.
As a whole though, I felt the performance didn’t hold up as strong. There were several long drawn elements to the show that failed to captivate my attention fully. The ending didn’t quite do it for me as I was just watching words from a projector on a woman’s body, which at first was interesting, but was drawn out a tad too long. It may be the ADD side of me but staring at words for more than 5 minutes from a projector doesn’t do it for me.
In summary, Sunoh! has a great premise, inventive ways of incorporating multimedia and conference call connects, a few extremely compelling individual pieces but struggles to find a strong connection throughout the whole performance.
Dictee is a multi-media dance theater performance based on the text of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s seminal literary collage. Through interchangeable disciplines of spoken text, movement, music, experimental sound and video, performing artists Sommi Kim and Jen Shyu share the stories of brave women who are ordinary, revolutionary, and extraordinary in their common experiences of suffering and transcendence of suffering.
I have never read Cha’s literary collage but I do know that she was considered one of the most respected Asian American writers who was crucial in changing the APA literary world that presented Asians as Americans, rather than exotic tales of woes. It’s one thing to adapt a book into a film but to adapt it to a dynamic performance arts piece? For that alone, I have to give my respect to Soomi Kim and Jen Shyu for having the drive to create it in the first place.
I will first say that Jen Shyu has possibly one of the most beautiful voices I’ve heard and it is her voice that was one of the foundations that kept me enthralled throughout. I have never heard anyone sing a traditional Korean folk-esque song done in English and hearing Jen sing, I actually felt Korean pride surging within me, something that rarely happens given my passive aggressive relationship with being Korean. I think I nearly cried at one point so it’s safe to say that Jen Shyu has a magnificent voice.
Soomi Kim provided most of the physical actions and acted as the “spirit” to the 3rd woman who is what I believe to be the present day reality anchor played by Elena Chang. Soomi’s choreographed motions with Jen Shyu was definitely something to behold but it made Elena Chang’s character rather plain since her only role was to act as exposition for the audience. Nevertheless, Elena gave a certain dignified grace to what is otherwise a rather plain role.
Visually and aurally, this performance was fantastic, but if you were to ask me what this show was about, I honestly would have no idea. The story wasn’t clear and it seems like a whole bunch of fragments were presented to us. Perhaps this may have been intentional as the performers were presenting the writer’s thoughts on her Korean American identity? I only had vague clues to what the performers were trying to convey. Scene transitions drifted from one to another and so if anything, I became quite lost to what was actually happening. I only had Jen Shyu’s voice as a constant and if it wasn’t for that, I would have been extremely lost.
I won’t necessarily fault this performance’s lack of cohesion as a fault since it may because I’m a dunce when it comes to theatrical shows like these. Then again, I strongly believe that theater should be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, and artistic awareness level. Soomi Kim and Jen Shyu are serious powerhouses to be reckoned with but their commanding presences and actions were the only things I could go by as the rest of the performance was too chaotic for me to follow.
Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star
Performed by May Lee-Yang
In Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star, May-Lee Yang employs comedic storytelling, on-site sex toy demonstrations, and some cultural competency training as she explores marriage, porn, romance novel fantasies, and how to talk about sex in the Hmong culture (a definite no-no).
Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Star is a performance that has the fortune of having my interest just from the title alone. Then again, the word “porn” is always a hot word with people in general so I may not be alone in that. But hearing from a short Hmong performance artist tell personal accounts to show why she’d be a bad porn star? This is a story worth checking out for sure.
May-Lee Yang is a compelling storyteller who is able to use comedy very effectively. It was really neat to incorporate audience interaction and have them feel like they are part of the story. I volunteered myself to put a condom on a daikon and suffice to say, I think I was a little too comfortable with the daikon. She also provides a really eye-opening comparison between an artist, a whore, and a porn star. By the end of the show, I learned that the three have very similar traits and you could hear the “oh no she didn’t” laughs in the audience as she presented very compelling evidence of this crazy business artists and actors have to go through that isn’t too different from a whore or a porn star.
She then presented ten reasons why she’d be a bad porn star, reasons that ranged from the activist, feminist, to the racial dynamics. By doing so, she gave us an inside look of the porn industry and the myriad of problems it can present to the image of women and Asian men. It was also hilarious that she was also pimping her sex toys that she sells and some of the things that she talked about (not safe to talk about here) were things that I never thought was possible.
However, I think it’s fair to say that this performance was a work in progress and has some ways to go before it is fully polished. There are a lot of technical issues that needs to be smoothed out and the transitions between each segment weren’t fleshed out completely. May-Lee also lost her place for a few moments at various times which she stumbled on her train of thought. It wasn’t because of any amateur reasons but being so emotionally caught up that she would have to take a pause. These were the only faults to otherwise what I see to be a very promising and conversation inducing performance show.
Archipelago: Islands of Land, Water, and Legend
Performed by Denise Uyehara
Archipelago is a new multi-disciplinary work directed and performed by Denise Uyehara in collaboration with video artist Adam Cooper-Teran. Through a nexus of video, monologue, music, and ritual, the piece remixes ancient origin myths of Okinawa and Native people of the American Southwest, situating them in contemporary times.
When I first read the synopsis of this performance in the works, I was worried that I would have no idea how I’m going to follow this without getting lost. How the heck do you incorporate ancient origin myths and situate them in contemporary times? With just one woman for that matter?
Somehow, Denise Uyehara does just that in complete spades. I never became confused and I was completely immersed in the gorgeous and fantastic visual/audio work that was put into this. The saying of “less is more” applies 100% to this as Denise rarely has to rely on frenetic physical motions to be interesting. With a subtle hand flick or a graceful bow, she had my attention. Coupled that with the most breathtaking visual images and sounds (there were actually gasps within the audience), I eagerly look forward to see what the full version of the performance will be like.
Pull incorporates monologues, recorded interviews, and aerial arts to tell stories of people’s obsessions, from the mundane to the supernatural. Pull examines the effects they have on people’s lives and relationships. When do we pull them back?
Pull’s greatest strengths come from its refreshing simple storytelling and because of that, I was at first concerned that the aerial arts aspect would distract from the show. It became clear that the graceful flips, turns, and spirals that Kennedy Kabasares pulls off with ease were used effectively to put the immense frustration one can have with their parents into visual metaphor.
Traci Kato-Kiriyama’s ability as a storyteller is very impressive and she can keep the audience engaged without the use of any multimedia or physical actions. She speaks, we listen. Everything is deliberate and graceful and by golly, she knows how to eat a croissant. Croissants somehow play a huge role in this performance and after it was all done, I had an immense craving for this funny shaped bread and also eat it the way she painstakingly detailed the ritual process for the audience.
This is one performance piece where the other scene partner plays a crucial role as Traci and Kennedy depend on each other to tell this story. It is to their credit that every time Kennedy does a graceful move on his constructed swing, it does not detract the audience’s attention from what Traci is doing or saying and vice versa. They understand the theatrical element of presentation and upstaging perfectly; I never felt that Traci was over-acting, which is often quite a problem for people doing monologue-esque shows.
I also applaud Traci for presenting an incredibly personal account about her mother and her grieving process after their dad passed away six years ago. It is one thing to do shows that are about other people’s experiences but when it is your own, I am strongly reminded the power theater can have to heal your own soul. I know it did for mine when I was trying to deal with my Asian American identity and with Pull, we were all there with her as she tried her best to be a good daughter and cater to her mother’s crazy whims.
I don’t have any criticisms for this one. This was perhaps one of the more fully polished, effective, and personal performances that I had the pleasure of watching.
Performed by the Navarasa Dance Theater
Encounter explores images from the indigenous people’s struggles in India and around the world whether from Native American history, indigenous people’s history elsewhere or a modern day occurrence in Iraq or Afghanistan or Rwanda.
When it comes to shows put on by dance companies, I usually become lost by the abstract imagery that they convey through really elaborate choreographed movements. I wrack my brain trying to understand it, trying to not be that guy who didn’t get what everybody else got. I did not have this problem at all with Encounter. Out of all the shows I have seen for the NAAT festival, this 30 minute excerpt managed to drew my breath away, shocked me, and scared the crap out of me at one point. As terrible and mortifying as this may sound, I have never seen a gang bang rape scene as gorgeous and ugly as the company members were able to pull off here. It is here that I am reminded that theater can have a much more powerful effect with subtlety.
Gasps and stunned silences were abound as the dancers conveyed a whole range of emotions in their storytelling of an indigenous people being conquered by military force. It was beautiful, romantic, tragic, terrifying, and heartbreaking and I can’t remember how many times my jaw literally just dropped watching these dancers perform some incredibly movements.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the performance faltered anytime the dance company members spoke as it was really difficult understanding them through their thick accents and the message was already conveyed from their physical movements. The show would be just as great, if not greater, without the usage of any dialogue and only letting their bodies be the sole instrument in order to communicate.