AMERICAN THEATER | This month in theater history

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Frank Chin. (Wikimedia / Nancy Wong)

May 1976 (45 years ago)

In the May edition of Mother Jones, Chinese-American playwright Frank Chin, founder of the Asian American Theater Workshop (later renamed the Asian American Theater Company) wrote a scathing open letter to John Korty, the producer and director of a television adaptation of Farewell to Manzanar. Manzanar was one of 10 American concentration camps where Americans of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II. The film, based on a memoir of the same name, chronicles author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s experience as a child when her family was held in Manzanar for over three years. Chin had been an extra in the film, and after seeing the film, he requested that his name be removed from the credits. Chin wrote to Korty, “You lovingly suppressed white racism from the concentration camp. He also called the film a “Shangri-La white supremacist fantasy.” Not the reality.

A few months before Chin’s letter, East West players in Los Angeles had produced his play Chinese chicken coop. East West Players (EWP), founded in Los Angeles in 1965 by nine Asian American artists seeking opportunities to write and perform roles that challenge stereotypes of Asian Americans depicted in Hollywood images, also attacked Western classics, featuring Asian American actors in the lead roles. And in May 1976, the staging by the East West Players of Chekhov’s film Three sisters, was headed by the co-founder of the Mako company (born Makoto Iwasmatso). Mako is credited with educating generations of Asian American actors and playwrights. EWP, now led by Snehal Desai, is celebrating its 55th anniversary and, according to its website, “continues to create platforms for artists of color while advocating for a multi-faceted portrayal of the Asian American experience- Pacific in the performing arts ”.

May 1981 (40 years ago)

This month, multidisciplinary artist Ping Chong completed a guest residency at Chicago’s MoMing Dance and Arts Center that resulted in four performances of Rainer and the knife, a multimedia performance created and performed by the members of the MoMing workshop. Ping Chong, along with Rob List, a member of Chong’s Fiji Company in New York City, led the participants in dance and theater experiments and improvisations to develop the play. The Chicago Tribune described the resulting performance as “a small triumph of found objects married to a dramatic imagination.”

May 1991 (30 years ago)

Velina Hasu Houston. (Photo by Ken Matsui)

Velina Hasu Houston’s award-winning play May 30 Tea opened at the Tenney Theater, presented by Kuma Kahua Theater on the island of O’ahu. The play, originally written by Houston in 1981, premiered on Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. Houston then collaborated with musician Nathan Wang to turn the play into a musical called Tea, With Music, which was created by East West Players. Tea tells the story of four Japanese women mourning the death of a friend. They say he was an inspiration for Amy Tan’s novel Joy’s luck club. Houston is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Dramatic Arts at USC.

The company that presented the Houston play in May in Hawai’i, Kumu Kahua Theater, is celebrating its 50th season this year. Founded in 1971 by a group of graduate students from the University of Hawai’i, the theater’s mission is to “Play on Life in Hawai’i.” Pieces by Hawaiian playwrights. Plays for the people of Hawai’i. The name of the company translates to “original stage”.

May 2006 (15 years ago)

On May 12, the Walker Arts Center presented the world premiere of Hit the sky, an evening performance by the Myra Melford / Dawn Saito / Oguri Company. One of the co-creators, Dawn Akemi Saito, is a multidisciplinary artist: actress, writer, butoh performer and performance artist. Saito has collaborated with a variety of other artists, including Ping Chong, Yusef Komunyakaa, and JoAnne Akalaitis. Artist in residence at Fordham University, she received the Uchimura Prize “for her global contribution to the creation of theater linked to Japanese culture”.

In the same month, performance artist and actress Kristina Wong received a grant from Creative Capital to develop Wong flew over the cuckoo’s nest. In this solo exhibition, Wong used a comedic lens to examine the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. Wong has toured the show extensively for over a decade and in 2011 released a concert performance film.

May 2011 (10 years ago)

This month, actress and singer Ann Harada starred as Annette in a production of God of carnage by Yasmina Reza at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. Harada, known for playing the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q and also for his appearance on Broadway in the film by David Henry Hwang Mr. Butterfly, had a great memory in the television series Smash and will then appear in the television musical series Schmigadoon!

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