May 1976 (45 years ago)
In the May edition of Mother Jones, Chinese American playwright Frank Chin, founder of the Asian American Theatre Workshop (later renamed the Asian American Theatre Company) wrote a scathing open letter to John Korty, the producer and director of a made-for-TV adaptation of Farewell to Manzanar. Manzanar was one of 10 American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. The movie, based on a memoir of the same name, retold author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s experience as a child when her family was detained in Manzanar for over three years. Chin had been an extra in the movie, and after seeing the film demanded that his name be removed from the credits. Chin wrote to Korty, “You have lovingly removed white racism from concentration camp.” He also called the movie a “white supremacist fantasy of Shangri-La. Not reality.”
Some months before Chin’s letter, East West Players in Los Angeles had produced his play The Chickencoop Chinaman. East West Players (EWP), founded in Los Angeles in 1965 by nine Asian American artists seeking opportunities to write and perform roles that challenged the stereotypes of Asian Americans portrayed in Hollywood pictures, also tackled Western classics, casting Asian American actors in lead roles. And in May of 1976, East West Players’ staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, was directed by company co-founder Mako (born Makoto Iwasmatso). Mako is credited with training generations of Asian American actors and playwrights. EWP, now helmed by Snehal Desai, is celebrating its 55th anniversary year, and, according to their website, “continues to build platforms for artists of color while advocating for multi-faceted representation of the Asian Pacific American experience 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 piece created and performed by members of the MoMing workshop. Ping Chong, along with Rob List, a member of Chong’s Fiji Company in New York, lead the participants in experimentation and improvisations in dance and drama to develop the piece. The Chicago Tribune described the resulting performance as “a small triumph in found objects wedded to dramatic imagination.”
May 1991 (30 years ago)
On May 30, Velina Hasu Houston’s award-winning play Tea opened at Tenney Theatre, presented by Kuma Kahua Theatre on the island of O’ahu. The play, originally written by Houston in 1981, premiered Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987. Houston later collaborated with musician Nathan Wang to turn the play into a musical called Tea, With Music, which was premiered by East West Players. Tea tells the story of four Japanese women mourning the death of a friend. It is said to have been an inspiration for Amy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club. Houston is a distinguished professor at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts.
The company that presented Houston’s play that May in Hawai’i, Kumu Kahua Theatre, celebrates its 50th season this year. Founded in 1971 by a group of graduate students from the University of Hawai’i, the theatre has as its mission, “Plays about life in Hawai’i. Plays by Hawai’i Playwrights. Plays for people of Hawai’i.” The name of the company translates to “original stage.”
May 2006 (15 years ago)
On May 12, Walker Arts Center presented the world premiere of Knock on the Sky, an evening-length performance by the Myra Melford/Dawn Saito/Oguri company. One of the co-creators, Dawn Akemi Saito, is a multidisciplinary artist: an actress, writer, Butoh performer, and performance artist. Saito has collaborated with a variety of other artists, including Ping Chong, Yusef Komunyakaa, and JoAnne Akalaitis. An artist-in-residence at Fordham University, she has received the Uchimura Prize “for her overall contribution to creating theatre related to Japanese culture.”
That same month, performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong received a grant from Creative Capital to develop Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In this solo show, Wong used a comic lens to examine high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. Wong toured the show extensively for over a decade and in 2011 released a concert film of the performance.
May 2011 (10 years ago)
This month actress and singer Ann Harada played the role of Annette in a production of God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. Harada, known for originating the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q and also for appearing on Broadway in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, had a memorable in the TV series Smash and will next appear in the TV musical series Schmigadoon!
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