Asian Explosion: theater festival showcases Asian American talent

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Kira Walker/Staff


The changing perceptions of Asian American identity are more relevant than ever, with the talk of the town dominated by Jeremy Lin’s rise to NBA stardom. And few events are more committed to promoting young Asian Americans in the performing arts than Magic Theatre’s Asian Explosion 2012 this past week at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center.

A five-day festival showcasing award-winning playwrights and theater artists, Asian Explosion is an exciting collection of the newest talent. Poetry slam pioneer Regie Cabico provided lyricism and big laughs. Kate Rigg, a stand-up comic trailblazer for Asian Americans, skewered derogatory stereotypes. With themes of cyberspace, playwright Rehana Mirza explored Muslim-American identity, while Julliard playwriting fellow JC Lee examined families.

There were many more talented artists besides the few highlighted above — a testament to the growing strength and plurality of Asian American theater artists. As Kate Rigg testified, ethnic diversity actually caters to a wider audience: “(Asian Explosion) is not by Asians, for Asians. This is for everyone.”

Deanne Chen is the lead theater critic.

 

Kate Rigg:

The central argument of Kate Rigg’s stand-up comedy routine was easily channeled through her selected apparel for the night. Dressed in ninja shoes and a red, embroidered Chinese vest, Rigg topped off her flashy costume with a giant necklace of sparkling Hello Kitty bling. Like her outward appearance of remixed Asian symbology, Rigg’s comedy directly confronts Asian American stereotypes to satirize racist discourse.

In a series of clever jokes, Rigg performed songs with several layers of deceit, the heart of which was directed toward reversing Asian American stereotypes. For her opening act, she sang a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with retooled, broken English lyrics in the voices of Vietnamese and Korean women spurning their historical exploitation by American GIs. Similarly, songs like “Rice Rice Baby” (rapped to the beat of the Vanilla Ice single) revealed Rigg to be fearless in straddling the line between ironic racism and raunchy tastelessness.

Such interplay between pop culture and derogatory notions is nothing new to Rigg. A Julliard graduate, she began with show titles like “Kate’s Chink-O-Rama” and “Birth of a nAsian” (reference to filmmaker D.W. Griffith). Aside from past appearances on Comedy Central and other television channels, Rigg heads a band called Slanty Eyed Mama.

Rigg’s specialty is spitting out jokes interwoven with multiple levels of social satire at dizzying speeds. On the topic of Asian Pacific American media representation, Rigg rapidly moved from the need for Asian American role models to decrying intra-racism, but not without a sly reference to Chinese foot binding. Armed with an encyclopedic arsenal of racial jokes, she deconstructs slurs with deadly accuracy and political impact.

What remain most popular, however, are Rigg’s personal anecdotes about her Chinese mother. A self-proclaimed victim of “PTAMD” (post-traumatic Asian mother disorder), Rigg delivered her most raucous jokes on “Tiger Mother” insults that still echo in her head. Nothing hits closer to home than the quirks of one’s own mother.

— Deanne Chen

 

Wicked Fox:

Sometimes love leaves scars, but very rarely does it actually leave scars — especially not those that have been knifed into your back by your crazy artist mother.  But JC Lee’s “Wicked Fox” goes there, revealing the sometimes painful, sometimes poignant ways that people come together.

Lee’s play ventures beyond the world of physical contact, pulling the four characters of “Wicked Fox” into intimate virtual scenarios. “It’s part of our discourse now,” Lee says, “You can’t tell a story — or tell an American story, anyway — without Facebook.”

As two legally emancipated teenage twins, Amina (Stephanie DeMott) and Timitio (Jason Frank), struggle to hold their home together when their single mother is taken away to a mental institution, a family redefines itself via email exchanges. Twitter leads the twins to their estranged father, Jorge (Brian Rivera), who falls in love with the Facebook profile of a woman who claims to value loneliness as much as he does. Timitio, the boy twin, finds his first gay lover, Devin (Galen Murphy-Hoffman), on Craigslist, clutching at straws of intimacy.

The characters come to recognize humans like the electrons of an atom — moving apart and moving together, but never quite touching. However, they are brought close enough to be a family in their ruined house.

Themes of isolation and alienation aside, the play brought the audience into the Magic Theatre’s snug black box to bond. Prop-and-set free, the actors delivered the story by reading the script, leaving the visuals of wild paintings produced by Amina and her mother to the audience’s imagination. Consequently, the audience could focus on the characters’ conversations, oscillating between near-poetry and some seriously sassy comebacks, forcing the audience to keep up with the twins’ prodigious wit.

Dialogue leads to action, and even a very odd expression of love. Eventually, Amina’s scars will heal, and the house will be repaired as a result. “Sometimes, things turn out all right,” Timitio says. “Isn’t that a wonderful thought?”

Sara Hayden

 

Lonely Leela:

At one point in the play “Lonely Leela” an angry white-supremacist 12-year-old has an online argument with an irate Muslim man, whom he calls Bin Laden and whom he tells, “God created the U.S., and we created everyone else.” Written by half-Pakistani, half-Filipino playwright, Rehana Mirza, “Lonely Leela” is a witty farcical take on the profiles and profiling that occur in the annals of the Internet.  Yet it is also a story of loss and love, beautifully told with singing, dancing and puppets.

The play begins with Leela, a young woman who can’t get a hold of her boyfriend in the real world, and is left searching for him online.  Leela falls into the rabbit hole of the Internet and loses herself in the insanity of cyberspace.

On her journey, Leela befriends a young Muslim sociologist named Farid,  who is dealing with Islamophobic tendencies of American society.  She meets several characters who are modeled off of those from “Alice in Wonderland.”  Tweedledee and Tweedledum are rechristened as Flash and Java.  The old, wise caterpillar is cranky HTML.  Jeeves, of Ask Jeeves fame, is king of the online realm but is largely controlled by his queen — a cruel matriarch who presides over her domain without mercy.

The Internet is a rabbit hole in which one sets out on a search, forgets what he or she is searching for, gets distracted, wastes lots of time, fails to complete the search, yet still learns something unexpected along the way — just like Leela.

The form of the play itself embodies the experience of surfing the Internet. The characters pop up like the pop-ups on a computer screen, they speak in squeaks, they dance, they jitter, they sing and then they disappear as quickly as they appeared. The unknowing Leela enters their world, like the typical Internet user, as someone on a search.  Yet in this play, to search is to be searched and the click of a mouse cannot be equated with control.

Kanwalroop Singh

 

Regie Cabico:

Aversatile spoken word artist, Regie Cabico is all about engaging his physical environment. In a series of poems and monologues, Cabico sketched out his life: from growing up in a pious Filipino home to being an out-and-proud gay man. At one point, he handed out chocolates and bemoaned his broken heart. The stool Cabico sat on was transformed to a Catholic confessional, and later — more hilariously — female genitals during an unpleasant bout of college dorm sex.

Cabico’s interactive, sometimes intensely physical performance was well-suited to his colorful life stories. While it’s difficult to pin down the genre of Cabico’s hour-long routine, he was always relatable (he began by asking audience members what their exes smelled like) and highly original. The night combined elements of his work from the last twenty years, demonstrating a wide range of poems and stand-up comedy.

As a leading pioneer in spoken word, Cabico has garnered a long list of awards, including being the first Asian  American to win the National Poetry Slam’s top prize (for three years, nonetheless). However, because spoken word is largely underground, performed in bookstores and cafes, Cabico’s performance at Magic Theatre was his official theatrical debut on the west coast.

Within Magic Theatre’s intimate space, Cabico seemed to relive periods of his life, like the blush of a first crush (on his Catholic priest, humorously enough). Cabico has the magical touch to ignite audiences into gut-bending laughter, particularly with a rollicking impression of his mother — a devout, but Barbra Streisand-loving Filipina.

But Cabico also has the power to be genuinely moving. At the end of his routine, the poet spoke wistfully on loneliness, then exited, leaving the theater’s door ajar so the audience could contemplate the night’s darkness. It’s a pity that such experimental theater is not more visible to mainstream audiences. As Cabico demonstrated, few performance mediums achieve the level of emotional vibrancy conveyed by spoken word’s free-flowing poetics.

Deanne Chen

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