Asian belonging, resilience, displacement on display in Ferocious Lotus Theatre’s production ‘Rooted’

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On  June 13, the Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company held its first community-centered production, “Rooted: Stories of Belonging Inspired By Asian Elders in the Bay Area.” The Ferocious Lotus fosters an artistic community for Asian and Asian American theater artists by producing shows that highlight the diversity of the Asian diaspora. “Rooted” features stories of resilience, immigration and community inspired by oral history interviews with Asian elders conducted by partner organizations such as the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project. 

The Ferocious Theatre Company created this production in response to the recent surge in anti-Asian racism and violence — especially against Asian seniors — since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Rooted” honors Asian elders by exhibiting their diversity of perspectives and highlighting the ways in which their stories intertwine with the history of the Bay Area.

While it’s not quite the same as it would be in person and on stage, the sound effects of chickens clucking, a bus slowing to a halt and a typewriter going clickety-clack transport the audience to the unique setting of each scene. Real-life photos of the person who inspired the story are also shown at the end of most performances, making an already heartfelt experience feel even more sentimental. 

Some performances in “Rooted” paint beautiful and merry scenes, such as that of elders practicing tai chi in the BART Lake Merritt Plaza. Others capture both the struggles and benefits of leaving one’s home and starting anew in another country, such as the story of Le Hoa Pham Ly (Emily Kuroda), whose family escaped the Vietnam War and eventually moved to the United States.

Although “Rooted” focuses on the experiences of elders, many of the stories are intergenerational, showing how in just a few generations, a family’s life can transform for the better. The first performance, “Vangie + Grandma,” presents the varied perceptions of America between a girl, Vangie Buell (Justine Banal), and her grandmother (Michelle Talgarow). Their generational differences are shown most clearly when the two, side-by-side and speaking at the same time, share their experiences in the United States. 

As the grandmother recalls how a man stabbed her but she couldn’t go to the police because he was also Filipino, Buell, starry-eyed and hopeful, talks about all the amazing things she’s going to be: a jazz singer, teacher, author. With grandma’s heart in the Philippines and Buell’s in America, their differing experiences form a harmony of highs and lows, demonstrating how quickly times can change and that home is always where the heart is. 

The memories of William Gee Wong, a UC Berkeley and a The Daily Californian alumnus, are filled with days working at his family’s restaurant, The Great China, and the everyday happenings of Oakland’s Chinatown. Performed by Leon Goertzen, Wong’s story was told as a letter to his 16-year-old self, reminiscing the days of typing out restaurant menus on a Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter and desiring to break free. 

One of the most heartwarming stories from “Rooted” is a love story about Betty and Art Shibayama, who both experienced Japanese incarceration in the United States but have very different memories of their internment camps. Even through the screen, the chemistry and tension during the couple’s first meeting at a social club are felt strongly. 

Following the performance was a panel discussing how the oral histories were collected and ways to care for seniors in the community. The three panelists, Roy Chan, Diana Emiko Tsuchida and Winnie Yu, have contributed to the Asian American community through advocacy, oral history documentation and elderly care. The panelists praised the resiliency of Asian elders who have gone through a range of hardships, whether it be attempting to assimilate in America as immigrants and refugees, experiencing Japanese internment or the isolation and anti-Asian racism felt during the global pandemic. 

As Yu said, it’s important for our community to “let (elders) know that we see them, we hear them, and we care for them.” Through “Rooted,” the Ferocious Lotus gives the artists and audience the opportunity to do just that for the Asian elders of the Bay Area. 

Daniella Lake covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled William Gee Wong’s name.