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Photo by Mike Palma.

A Lesson in Empathy

by Andy Lowe (Production Manager, East West Players)

I have been working in Asian American theater now for the past 21 years since I co-founded San Diego’s Asian American Repertory Theatre in 1995. Attending the 2016 National Asian American Theater Conference (ConFest) for the third time is a humbling experience. I was trading plays and ideas with Roger Tang, founder of the Asian American Theatre Review, and Rick Shiomi, who built up Mu Performing Arts (formerly Theater Mu) in Minneapolis around the same time I started. I also connected with legacy artists like Tisa Chang, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s founder and artistic director for the last 48 years, and many young next gen artists and creators that reminded me of where I started.

I was moderating three panels for East West Players. The discussions ranged from nuts and bolts business (a one-on-one with executive producer Lorenzo Thione on the unconventional and innovative ways they broke the mold to get George Takei and Allegiance to Broadway) and scholarly explorations of Asian diasporic theatre movements outside of the United States to the creative process among Asian American directors.  

I also saw productions from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s repertory and the Confest shows. I was particularly excited to see Vietgone by Qui Nguyen for the third time. I watched both the premiere and closing show at South Coast Repertory last year, and looked forward to seeing how the show has evolved. The play is very much a contemporary, irreverent “sex romp” romantic comedy. Though it takes place during the 1970s in the fallout of the Vietnam War, the war itself takes a back seat to the story of two damaged young people working past their pain to connect after – what they thought would be – a one-night stand. The play is inspired by the playwright’s vision of how his parents met and fell in love.

Full disclosure: I love this play. It mixes humor, rap and contemporary hip-hop culture, Kung fu fight scenes, and elements of sketch comedy that subvert the audience’s expectations of an immigrant’s story. The play is an emotional roller coaster, bringing cartoonish laughs back-to-back with gut-wrenching scenes of tangible loss. It is quite frankly one of my favorite plays in the last 10 years.

Given this, imagine my stunned surprise when an older Caucasian patron passed by me as she and her party were leaving at intermission.

“Is it good? I just can’t relate to the characters,” she said.

I considered for a moment that here was a woman, probably an Oregon resident, who never had to empathize with an Asian character before. In this play, there are no common markers of otherness, no accents, none of the usual tropes in our storytelling tradition that are commonly used to mark refugees or immigrants as being piteous or worthy of charity. It challenges the audience to see the story of refugees from THEIR perspective, giving them the common tongue, portraying them as completely competent and contemporary people with their own agency. In contrast, all “American” characters speak in a kind of gibberish (“French fries, Burger King yee-haw!”). We don’t often realize how much we have been conditioned to empathize with Caucasian characters.

“They seem so superficial and with the raps, I guess they’re trying to copy that show…what’s it called… ‘hamlet-ton’?” she continued.

I considered her for a moment. She wasn’t full of hate; she simply couldn’t grasp it.

“I encourage you to stay for act two,” I said. “A lot of the language and the crassness of the comedy is rooted in deep-seated pain that you start to understand in the second act.”

She called out to her husband who was headed to the car. “Honey! We’re gonna go back!” She then returned to the theater.

I looked around. Marie-Reine Velez from Artists at Play looked back at me like, “Did that really just happen?” We’d been spending so much time discussing the future of Diverse American Theater and Asian American Theater, yet in one short conversation, we were reminded that we are still at the beginning of this discussion and that our work is important.  

If I had to describe the product of my craft as a director and theater artist, it would be that I deal in empathy. We open eyes to experiences that are sometimes fanciful and sometimes more tangible than is comfortable.

Immediately following the performance, conference attendees staged a small protest. We gathered for a response photo, filling the street in the exact spot where years ago, the KKK had marched in a public parade. It was a grand gesture that stood in defiance of history.

To me, this short conversation with that woman at intermission had an even greater impact. Small moments like these remind me why I do what I do, and engage in the stories I choose to tell.