Photo by Mike Palma.

Groundbreaking shifts in Asian American Theater

by Meredith Patt (Audience Services Manager, East West Players)

“Seismic Shifts: Leading Change in the American Theater” was the theme for the 2016 National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest), organized by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA) and held at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, Oregon from October 1-9, 2016. If you haven’t been to Ashland, I can best describe it as Hogsmeade for theater lovers with OSF as Hogwarts!

Artistic Director Snehal Desai, Production Manager Andy Lowe (who also reports back about the 2016 ConFest), and I attended, representing East West Players (EWP). In fact, Snehal, EWP Artistic Director Emeritus Tim Dang, and EWP’s former Diversity Liaison Leslie Ishii were instrumental in planning and implementing the event.

The plenary speakers were two powerful women: Roberta Uno, a theater director and Director of Arts in a Changing America; and Karen Narasaki, a civil/human rights attorney,  activist, and one of President Obama’s Commissioners on The United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Break-out session topics ranged from “Expanding the Classical Cannon”, “Beyond Orientalism,” and “Building the Next Asian American Leaders” to “In Case of Yellow Face, Break Glass!” Theater companies and solo artists from around the country presented shows, such as “The Wong Street Journal”, which was written and performed by Kristina Wong from Los Angeles, “Purple Cloud” by Jessica Huang from Mu Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, and “Eleven Reflections on September”, which was written and performed by Andrea Assaf from Art2Action in New York City.

There were lunchtime discussion groups, political actions in the streets with rainbows, a late-night open mic hosted by Alison De La Cruz, the OSF production of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, and the opening reception called “Hot Asian Everything” with Tim Dang accepting the first-ever National Asian American Theatre Leadership Award (as well as being crowned “Hottest Asian”).

So many people were there, either reuniting after the last conference or making new friends at this one. The OSF staff and leadership supported ConFest, attending performances and workshops with the festival participants. Even some of the Ashland residents came out to watch the plays.

I experienced all of this in only three days. There were also pre-conference days focused on West and Central Asian American artists, and a closing weekend of new play readings by EWP’s David Henry Hwang Writers Institute instructor and playwright Prince Gomolvilas, Leah Nanako Winkler (whose West Coast premiere of Kentucky starts on November 10, 2016 at EWP), Damon Chua, Joned Suryatamoko, and Christopher Chen (whose staged reading of Mutt is part of EWP’s upcoming Politics in Play series) .

With all of this programming and this many talented writers and performers, how could you not feel the earth moving under your feet?