By Rick Shiomi, MU Performing Arts
My east coast book tour for the new anthology Asian American Plays for a New Generation, published by Temple University Press, began in Philadelphia. I landed on Sunday, July 24th in NYC and caught the Greyhound Express bus to Philadelphia, where I went directly from the bus depot to InterAct Theatre for a reading of a new play by Lauren Yee at the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference. It was so packed it might have been 110 degrees in the dark (I can’t imagine what it felt like for the actors on stage under the lights). The play, titled A Man, His Wife and His Hat, is a very clever absurdist play about life, love, and marriage when things don’t work out very well but there’s always time to recover. As usual with Lauren Yee, there is always wacky humor and absurdities, like talking walls and golems in this piece, but there’s also a humanist point to be considered in a surprising way. After the reading I attended a reception and had animated discussions with folks about Lauren’s play.
The next day, I attended a meeting with Gayle Isa of Asian Arts Initiative, Seth Rozin of InterAct Theatre, Margie Salvante of the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and several others to discuss the possibility of having the next National Asian American Conference/Festival (ConFest) hosted in Philadelphia in 2013. Asian Arts Initiative is a member of the board of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists), which produces the event, and Gayle, the executive director of AAI, is holding exploratory meetings to see whether there would be broader support for such an event. Both Margie and Seth were very supportive of the project and I thought there was real support for hosting the ConFest.
That evening the book launch event was held at InterAct Theatre. The event was co-hosted by InterAct and AAI. About thirty people showed up for the event, which included short talks by Josephine Lee, the senior editor of the anthology, Lauren Yee, the playwright for Ching Chong Chinaman in the anthology, and myself. We also had short scenes read by four actors, Bi Ngo, Justin Jain, Victoria Chau, and Catzie Vilayphonh. The cast was terrific and the audience really responded to the readings. The whole presentation was a big hit and I told several people that the cast for the readings would be a good mix of actors to start an Asian American theater company in Philadelphia (no more need to bring in actors from the Big Apple!).
The next day I boarded the Greyhound (I spent a lot of time on Greyhound Express buses and want to recommend them to people touring east coast cities, though I don’t recommend any overnight trips!). The next stop was Washington DC where I spoke on a panel at the Library of Congress for a book launch event at the Mary Pickford Theater, sponsored by the Asian Division of the Asian Pacific Islander Collection. Franklin Odo, the new chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, introduced the event. It was a smaller gathering of employees and members of the public, but so many important results came from that event. Reme Grefalda, the curator of the AAPI Collection who organized the event, proposed that Mu Performing Arts and myself as an individual playwright archive our production and script materials there as part of the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. The Library of Congress’ goal is to establish a national Asian Pacific American holding with a nationwide outreach. I was honored and ecstatic to have both Mu’s and my records kept at the Library of Congress and felt that alone made the whole trip worthwhile.
But the most fun part of the event was having Lia Chang read a monologue from one of the plays in the book. With only a few minutes of time to think about it, Lia beautifully performed a wild speech by an imaginary character, Queen Elizabeth II, and got instant applause. Lia was also on the panel and spoke about her work as a photographer, referring to her exhibit of 36 photos on display at the Asian Reading Room titled In Rehearsal, the Lia Chang Theater Portfolio. It’s a beautiful exhibit of photographs covering the backstage and rehearsal process for such productions as Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, Heading East by Robert Lee and Leon Ko, Disney’s The Lion King Las Vegas, and Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri’s pop opera Bakwas Bumbug!, along with images from her other theater work. Lia also took a number of wonderful photos of us in the Asian Reading Room. In addition, she wrote an article with photos on the book launch and her exhibit at the Library of Congress.
Then it was back on the bus and bound for NYC. The event there was hosted by Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma at their apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. The event was packed with leaders from the Asian American theater community like Tisa Chang of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Jorge Ortoll of Ma-Yi Theater, Carla Ching of Second Generation, old friends from Soh Daiko and my previous life in New York thirty years ago, prominent writers Henry Chang and Ed Lin, fellow theater artists including Raul Aranas, Lia Chang, and Henry Yuk, and many more people involved in the arts. I even met Cathie Hartnett of My Talk Radio in St Paul and Carol Connolly, the poet Laureate of St. Paul, both of whom were visiting New York. It was a special kind of evening and I signed a lot of books!
This time I spoke along with Aurorae Khoo whose play Happy Valley is in the anthology. We were fortunate to have scenes read again, this time by actors Cindy Cheung, Fay Ann Lee, Amy Chang, and Sean Tarjoto. They did a lovely reading and the response was great again. With all the food and drink supplied by Tamio and Julie, I owed a lot to their support and hospitality. Lia Chang wrote an article about this event and took photos as well.
The next day I caught the airporter to LaGuardia and headed home, full of the excitement of so much support for the new anthology, energized by contacts new and renewed, and exhausted by the energy it takes to do a book tour.