For the last four years Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists has been working to empower and support Asian and Asian American Philly artists through partnerships with theatres that include workshops and mentorships. Now, they’re fulfilling more of their mission statement by providing the performing opportunity by producing their first full production of Tiger Style! by Mike Lew, a “spirited, fast-paced, colorful, funny and entertaining romp” play that also deals head on with stereotypes faced by Asian Americans.
BONALY members sat down with the cast and some of the production team to talk about Tiger Style!, Asian representation in Philly theatre, and what it’s like to work in the room of PAPA’s inaugural production.
Daniel Kim, cast member
Stephanie Walters, cast member, founding member of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists
Richard Chan, cast member, founding member of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists
Anita Holland, cast member, member of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists
Cat Ramirez, producer of Tiger Style!, leadership in Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists
Melody Wong, stage manager
BONALY: What made PAPA want to produce Tiger Style! at this particular time?
CAT RAMIREZ: Between April and June of 2017, we had a short list of seven to eight plays for this season. As this was the maiden voyage of a full production, we wanted to come out with a bang, and we couldn’t think of anything better than Tiger Style!: it’s raucous and hilarious, and really, really poignant. That became so clear in the first read we had back in September. There’s a final scene with a customs agent in it that talks about immigration that rang particularly true to me about today.
Just to follow up—there was always a plan for PAPA to produce—but was there anything that precipitated that now was the right time to start?
CR: I think it was a lot of things falling into alignment. Last year, I worked at InterAct Theatre as a National New Play Network producer in residence, and in December I was at an NNPN showcase in Austin, where I met [Director of Tiger Style!] Jeff Liu, who is still part of the National New Play Network Directing Fellowship. So, we started talking and it became clear that Jeff was really interested in Asian-American theatre on a national scale. We’d been talking for about a season, along with InterAct Theatre artistic director Seth Rozin and Rick Shiomi in particular about the next season being PAPA’s first full production, and meeting Jeff was a really great push to do that. Additionally, for the past three years, we’ve been lucky enough to have funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as part of a three-year Theory of Change grant, which is given to different arts organizations throughout the country to work on, particularly, growing new audiences from different communities—ours is focusing on Asian-American artists and Asian-American audiences. This was the last year of that particular project, so we wanted this production to be a culmination as well.
Following up on producing Asian-American art for Asian-Americans, I want to go back a little bit into the history of PAPA: it was formed out of the controversy relating to Lantern Theatre Company’s production of Julius Caesar. Since then, including with this show, how do you feel that representation of Asian-Americans in Philadelphia theatre has changed?
Richard Chan: In the beginning, with the Philadelphia Asian Theatre Project, it kind of jump-started it a little bit, where eight theatres said they would produce an Asian play—whether it has Asian actors in it, or Asian characters, or Asian playwright but not necessarily with Asian characters—that kind of started it. But then you’d also have instances like People’s Light’s Aladdin, or A Single Shard where only one Asian actor was cast. Well, actually, two technically at the time, but then one actor dropped so it ended up with only one Asian actor and the rest is not Asian.
STEPHANIE WALTERS: Which is a Korean folktale, people may not know.
RC: Yeah. So, it’s been ups and downs, for me personally. But there is definitely an awareness.
SW: I think the change—and if I were writing this, that word would be italicized—I think the italicized change comes from a good place, right? A good, wholesome place of theatres, producers, casting directors, even audience members to an extent, wanting to see the world they see every day, the world they revolve in, reflected on stage. Whether that always happens, I think, is where we hit a rift. Through the Philadelphia Asian Theatre Project, we have other Asian-American actors in town that are showcased in other work. My heart is telling me, “but surely we don’t book these roles just because we’re Asian, and you need an Asian body to fulfill this thing, this thing that you have to check off this box, right? Surely it’s because we’re talented humans, and we’re trained, and we’re professionals, and we were the best person for this job, in many of these cases, where maybe the character isn’t specified as Asian or Asian-identifying.” What’s exciting about Tiger Style! is that, not only are the characters Asian-American, but they’re also talking about a really specific life that a lot audiences can relate to, whether they are Asian-American, Asian immigrants, or are just other people who have crazy parents, right? Because the idea of the family unit is something that’s universal. That’s what I hope to see and create and put out into this world: that these stories can be universal, but here’s a look into an Asian-American family.
Melody Wong: I think the forming of PAPA has also allowed a lot of Asian-American artists to connect. So, since then, we had also reached out to Opera Philadelphia when they did Tirandot, which helped lend ourselves a voice to pointing out the things that traditional theatre hasn’t seen in representation of Asian-ized plays or from a very white lens. To echo Stephanie’s and Richard’s point: there have been a lot of plays that have been produced based on Asian folktales or with Asian characters, but without an Asian-American voice. So, with the forming of PAPA and with the coming-together of these Asian-American thespians that are actually in town who have been overlooked or haven’t had a voice in the past, it’s given us a platform to discuss these issues. Having this platform from PAPA has also led to the conference Beyond Orientalism where we could talk about yellowface and representation. I think producing this play at this moment is also important, because the political climate has definitely change. We live in a very different era of who is telling which stories.
CR: The connection is definitely a big part of something that has changed in this community. As somebody’s who’s been doing a lot of communication for PAPA, it’s been really exciting for me, particularly seeing Asian-American university students who are getting out have a place to reach out to and say, “hey, I’m Asian-American. I’ve been studying theatre. I see your group, can you tell me about what it’s like to be Asian-American and making work in Philly?” I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks like that. Our set designer for Tiger Style! is just out of school, as is our assistant stage manager and props designer. PAPA is also doing a mini-residency program, which Steph is also a part of, in the spring and summer, and one of the members of our residency program is also just out of school. So I think it’s also really important in that it’s encouraging folks who are in these great programs at Temple and Penn to stay in Philly, and that there’s a space for you here.
Speaking to that, do any of you want to speak about the experience of working on a play where you are not in a room that’s predominantly white, or that the top of the hierarchy is not a white individual?
DANIEL KIM: Hmm. Well, for me I had the good fortune to work at East-West Players in Los Angeles, which is a long-established Asian-American theatre. For me personally, what I like about it is that a lot of issues just aren’t there. It’s like an absence of, you know, wondering if someone is judging you or making assumptions about you. And then if you’re in an environment where you have an Asian-American director, producer, and fellow actors, then it’s just on a different level, because you just don’t even think about it. You don’t even care. And if someone asks you a question, you don’t have to think, “well, what are they really thinking?” You just have enough of a shared experience and enough confidence in each other that it’s just really freeing. It’s just very pleasant not to have to wonder and not have to be guarded, like “should I say this?” or “will I be perceived as” whatever. It’s just really great to be able to do your thing, and if people don’t like it, they’ll tell you. And you don’t have to worry like, “oh my gosh, is there some racial element to this expression of disapproval?” That just drops out of the equation, and I just think that’s terrific.
SW: There’s certainly a lot more food.
SW: There certainly is. Don’t you think?
ANITA HOLLAND: There’s also lot more tea.
SW: There’s a lot more tea.
AH: There is a lot more food.
SW: But now maybe we’re just playing into the stereotype, huh?
DK: Well, playing into the stereotype, I will tell you that Asian-American casts are much better prepared!
[yet more laughter]
AH: Well, that’s just it, like, this conversation is very much that the elephant in the room of race is not an elephant. Race is just immediately, well, one, it’s something we’re talking about in this piece, but, two, when we run into issues like that, of any kind, we can just talk about it and not be afraid or walk on eggshells, or stuck being like, “ah, am I disrespecting somebody?” But disrespecting somebody from a point of being a minority is like, “why? how? wait, what?”
RC: It’s a very different experience for me, because I think this is probably the first time I’ve ever been in a production where it’s primarily Asian—besides actors, even in the production team. And it’s very humbling to be a part of this, considering I come from Virginia. A lot of shows, I was in a primarily black team or primarily white team, so I’m very happy to be here.
MW: I think there’s also something to be said where having leadership that’s Asian makes things easier. I’m a stage manager, so I stand between both worlds. Not having to explain three-fold about why something is how it’s said or why something might be problematic or why it connects, it makes it very freeing, it makes it a lot less taxing for a middle person having to explain. Seeing more diverse leadership is also very important in showcasing.
There’s big a discussion of who is allowed to direct what stories, and if everything is universal, doesn’t that mean that anyone can direct or produce anything? What’s really interesting to hear is that when you’re allowed to talk about the specifics right away, there’s less of a concern of making sure that someone directing universally is communicating efficiently.
SW: Yeah, and I think there’s something to the old adage of “nothing about us without us.” That’s something I love to live by and hold really close to me, especially as a creator and an artist. In rooms that align myself with or groups I interact with, that’s really important to me. Yes, there are stories that are universal—the idea of the family is universal, fighting siblings, and all these things. But I think when you have this space that is truly created by and for and with these people, that’s when the process becomes not only easy, or easier, but it also becomes really beautiful and magical. My gosh, it was the end of last week and we had run through the whole play, and we were like, “holy crap, it’s only been a week!” And so when you cut through a lot of that extra, it really allowed everything to flow in a really easy way.
CR: I also want to add to what your first point is: just because something is seen as universal doesn’t mean that it’s not delving into specifics. There are times when I’ve had conversations with white directors who have wanted to direct an Asian play before who have said things, when talking about the play, they’ll say something that is a very generic thing that’s touched them about the play. Things like, “This is really funny! I want to direct this thing because it’s really funny.” And that’s something I can see very easily about Tiger Style! because it’s hilarious. But why is it not a longer statement of, “This is really funny because it is highlighting the struggles to have an Asian-American identity and what the differences are between Eastern and Western culture, especially when you don’t feel quite at home having grown up in the West.”? And I think having Asian-American director, leadership, actors, allows to see both sides of that coin.
SW: I’m gonna steal that. Universal, but specific. Wait, say it again for the people at home?
CR: Just because something is universal doesn’t mean it’s not delving into specifics.
SW: Hope everybody put that in their dream board!
CR: You can post all about that on Facebook!
MW: Yes, a lot stories are universal, but about delving into specifics: if you do your homework, yes, I believe everybody has the wherewithal to put on a specific play, but a lot of theatre companies don’t have the funding or the time to do the homework. Not every company has a dramaturg. If you’re doing a specific play, there are some things that are specific particular backgrounds of family. But if you don’t have the people to do that research, who’s going to do it? And if not everybody’s on the same page of the language—not specifically in, like, Chineser—but the language of that world, that experience, then it doesn’t ring true. It’s about funding!
AH: It is a little about funding, but it’s also about who’s your audience.
SW: Well, then that circles back to this idea of cultivation of young artists, right?
MW: And the accessibility of having young Asian-Americans coming in to say, “oh yeah, I could relate to that,” or, “I see myself represented on stage,” which is very important. I work at Asian Arts Initiative and with a lot of youth in Chinatown: they don’t come to see theatre, because they don’t see people who are like them. So, seeing yourself is important. Representation is important. And then they will become patrons, or they will be more free to work in the arts, because we all know our parents tell us not to work in the arts.
CR: To expand on that point, from a different side: I’m mixed-race, white and Filipino, and I grew up in a majority-white neighborhood. I can’t remember having an Asian person who I went to school with, until maybe when I hit high school. And having media that was very clearly not produced by Asian-Americans, while I was really trying to search for some kind of representation there, and what we were left with were very stereotypical things. The Yellow Ranger is the first and only thing I can think of, and they had Trini [an Asian-American character] playing the Yellow Ranger, and that’s not okay. But from my end, I grasped onto really stereotypical and not okay things because that was the only form of representation I saw. A lot of my journey has been a lot unlearning of these things, because I thought, “Oh, well this is the only way I can feel connected to my community.” And it’s been really quite amazing to be producing this piece, having never been—save readings I’ve directed—involved in productions where it’s majority AAPI cast, designers, director, volunteers, you know? And I think it’s important for all AAPI folks, no matter where you’re at, because you’re always still searching.
There’s something really interesting in that. [Potential spoilers for the plot of Tiger Style! ahead] We have Albert and Jennifer who are trying to overcome something similar to what you’re describing, which is: this internalization from the messages they’ve been given as Asian-Americans, from their parents, from Western society,while trying to figure out who they are just as people.
SW: There’s poem that basically says, “Being a child of an immigrant, being born in America, is like being expected to know an entire book but only reading one chapter.” And that’s something that I personally really identify with, this idea of, “My family expects me to know this whole book about Korea, but all I got was the Spark Notes on one section.” And society sees me as another thing, and they expect me to know this whole book, but I don’t even know that book because that’s just what they want me to know! So I think Albert and Jennifer’s exploration and process is similar to that idea of finding your own book, and writing your own book, so you don’t have to fit into anybody’s.
RC: I don’t know what else to say, because you put it so well together.
SW: Well… you’re welcome.
SW: My sweet brother.
RC: In my personal life, I went to Hong Kong last year, and it was actually very eye-opening for me. My dad is the first of eight, and I’m the first, so there’s a line of firsts. I thought that when I went to Hong Kong, my Cantonese was enough. Because compared to other kids in Virginia, my Cantonese is so much better than them. And then I went to Hong Kong, I was shocked, I was like, “oh shit, I can’t even talk.” I read signs better than a lot of people, I was able to read my way out, but if you have American sensibilities you would think Hong Kong people were rude. Like if you go to a restaurant, they’ll just throw your food right. They won’t say, like, “here’s your steak and mashed potatoes.” They’d just throw down your food. It was a little bit of a shock for me. And then visiting other people’s houses, they were very small, and my grandmother would ask, “Doesn’t my house look big?” and I was like, “Yeah, bigger than the rest… but not like Virginia?” [laughter] So, entering this play and how Albert and Jennifer get culture-shocked: it’s like, oh damn, it’s not what I thought of, because of how the West sees the East, and how the East sees the West. And when I went over there, they were just, “oh, you’re not really a big deal, you say you’re an American,” and they’d ask all these questions about how I think about Trump and how I think about guns, and it’s just [a laugh] very, very interesting. So, jumping into this process, I feel like I already have a lot of connections to build off of, because I’ve been there. I went to where my family’s from, and well, it looks like I’m ill-equipped! Because I’m expected to know everything, and I don’t know shit.
SW: But you’re so lucky, Richard. I’ve never been to Korea, and I feel sometimes like I’m homesick for a place that I don’t even know.
CR: Richard, I agree with a lot of your sentiment. I’ve gone back to the Philippines several times, and it’s always been a huge shock. My family gets stared at anytime we go back, because, one, we’re all really tall. It’s me and my four siblings who are all mixed, and I’m the shortest member of my nuclear family. And so, we’re all walking down the street, and we’re 5’8” to 5’10” in terms of my siblings and kind of look Filipino, but might not? And there’s my dad who’s full Filipino but is 6’3”, and he’s huge. My family has played in the Filipino national basketball league; there’s a long line of athletes in my family. And then, there’s my mom—I love her, she’s so white—she is brunette, freckles, blue eyes, and I felt like an anomaly when I was there. Being mixed-race as well, that identity is really messy, and it feels like an anomaly while I’m here as well, with the constant barrage of, “oh my god, you’re the future, where are you from?” If another person tells me I’m the future? I don’t, I’m just a person.
SW: I’m, like, literally in the present.
CR: I’m right here! And I’ve had the very similar experience of talking to folks and them being like, “You’re American? This is not as exciting as I thought.”
CR: And seeing how your family in the East lives is really interesting, and really, really poignant. A lot of the stories from the Philippines has have made me check my privilege more than anything else.
RC: Privilege is definitely one thing I’ve noticed when I went to Hong Kong. We were exchanging red pockets—if you don’t know about red pockets, it’s a monetary gift that’s in a red envelope, and usually the rule is married-to-unmarried and older-to-younger, I think. But I went there, and since I don’t know my cousins that well, I decided to give them red pockets, even though some of them are older than me. And some of them were like, “No, you can’t do that,” I was like, “No, no, no, pretend this is a gift I’m giving from America, but I don’t know what you like. So, I can’t just show up with an X-Box or anything, so I will give you this.” And the exchange, when I gave them my money versus what they gave me, I was like, “Hong Kong dollars? Okay, this is three bucks in America!” Versus what I gave them, a hundred, fifty, which means a lot more. Looking at how I live here versus how they live there, and appreciating why my dad had to come. He had to come.
SW: Which is a large theme in this play, which everyone should come see. Asian or not!
RC: Yes, Asian or not.
CR: I think it is a really universal immigrant story, though. Not just Asians immigrate here, and I think it speaks to a lot of those feelings. I’ve talked to first-generation folk who aren’t Asian about the play, and there’s always immediate interest.
Without giving too much away, if you could pose one question to every audience member who walks in here, to think about, what would it be? For example, I’m really interested in the intersection of what Albert and Jennifer think their biggest roadblock is, what do their parents think their children’s biggest roadblock is, and where is the middle part? Is there anything about that in this play that you found really interesting that you’d like audience members to keep tucked in the back of their brains?
SW: I think Jennifer perceives her roadblock to be her romantic life. (I’m looking at Jeff like, “Am I doing this right? Am I getting this in?”) [group laughter] And something that I spoke to Jeff about and want to bring to Jennifer is the arc of her realizing that romance isn’t the thing that establishes her as a human being. She can be successful in whatever her path in life is, regardless if there’s a romantic relationship associated with that. Because that’s important for me as an individual, and that’s something I personally struggle with all the time. My worth is not determined by a man. Which, if my mom were sitting here, she’d smack me across the face and yell at me, “I’ve told you that for years!”
SW: But that would be something I hope an audience looks out for, that female trope of “I need a man to survive!” and how that can be overcome or challenged.
RC: One thing for me, in reading through the play, something that really connected with me is something my brother is going through. He’s the person who’s, essentially, supporting the family. He makes a lot more money, but money does not cancel out racism. And that was something I immediately recognized in Albert and Jenny, that they are, essentially, high up there. And just because you make it through academic achievement and make a lot of money, it does not mean that racism does not exist. And it might even be worse, being up there. They intersect, but they’re not, oh what’s the word? They don’t directly—
SW: Mutually exclusive?
RC: Yeah, that’s where I’m at.
DK: I think the play is very subversive. I mean, there are lots of things in the play that are tongue-in-cheek or playing with various concepts, but underneath it all there’s a reality, there are truths that are buried in there. So, I would say, can you sort out for yourself what’s really going on in the emotional lives of the characters, and what truths lie underneath the surface? Because on one level, I mean, it’s funny because there are so many clever references. Underneath that, there’s a very serious intent, saying something about Asian-American identity and about human identity and the need to feel like you belong, but not knowing how to do that. So, I guess that would be what I would hope an audience member would think about: what is just comic, and what is he basically rejecting, and what is the underlying truth that he is trying to explore or elucidate?
AH: So I’ve been thinking about a lot of words like frames and expectations and perspectives and hearing truths. And I suppose to an audience member, I’d say: ask yourself what your truths are, ask yourself what the lenses, what frames you see through in your life, and then let those fall away and see this play, and ask yourself if that’s a different frame from the one you see, and can those two things exist, and how do they exist?
CR: For me, it’s a series of questions, but: what is the relationship to belonging and self-worth? what is the relationship to belonging and systematic oppression? And then, draw a Venn diagram and look at the intersections of those, and does it point out to anything that needs to be changed in society?
SW: [snapping fingers in agreement] That’s why she’s the producer!
Tiger Style! begins Wednesday, January 24, 2018 and opens Friday, January 26, 2018. All performances are being held at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street 19102. Tiger Style! By Mike Lew is produced by Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists and directed by Jeff Liu.
Tiger Style! follows the trials and tribulations of star students and squabbling siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen. Thanks to diligent work (and parental encouragement that borders on overbearing) they reached the pinnacle of adolescent achievement. But when it comes to adulthood, they’re epic failures. Albert has just been passed up for promotion and Jennifer’s been dumped by her loser boyfriend. So they do what any reasonable brother and sister would do — go on an epic Asian Freedom Tour!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.