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Putting Ourselves Into The Narrative

On seeing Asian stories in western media.

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The Last Rehearsal

It's 11 o'clock on a Wednesday night, a school night, mind you. The theatre production I have somehow become a part of, A Perfect Bowl of Phở, is wrapping up its last rehearsal before our debut at the University of Toronto Drama Festival. I've already wrapped up my last scene and am watching the show from the sidelines. I look around at my castmates. Some of them are incredible singers, others are blessed with some intense physical comedy chops. Me? I play a rapping refugee after auditioning with the only clipping song my motor mouth can keep up with. It was a spectacle, kindly speaking.

Our director is timing us to make sure we're under the one hour time limit lest we get disqualified. The stage manager is holding up signs with decreasing time frames: "15 minutes. 10 MINUTES. 5 MINUTES HURRY UP YOU GUYS!!!". As the 58 minute mark hits and we all hold our breaths, the last actor sings his final bars, we take the stage, bow and finish standing in a chorus line holding hands. We cheer. We hug. We are so ready for the festival. As I look around at my castmates one last time before our big performance, I suddenly wonder: having never been in a campus production before, why did I feel so welcome? Why did I feel like these people were already my family after only knowing them for a few weeks?

Then I realize.

This is a uniquely Asian show with a cast and crew made up of 90% Asians.

The arrival of a post-colonial, meta-theatrical, annoyingly self-aware musical discussing the Asian-American experience could not come sooner.

Now I must specify, the musical is specifically about the Vietnamese noodle soup phở and the culture and colonial history surrounding it. Thus, it is a uniquely Vietnamese story. Only one of the actors, who also happens to be the writer, is Vietnamese. The rest are Filipino or Chinese. The interchangeability of Asian actors is a complex topic best written about by somebody with much more experience and nuance. In any case, the presence of Asian actors brought an acute awareness and measured urgency to a story that absolutely had to showcase Asian talent.

The premise of the show is heavily based on the writer's life but always comes back to phở. When I asked him where he got the idea, he pointed me in the direction of this article. An unsung history (pun intended) of the noodle soup, the article details the relatively recent arrival of phở admidst colonial rule and the cultural impact it brought. Please, if you have the time, give it a read. Maybe over a nice bowl of phở.

Although most of the cast did not have such strong cultural ties to the premise of the show, many of us were happy to see it being produced. To see a story reflect the intricacies of growing up second-generation, being children of Asian immigrants, navigating a landscape that is still unfriendly to faces like ours, and having our identities mocked or erased, every line in the musical brought us closer to each other and our own history as Asian-Canadians/Americans. Camaraderie amongst castmates is lovely. Camaraderie amongst Asian castmates, where we are rarely seen, is something to be cherished.

At a time where the issue of whitewashing, white saviour tropes, and cultural appropriation with Asians in media have become widely debated topics (here's looking at you Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton, ScarJo, Matt Damon, Iron Fist, Nat Wolff and probably, unfortunately, more to come), the arrival of a post-colonial, meta-theatrical, annoyingly self-aware musical discussing the Asian-American (American in this context encompassing all of North America) experience could not come sooner.

What impressed me was not the extensive effort that went into specifically looking for East and Southeast Asian actors, or the sacrifice of the writer in creating the scores, lyrics, and dialogues, or the hours of rehearsals that went into perfecting the final production (I am still mightily impressed nonetheless). What impressed me was the unapologetic attitude the show had towards being Asian. It took a unique spin on an oft-forgotten about group of people, made it something funny, heartwarming and relatable, but it commanded an Asian presence not to be trifled with. It was a show that knew it was Asian and wasn't afraid to be so.

The drama society which chose this show to be produced and performed must be commended for their willingness and acceptance of a show that was only half-written when it was submitted for consideration. The fact that it was written is not surprising. The writer is immensely talented, and we as Asians have voices we know how to use to tell our stories. It is the fact that this story was the story chosen at all, chosen to be financed and showcased, chosen to be worked on by a cast and crew of over 25 people (in comparison, the shortest play of the festival was 25 minutes long and had a cast and crew of 7 people).

We had a live band. We built set pieces and props and costumes and rehearsed numerous times a week all in the collective effort to do this story justice, the only story out of nine plays of the festival that focused solely on Asians and Asian-Canadians.

Now I'm not saying we were the best musical ever (although we did win Best Production winkwink). I mean, we didn't have Lea Salonga.

It is even more wonderful, perhaps, to see not only your face, but also your story reflected on screen or on stage.

All kidding aside, my point is that it is wonderful to see Asian faces on screen or on stage. To see somebody who you look like, who could potentially be you one day, is a feeling that has the power to change the course of somebody's career. When I first saw The King and I, I remember re-watching the VHS for days afterwards, longing to be part of a group of people I only slightly resembled (I'm not Thai, if you were wondering).

It is even more wonderful, perhaps, to see not only your face, but your story reflected on screen or on stage. As minorities, we've all been there. You see somebody who is in your group, either queer or black or Asian or female or anything that is not straight, male, or white. Disappointingly, they are only a hodge-podge of stereotypes and caricatures forced upon the underpaid struggling actor trying to find their big break.

I'm not saying we don't need to take a chance on Asian actors, we absolutely do. What we also need is to take a chance on Asian stories. More stories about immigrants. More stories about the duality of Asians outside Asia. More stories about underrepresented Asians: queer Asians, poor Asians, multi-racial Asians, dark-skinned Asians.

Asian actors are going to continue to come forward (Asian parents, especially immigrant parents: please don't discourage your children from pursuing the arts. I promise you, we can make it). Take a chance on them.

Asian stories are also going to continue to come forward. Please take a chance on them too.

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