Monday, March 21, 2016

UPCOMING: The Language Archive at Theatre Diaspora

Crossing Borders

For all you theatre and cultural aficionados out there, here are a couple of important dates to remember.  At 2 pm on Saturday, March 26th at Portland Center Stage and the same time on April 2nd at Milagro, Theatre Diaspora will present The Language Archive by Julia Cho, directed by Dmae Roberts (Executive Producer of MediaRites).  It is about the importance of language as a communication tool.   And, my take on it is, if a language dies out, then it ceases to exist and so may the heritage.  Many Native American and African languages are facing that same kind of “extinction.”  For more information, go to their site at a project of MediaRites, for more information on the play.

But, hold on, partner, you may say.  Who are these people and what are their plans?  My bad.  I guess I put the cart before the horse.  Well, to begin with, MediaRites ( ) is an award-winning, non-profit organization based in Portland and dedicated to telling stories of diverse cultures by providing voices to the unheard, through the arts, education and media projects since 1984.

Theatre Diaspora is Oregon’s only professional Asian American/Pacific Islander theatre company committed to portraying authentic AAPI cultural, historical and social perspectives to reach broad audiences.  They do this by producing staged readings on AAPI identity and cultural issues, by providing visibility and dialogue for its audiences.  But, as Syharath puts it, “It’s not just being seen as an actor, it’s about being seen as a person….it’s encouraging to have my stories told, by people like me.”

As Roberts said, when “plays being done…were Asian or Asian-inspired…with white actors….I realized it was far too long for Portland not to have an Asian American theatre company….”  Hu concurs, “…even when the source material is Asian, the cast may not  necessarily be Asian or Asian American; and the material is rarely if ever selected and presented from an Asian American perspective and political consciousness.”

They’re right, of course, they have been poorly represented on stage and in films, e.g., David Wayne (stage) and Marlon Brando (film), of a Japanese person in Teahouse of the August Moon, or Richardo Montobaln as a Noh performer in Sayanora.  Dmae goes on to say, “Portland Center Stage…offered us their theatre for future readings.  We found great support from other theatres as well such as Artists Rep, Milagro, Triangle Productions and Portland Actors Conservatory.”

Since one of the reasons for their existence was a response to the lack of visibility of Asian American actors, stories and playwrights on the stage, they felt they needed an outlet for their talents, as well as educating and making the Public aware of Asian American culture and their place in history and Art.  Samson adds, “But the skill I think is most important is to listen and be heard in return.”

But what I, as a reviewer, have seen recently in Portland theatres, is a lot of cross-gender/age/cultural casting in plays, which is as it should be!  Of course, that does not necessarily mean that Asian American experiences are being fully explored but it’s a step in the right direction, I believe.  But if Asian Americans are hired for ethnically specific parts, a company, Hu adds, “…does not always consider or hire them for non-ethnically specific roles.”  It looks like there is still much work left to be done.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of specific and distinctive ethnic voices being heard that might get lost in the artistic shuffle.  And so, a theatre was formed for just that purpose, for Asian Americans.  Wynee applauds the decision, as she puts it, “…has brought back my sense of safety and my voice, especially when it comes to speaking about race, equity, inclusion and social justice.”  Another plus, from Samson, “Getting in touch with our individual cultures and sharing them with each other will bring us together.”

They have no permanent home at present for their performing.  Being able to only afford to do staged readings (although still powerful and beautifully done), with valuable talk-backs with the cast and writers at various locations, is their only option at present.  Dmae adds, “…so far has enabled us to keep the budgets low and raise funds to pay for artists and productions costs.”

It has been said before, “the Pen is mightier than the Sword,” for one simple reason, you may kill a person but you can never destroy an idea, a dream…for they are everlasting.  And so it is with plays (Director/Producer), the spoken word (Playwright), a conduit for them (Cast/Crew) and willing ears (Audiences/Donors) to heed the stories.

The Artists who lead this group are Roberts, creator of the Peabody-winning documentary, Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song, as well as the eight-hour, first-ever, Asian American history series on public radio, Crossing East.  She is also a two-time Drammy winner, one for acting and one for her play, Picasso In The Back SeatWynee Hu has a BA in theatre from USC and has studied at the Brody Theatre.  She appeared in this company’s Breaking the Silence, Red, Never Give Up and The Theory of Everything.  She also appeared in Women of Troy, presented at PSU and in a staged reading of Tea with Readers Theatre Repertory.

Samson Syharath earned his BA in Theatre at the University of Arkansas (Fort Smith) and a certificate from Portland Actors Conservatory, where is currently on their staff.  With this company he has appeared in The Dance and the Railroad, Breaking the Silence, The Theory of Everything and Breaking Glass.  Larry Toda earned his BA in journalism and communications.  With this company he has performed in Breaking the Silence, The Theory of Everything and The Sound of a Voice.  He is a Corporate Marketing Manager for Mentor Graphics Corporation in Wilsonville.  Chisao Hata is an associate member and a founding member of the ensemble.  Toni Taboar-Roberts is an administrative consultant.

And what does the immediate future hold for them?  During the first week in June they will be presenting After the War Blues by Philip Kan Gotanda, about an African and Japanese boarding house in San Francisco after the close of WWII.  Roberts, again, “The themes of cross-relations, gentrification and displacement are pertinent to Portlanders now.”  Gotanda is also doing a master class in playwrighting at PCS.  For more information, check their website.

Down the road apiece, according to Dmae, “The ensemble really wants to do a full production…it would also be important for TD to be its own entity.”  She is saddened by the fact that AAPI playwrights are not better known in the community, as they have produced some very remarkable work (and I, as a reviewer, can attest to).  Other than the theatres already mentioned, she notes, “There isn’t a strong connection between theatre and the AAPI community.  We hope to change that.”  It is said that “it takes a whole village to raise a child.”  The same adage might apply to a theatre community of Asian American Artists.  What say you, village (Portland)?!

Hu may have expressed it best, as to what the Public should know, “For the nation to move forward toward a more just and equitable society, we need to learn the untold stories of marginalized people that many of us did not receive in school.  These stories include stories by people of color about people of color.”  She concludes, “…AAPI history is especially important for empowering AAPI youth.  This history explains present circumstances, exposes injustice, and provides role models and inspiration.”  One final important thought from Syharath, we want “…to hold a mirror up to nature.  And with enough eyes, hands, and mirrors, we could see it all.”  Amen!

If you concur with statements made here, there are ways of improving situations for all concerned.  Some solutions have been mentioned.  And, an all-encompassing direction will be, who we pick as our next leaders of our land.  Of course leaders almost never focus on the Arts or Artists but ethnic diversity is a big issue for politicians.  So consider some of the above thoughts when going to the polls, too.  Who do we think best represents us and how we want to see this country eventually look like?!

When all is said and done, we should not be building walls, but bridges, between cultures, as Pope Francis has suggested, and opening our minds to celebrating differences in all its glorious colors.  We must also consider one’s perspective, because it is unique, as presented in Artists Rep.’s newest, powerful production of, We are Proud to Present…, which deals, among other things, with that very issue.  As much as we’d like to, for understandings sake, we actually cannot walk in other person’s skin to know how they feel, as we have not experienced what they have from birth (as well as carrying our own baggage with us).  We have much to learn from each other and, personally, I find delving into different ways of thinking, living and believing, fascinating.  They say “variety is the spice of life,” so I say to Diversity, bring it on…!

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