In a New York Times article from May 21, 2020, poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong lamented the “nine productions of works by playwrights of Asian descent that were cut short or canceled in New York City . . . because of Covid-19.”Of course, the pandemic resulted in cancelations or postponements of productions all over the world, including two major theatre conferences and festivals that would have centered Asian Canadian and Asian American performance: one to be hosted in Toronto and the other in Hawaii, respectively, during May and August 2020. Indeed, it would have been a banner season for performances that featured minor Asias!

The following interview with David Yee, the artistic director of fu-GEN Theatre, tries to capture the energy and logic that animated this moment, now a pregnant pause, that challenges the demographics of theatrical production in the Great White North. Fu-GEN is the longest-running professional Asian Canadian theatre company in Canada, and the first-ever International Conference and Festival on Asian Canadian Theatre, GENesis, took place under its auspices in 2010. Now closing the first decade of his leadership of fu-GEN, Yee has remained active as an actor and playwright in Toronto and elsewhere across and beyond Canada. His plays have been produced on both sides of the US–Canada border; four of them––Acquiesce, paper SERIES, Lady in the Red Dress, and his Governor General Award–winning play Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave––have been published by Playwrights Canada Press[End Page E-19] 

SM:

In May 2010, fu-GEN together with the University of Guelph hosted GENesis, the first Asian Canadian Theatre Conference. The second such event was initially scheduled for May 18–24, 2020 before being postponed for a year due to coronavirus. Why do the second one now? Can you also discuss how and why fu-GEN has taken the lead in this endeavor?

DY:

In the final days of the first GENesis, people kept asking us “When’s the next one?”—some of them even suggesting the next year. I think those people had never produced a conference and festival before. The timing of the first GENesis coincided with the launch of Love and Relasianships, which was the first anthology of Asian Canadian drama ever published. It felt like a real watershed moment for the community. So ten years later there hadn’t been any real organized effort to gather again . . . but a lot had changed. Canada had just awarded its second Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama to the second Asian Canadian playwright ever. A Korean-Canadian TV show based on a play that fu-GEN had developed was going into its fourth season as the number one comedy in Canada; companies like Hong Kong Exile were gaining international prominence, and ten [years] just seemed like a nice round number to get together again and track how far we’d come in a decade, and maybe set new trajectories and new goals. (Figs. 1–4.)

Fu-GEN takes the lead because it’s why we’re here. I think what’s been critical to our success as a company has been our focus on the holistic well-being of our community of artists. So if we have to step back from the traditional production of plays in order to facilitate a community gathering where the practitioners and the researchers can get together and engage in dialogue about the work and the field, then we’ll all be stronger for it.

SM:

Although the conference and festival have been postponed, can you discuss some of the considerations in the curatorial process of producing this event? Are there synergies between the previous conference and this one that you were hoping to emphasize or changes in discourse or production that you wanted to implement?

DY:

Curatorially, we were looking for work that really spoke to the future of Asian theatre . . . theatre in general, really. There’s a lot of work that looks at the current moment really well or examines the past in intricate and artful ways, but we were more looking for work that had its eye on the next ten years. So, for example, Hong Kong Exile was set to present their work Was It the Smell of Solitude, which is a large-scale multimedia dance work investigating the Chinese custom of death as an active place of sounds, smells, and stories. It involves fourteen performers and a mechanized lighting rig. Their work is always, formally, really boundary-defying and engages technology in very forward-thinking ways.

In the first GENesis, we talked a lot about being siloed, both culturally and artistically, and I think one of the undercurrents of this second GENesis was a desire to really upend those previous methodologies and practices that made us feel that way. I suppose, quite ironically given the circumstances, we were looking for work that defied terms of isolation in the practice of it. [End Page E-20] 

 

David Yee. (Photo: Dahlia Katz.)

 

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Figure 2. Fu-GEN Theatre and Hong Kong Exile, No Foreigners by David Yee, with Derek Chan and April Leung (l-r) (2018). (Photo: Milton Lim.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SM:

A decade ago, Nina Aquino and Ric Knowles discussed “Asian Canadian” as a “relatively recent construct” when compared with the more ethnic specific rubrics like “Chinese Canadian,” “Japanese Canadian,” “Korean Canadian,” and so forth. Does the label “Asian Canadian” do a different kind of work now than it did ten years ago? What has changed in the Canadian cultural landscape in relation to this term? How does “Asian Canadian” perform?

DY:

I think, as a construct, “Asian Canadian” helps to activate and enrich several communities by giving them one banner to get behind. It allows us to advocate for all, to champion all to the outside world while we internally manage the granular. It means that we can provide more resources to those communities that don’t have the numbers to organize in the same way, increasing accessibility for many. I think it has been a useful term for the ecology as it develops and gets more inclusive because of its relative ease and umbrella-like function. It’s a way for the majority culture to address needs and concerns of a large (though maybe innocuous-seeming) group without having to, themselves, figure out the difference between “Korean Canadian” and “Vietnamese Canadian” or “Filipinx Canadian.” And when things get easier for the majority culture or they are let somewhat off the hook for specific representation, more generalized changes tend to get made and we move a little bit forward as a community. It’s not a perfect system, but it is what it is.

As for performance, that’s quite a bit more problematic. Performance, which is all about specificity and the quality of difference, doesn’t really play well with the [End Page E-23] amorphous catch-all of “Asian Canadian.” The term becomes instead kind of a lure: a generalized entryway into the art which will suddenly and without warning assume a very specific cultural context. And I don’t know if that’s such a jarring disturbance that something needs to be done about it, this dissonance between performance and advocacy. Maybe the recognition of it is enough for now, something to see us through until the cultural imaginary can withstand more complex ideas.

 

Figure 3. Sex Tape Project by Adrienne Wong, Donald Woo, and David Yee, with Kevin Chew, Louisa Zhu, and Isabel Kaanan (l-r) (2015). (Photo: Jordan Probst.)

SM:

In what ways does the term “Asian Canadian” link to theatre movements across Asia or other ethnic theatre traditions within nation-states (such as “Asian American” or “Asian Australian” theatre or other visible minority theatres in Canada, for example)?

DY:

In Canada, we’ve always sort of fallen in line with an American tradition. Though we like to tell ourselves we’re quite different, we’ve taken a lot of our cues, culturally, from south of the border. I should mention that the first instance of Asian Canadian theatre was a play by Rick Shiomi (a Canadian who infiltrated US ranks long ago) called Yellow Fever produced by Toronto Free Theatre in 1983. To put that into perspective, in 1983 East West Players [EWP] in Los Angeles were celebrating their seventeenth season. Fu-GEN Theatre, the first professional Asian Canadian theatre company, is in its seventeenth season this year. So in 2020 we are as old as EWP was when the first Asian Canadian play was produced.

When we were building fu-GEN, we looked to the Asian American theatres for a sort of guidance . . . maybe not as much artistically as politically. We also looked to our contemporaries and mentors: Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s premiere Indigenous performing arts company, and Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s leading culturally specific theatre dedicated to the exploration, development, and production of black voices. We all know that our terminology is imperfect, but the intention is toward inclusivity; if we use broad terms, we can gather more people under our wing.

SM:

How do you understand your own work as a playwright, actor, producer, and/or director in terms of expanding, consolidating, or contesting a term like “Asian Canadian”?

DY:

I’m a bit of a misfit, because I’m an artistic director who doesn’t direct as part of my artistic practice. I’m primarily a playwright. I’m also mixed race—Chinese and Scottish. So my definition of “Asian Canadian” is, I think, going to have a bit less rigidity, given that I’m working from a mixed-race subjectivity. And a part of my personal artistic mission is to write more mixed-race characters to represent the growing mixed-race demographic in our cities. When I was growing up, there were no mixed people onstage, film, books . . . I was a thing that didn’t exist. So even claiming “Asian Canadian” as a banner I could also gather under was a bit precarious for me. It gets questioned a lot, or it used to. And maybe that’s also why I’m not overly critical of the term “Asian Canadian”. . . because, to me, it allows for a flexibility that is useful in my own personal constructs.

Figure 4. Mixie and the Halfbreeds by Julie Tamiko Manning and Adrienne Wong, with YUI, Diana Reyes, Alexandra Crenian, Bethany Pethick, and Dedra McDermott (l-r) and Vanessa Trenton and ZoÇ Doyle in the rear (2018). (Photo: Dahlia Katz.)

 

SM:

What do you imagine the future of Asian Canadian theatre to be? [End Page E-24] 

DY:

Surprising. I imagine that the future of Asian Canadian theatre will eschew the status quo of colonial practices and embrace new modes and forms of creation and presentation. That reasoning is informed, obviously, by my position and access to what the next generation of theatre artists is aiming to create. We’re in for a future of provocateurs who are hungry to challenge the systems they see around them, carve their own paths and make something entirely their own.

SM:

What performance projects are you excited about now, both of your own or others?

DY:

I’m currently writing a play in residence at the University of Toronto about the disappearance of Elisa Lam, a student from Vancouver who went missing in DTLA [downtown Los Angles] at the Cecil Hotel and was found, two weeks later, in one of the hotel’s water tanks on the roof. It’s a return to an anthological play structure for me, which is sort of where I feel most at home. The subject matter is a bit . . . dark . . . but that’s also not unfamiliar territory.

As for other work, I’m psyched for Hong Kong Exile’s new show . . . which is bittersweet, because it was one of the many presentations that we had to cancel when we cancelled GENesis 2020. Remy Siu from Hong Kong Exile is also doing an exciting VR [virtual reality] solo project that I’ve been consulting on. He’s a mad genius, so that’s going to be pretty dope. [End Page E-25]

 

 

Footnotes

1. Cathy Park Hong, “A Season to Celebrate Asian-American Theater Is Lost to Pandemic,” New York Times, May 21, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/theater/asian-american-playwrights.html.