Continuing Conversations: Good Person

The cast of The Good Person of Szechwan
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Artistic Director Eric Ting sits down with three actors from Cal Shakes’ 2019 production of The Good Person of Szechwan. The four discuss their experiences as Chinese-Americans engaging with Brecht’s classic, cultural appropriation, their favorite snacks, and more. No need to have seen the show to enjoy the continuing conversation!

Eric
Hey everybody, its Eric Ting, Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theater, and also the director of our current production of The Good person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner from a translation by Wendy Arons. We are here for a Continuing Conversation with members of our ensemble. Why don’t you all introduce yourselves, please?

Phil
[long pause, laughter, laughter] So weird! [laughter] We were all putting our hands around like no you, no you, no you go, no you, you…I’ll pay the bill. I’m Phil Wong. I play god number one, the carpenter Lin Tu and the barber Shu Fu in the show. I am an actor and musician, and comedian. And other other things in here in the Bay Area. I grew up in Oakland, and

Monica
…food enthusiast

Phil
and food enthusiast, noodle enthusiast, shrimp chip afficionado. And this is my first show at Cal Shakes.

Monica
I am Monica Lin. I also go by Monica Ho, I play sister-in-law and god number three, and I also rap in the Good Person of Szechwan, and I am a graduate student and an accountant. I’m doing this show during my summer break and going into my third year of the MFA program at American Conservatory Theater.

Lily
Hi, everybody. I’m Lily Tung Crystal. I play Mrs. Shinn, the niece, and god number two. And I am an actor, director, the founding Artistic Director of Ferocious Lotus theatre company, who is proudly a community partner for Good Person. And I’m actually leaving the Bay Area, sadly in a month

Unknown Speaker
[boo]

Lily
to go to the Twin Cities to become the artistic director of theater mu.

Unknown Speaker
[yay]

Eric
So I started by introducing the play as The Good Person of Szechwaaan, and because that is certainly a choice of the production. So anyone who has seen the production will be familiar with one of the things that we do, specifically around the pronunciation of the Chinese words, in that I mean, I’m using air quotes right now, in my head, but the pronunciation of the “Chinese words” in the play. So let me just… do you want to say something?

Phil
No, no, I was wondering what you meant by air quotes,

Eric
just like no, because because I think well, let’s let’s dive into that. Right. So I think one of the things that we were interested in talking about today had to do with some of those early conversations that we were having in the ensemble, just around that particular choice. And I wanted to invite the three of you, insofar as I think it’s worth mentioning, just off the bat that all three of you are Chinese American. As am I. And I know there was certainly intentionality in our casting of this production to make sure that there was a largely majority API company. And, and for a lot of the reasons, not the least of which was the sort of original act of cultural appropriation that happens in Brecht’s play. And early on in the conversation of the play in rehearsals, we started exploring this idea of intentionally mispronouncing the names. And I wanted to just invite a conversation about that. Shall we just jump in and started? Yeah, great. Yeah.

Monica
My first impression of it…

Eric
Let’s start with first impressions. That’s awesome.

Monica
Yeah. When we first introduced that idea, my first impression is that well, the audience might not get that because the audience, you know, majority of them probably don’t speak Mandarin. And I wasn’t sure who that was intended for, like whether it was an inside joke, whether it was supposed to be othering. And I continue to think about that when we do when we do our, you know, our mispronunciations in the actual show,

Phil
I don’t think I was entirely comfortable with it till we added the signs, which is the thing that’s, I guess, for people who haven’t seen the production, we do hold up a sign, literally at the very beginning of the show that says “Brecht never went to China”. And I think because I still think that because of that, that colored the rest of the the choice for the for the entire show.

Eric
It offered context for them. Yes,

Phil
I think so. I think if we had gone in without it, it might have started out a little like, Is that how you say it? Yeah. And then maybe a couple people would have been like, that’s not how you say it. And then like later, a few other people would be like, how do you say it? But I think making that choice, just very definite in the beginning. definitely made me a little more on board with it. Yeah.

Lily
I had the opposite first impression. Like, I was all for it from the beginning and loved it. And I had no qualms about doing it. And I think part of it is because I mean, maybe part of is because I think more people know how to pronounce those names. But after talking to a lot of you, I realized maybe that wasn’t the case. But even so, I feel like so often, I and other people of color, go to theater and have to buy into another, the mainstream narrative, and are forced to confront cultural tropes or whatnot that aren’t part of our experience or a little bit outside our experience. And we’re expected to be to understand it. And so for me, it was like, Well, now here’s a joke that someone like me or an API person can understand. And if if only that person understands the audience, then then that’s fine with me. Because it’s sort of it’s sort of turning on its head, the theatrical expectation that, you know, mainstream audience should understand that if you’re outside the you’re at, then you’re outside it. But what we did, I felt was a joke that people in the audience could get, if there are people of color, especially Asian, and especially Chinese, American, or Chinese.

Eric
It’s interesting, you know, because the three of you just listening in the way you’re talking about your first impressions of this choice. You know, there’s like, there’s a few ways into this. Right. So there’s the and I’m curious about. So Monica, you and Phil both sort of began by talking about the question of the experience of the audience, like who the audience is, yes.

Who are we performing this work for? And, and what would be their accessibility to the choice. And then you bring up Lily, this idea of being I talked a lot about being inside the narrative. And I think you would also have been like, is it? Is it an inside joke, right? And I’m curious if we could just for a moment, step away from the audience question and just talk about you as artists and you as Asian Americans and us Chinese Americans. Like, how does that ring for you one way or another that those sort of that particular choice, and then we’re going to talk about the audience here in a little bit, too.

Lily
I think for me, because I am Chinese American, and I speak Chinese and I’ve lived in China, and know how those words are pronounced. And yet through my life, so much of my experience has been mispronounced by people in you know, in the US, I mean, I was born and raised here. So American, through and through, and yet, you know, even my like, so my my last name is tongue in. In the English transliteration is TUNG, it’s spelled but my actual last name is [pronounces] Tung. So even from when I was born, and given my name, my name has been mispronounced. And, and throughout my life, it’s become a joke, because my last name sounds like the thing in your mouth. So through high school, I would, you know, I had a couple friends who would be like, hey, Lily, like, for those of you at at home listening, like you can’t see, but I’m sitting at my, the beauty of radio. So, you know, I and this would happen through high school, like, very regularly, like people would, and it was a joke, you know, and it was kind of endearing in a way. But I knew people didn’t mean it badly. And at that time, I just didn’t really think about it. But now looking back, I realized so much of my life, like even today, I always say like, I don’t like my last name. And I think a lot of its from growing up with the last name that sounded funny. And it’s not even my last name. So. So I think we all you know, my parents are Chinese immigrants. And I think a lot of Chinese immigrants coming here. And whatever nationality or ethnicity you are, you sort of sacrifice identity, not only identity on a larger scale, but identity in terms of your name to fit in, like, oh, what’s for Americans pronounce it, you know, we have to pronounce a tongue. And that’s how it’s spelled in the way Giles romanization which was the romanization then now if I came to United States are probably about to NG which is closer to Tom. But I still don’t think people would would pronounce it correctly. So this this, this device of Miss of mispronouncing Chinese names, it’s funny to me, because I’m a sort of reclaiming that joke. Like, I’m saying the joke myself. And there’s power in that, as opposed to somebody else mispronouncing my name, not only mispronouncing my name, but making a joke out of it, which has happened my whole life.

Monica
Yeah, I totally agree with that, as someone who, you know, was born with a not so great last name, and have just kind of, you know, really thought about that. And also like, thinking about what I want to go by, and what I’d like people to call me, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. And with when we were first talking about this mispronouncing stuff, I guess one of the questions that I had in my mind is like, what is my identity? And what do I have to prove by pronouncing, mispronouncing a Chinese name or word wrong? Because in the back of my mind, I guess it’s like, well, do I have to prove that I can speak that language. Within this play, there are people who do speak Mandarin and those who don’t. And Eric and I, we’ve had a conversation about, you know, whether to use Chinese curse words and, and ultimately decided not to, but it made me think about, like, what that means and what that means for this production. So I’m always thinking about how much of that foreign language the actual thing should be incorporated versus like, what what story are we trying to tell collectively as as our cast?

Phil
I don’t think anyone has ever pronounced my name incorrectly. Interestingly enough, my name is Phil Wong, which is probably the widest Chinese name. Like ever, you can really get Phil Wong Ron Wong is one of the like, most common, like Chinese names. It but what all of this made me think about is actually my middle name, which is my my real Chinese name, which on my birth certificate is, is Chi Chung, which is part of a system of pronunciation part of a system opinion. believe it’s Wade Giles for people who have studied I’m looking at Lily who’s like studied Chinese and stuff before. I’m pretty sure it’s called Wade Giles, which is when people came over. And they couldn’t quite get the pronunciation of things like especially Cantonese words that have a lot of like GN and sounds and stuff like that. It couldn’t quite get get it. So they approximated it’s the closest continent, which is like a K. But there isn’t to me like, like, when you say like Chiang Kai Shek, you know, but there aren’t really too many of those sounds and actual Chinese names. And it kind of blew my mind to find out that my name was actually not Chi, Chung. It was God, john, you know, and I, and I remember thinking about that as a kid and being like, that doesn’t. Why did they put a K there that doesn’t sound like that at all? Can I? Can I change it? Can I do something about that? But that’s always been a part of my identity. That’s been like, kind of hidden. I guess I don’t really introduce myself as Chi Chung. Yeah, I introduced myself as Phil Yeah, you know. And I guess, I guess I just want to put that out there like I was, I feel like every time I advocate for people who’ve had experiences like the two of you, I never quite feel like I’m advocating for myself. You know,

Eric
because you haven’t run into the same

Phil
I haven’t run into the same kind of thing. You know, I run into, certainly, I think I think I, I’ve certainly run into kind of, you know, racism against Chinese people and stuff like that. But it’s always been very micro. You know, because I grew up in the Bay Area.

Eric
You grew up in a largely Asian community?

Phil
I didn’t grow up in a large Asian community, I grew up, the Asian community was my family. And then when I went to school, it was mostly was mostly white kids. Yeah. And then in the summer, it was mostly black kids, because I would do summer camps at the YMCA and stuff like that. And so I guess I never really thought I don’t think I really thought about my identity until like, kindergarten. Yeah, there’s something like that. I’m pretty sure I went to like pre K. Thank you. I was white. And I just happen to have like, Chinese parents. And I look different than everyone else. But I was still you know, among and no one no one really treated me like, any different until I think, probably Middle School.

Monica
Has anyone ever called you by your Chinese name? Like on a regular basis?

Phil
I don’t know regular basis. Even my even my mom calls me Phillip Wong.

time I’m in trouble. I can’t think of the last time anyone called me gotcha.

Eric
Even diminutive.

Phil
Now I’m gonna get that like, I’m like, we all have nicknames for each other in our family. So I’m a

fake all like, brother. Uh huh. But I you know, I’ll cease to be a lot chubbier so it also rhymes with say, right like Fat Fat brother. Was that was that too? But yeah, I cannot think of the last time anyone ever called me gotcha. Except for when I was studying Mandarin. Yeah. And we tried to figure out what gotcha and was in Mandarin. It’s Jai Sure. So job like a family and then like, June my like a horse. And you know, of course and then you know, last show is called me Chacha whenever she called on me. But yeah, it’s I just feel weirdly divorced from the experience that you to have had as far as like names and mispronunciations and reckon, reckoning with that, which I found really interesting. But I still felt that I needed to be a part of this whole the whole conversation about the names because I felt it was really important. representation is very important. Yeah.

Lily
It also reminds me of you know, within within Chinese language there’s also internally amongst Chinese people or Mandarin speakers or whatnot. This question about what your name is too, because the same character different characters and sound the same. So I not only did I get an English side in terms of Tom was Tom was pronounced on here, but my Chinese name is Mei Li, which is that is, which sounds like beautiful Mei Li is actually the word for beautiful, but my Lee is not the beautiful, it’s small, the hot Lee, which is Jasmine. So my name is beautiful. So

Phil
I was singing the song.

Lily
Okay, that’s

Monica
Oh, yeah.

Lily
I know that song. So I guess I have a song is called

Phil
the jasmine flower. Okay, so I think it’s an opera song. We were just we love making fun of Peking Opera. And this

Eric
It’s been one of the great joys to watch.

Phil
Yeah, cuz Peking opera is wonderful. But it’s also hysterical.

Lily
Yeah.

So sorry, no, it’s fine. Now I know I have a song to ascribe to. So my so my name is Mei, Mei is beautiful. And then Li’s Jasmine. And but even like, I use that name, I lived in China for many years as an adult. And so I used my Chinese name with my Chinese friends. But even when I introduced myself, I would have to explain my name. So both in Chinese and English have to explain my name. So I feel like it’s sort of it’s I mean, it’s tough to get really micro and insider, the question of the naming and identity is already built into the Chinese language that’s really interesting to me.

Eric
Like one of the like, I was always struck by the amount of time that is spent when families Connect, to determine how somebody is supposed to be referenced, you know, based on sort of, like, their relationship to the family is all the different like, are you like, Are you the second brother? Are you the second cousin, are you you know, just all those different kinds of you know, it’s, it’s fastening listen to you all, because I grew up in West Virginia. And so my identity is a Chinese American, I think of as a very liminal state, right? Like, I live in the hyphen in the sense that, you know, when I have been to China, or when I’ve been to parts of Asia, where Chinese have spoken, it’s rare that I speak well, you know, like, I remember going to Beijing the first time and I was hanging out with a bunch of artists in Beijing. And they would like laugh. And I’d be like, I was my friend talking, my friends, like, why are they laughing? And he’s like, well, you have to understand the way you speak. It’s as if you were speaking with a British accent in your country, not. Because the Chinese that I learned is Chinese that I learned from my my grandparents and my, my parents. And that they came, they were sort of like they left China, at the beginning of the Communist Revolution. And they came from a very aristocratic background. And so there’s like a quality to the way as I understand the way that the manner was spoken in my family that is sort of perceived or received, as being like, high heightened or higher class.

It was, it was just fascinating to me. So because of that, right, I sort of I’ve been, I was very interested that first time that we sort of dropped the idea of speaking these words in this way. And we started to like, just listen to people do it. And you know, and recognizing right, that there are actually members of the company that don’t speak Chinese and therefore, like, they don’t necessarily know the appropriate way to speak the words and they were being asked instead to do something that was clearly funny to some of us. Certainly me like I laughing all the time. Because it felt so familiar. But like the the act of asking them to do that also created a kind of interesting discomfort in the room, right, which is the sort of this notion that members of the company who are not Chinese were being asked to speak words that felt intentionally inauthentic maybe isn’t a way of saying it, which

Phil
gets to the question of like, what is authentic in this case?

Eric
Yeah. So let’s go into that. What does that mean?

Phil
Well, like I think one of the things that we were talking about is that like, we were asking the question like, what did Brecht get these Chinese names? Would it wreck get this story? Does this story of the good person of obsession, one exist in Chinese lore? And I don’t think any of us could really find anything.

Monica
I looked it up on Wikipedia. That’s right. And there were Chinese characters, in parentheses, on the page about the good person of session by Bertolt Brecht, but I couldn’t find the original story

Phil
they weren’t cited, which is super weird. Things are generally cited on Wikipedia. And if they’re not, you can generally write those things off as someone just wrote that there. Yeah.

Monica
But it does mean that those words those names have a meaning in Chinese probably, at some point

Phil
could have a million different meanings. It

Monica
could it could

Eric
it also be certain that there’s like, I’m sure there’s a Chinese translation of the play. Yeah, someone along the way made choices,

Phil
maybe that’s where it came from.

Monica
And then with that comes, like a definitive way of pronouncing those those names to, I mean,

Phil
I don’t I don’t really see it as like different because again, we don’t know where that is rooted in where those names are actually rooted in. We don’t know if where it’s rooted in has any sort of authority and who has any sort of authority over these names. wrecked the translator, the person who translated into Chinese if it was translated, into Chinese. I don’t know. It’s weird.

Monica
Yeah.

Eric
So one of the early impulses also came from this notion of sort of Brecht having observed Mei Lanfang, am I saying the name right? The opera performer?

Phil
Not even sure, man.

Eric
You know, I’m talking about the right it was Yeah, Mei Lanfang, who was was a very famous Peking opera performer during the time that Brecht was writing, and best known for performing the female roles, and certain iconic female roles. And so part of the like, one of the I don’t even think is an apocryphal story, I think Brecht talked about it a lot was that when he first encountered that performance, and the performance of the Peking Opera, that a lot of that helped to solidify, if not also inspire a lot of his techniques of theater making. So we knew early on, right that the those elements of the Peking opera wanted to be in the play, right? We were like, Oh, what is that? Like? What what allows us to sort of like, acknowledge that, that initial impulse on Brecht’s part, but also, and this is the thing that I think I’m always very interested in talking about is just recognizing, right? That it’s not like Brecht then spent 10 years in China studying picking up, its that Brecht observed as an observer as an objective observer on the outside of something, an experience of something that was probably exotic to him, right, that was probably alien to him. And therefore, in that alien, this of it, he kind of adopted certain notions that he interpreted himself that contributed this idea of alienation. And and so he was merely he was merely sort of transposing or transcribing, or even, you know, to a lesser degree translating and experience of something. And bringing that into his work. And so, you know, I think there’s this notion of layers of appropriation. Right. And the this idea, a deep dive versus a superficial, kind of Alicia talks a lot about what is it skimmers, swimmers and divers, right, like, sort of how deep? How deep? Does one ever go into one’s exploration of something. And I think we kept talking about wine to make sure that in our choices, it never felt like we were

Phil
trying to be real.

Eric
Exactly. Exactly. You’re never suggesting a depth of expertise. But rather, we were more wrestling with this notion of what does it mean, to skim from the top? Mm hmm. Um, so let’s maybe let’s shift a little bit. If we could, this is fascinating. So please feel free to come back and circle back into this conversation. I do know that. One of the things that you brought up earlier, Phil, and Monica was about this notion of who the audiences. And it’s a question that we asked a lot here at Cal shakes, right, sort of like, you know, when when we do work that intentionally explores cultures that have not historically been represented on our stage. That question comes up all the time, because there is an acknowledgement and a recognition, right, that that is not necessarily like our audience is not necessarily a representation of that culture. And so there’s this whole conversation that we have around this notion of cultural tourism, and like, what does it mean? Like what does it mean to present in a kind of entertaining form? something that feels different? And, and to perform that for an audience? And that comes up a lot in our conversations around theater? I wonder, like, sort of you’ve been now in performances for a couple of weeks. There’s a couple weeks, not even a week, a week in the performance?

Phil
A week and a couple of days

Eric
Um,

I have noticed, I have noted, right, every performance that I’ve seen, there’s always a laugh that happens with that first time that pops up, that kind of gives permission for people to laugh at the choice and to recognize and understand that choice. But I’m curious what your experience has been, because I’m sure this is also true, that the audience is not suddenly become largely API.

Phil
Yes. So So you mean our experience as far as

Eric
performing this, and this I these ideas and these choices for a non API audience

Lily
was interesting. At the last our first talk back, because Phil actually asked the people there Oh, yeah. Oh, what? Why do you? What was your exact question? What What do you think about the device?

Phil
Yeah, everyone. Everyone, I think everyone was just talking about Brecht or something. And I was like, no one’s really talking about our weird pronunciation. So I just asked everyone, like, why do you think we pronounced the Chinese words the way that we did, and there was just like, this silence that washed over everyone.

Lily
And about there were maybe, I don’t know, 12 or 12 people on the there are 15. And like, five or six people responded, and it took till like the sixth person, for someone to kind of grasp, grasp what we were doing. So it was interesting, because we had talked about the rehearsal and not an hour, you know, and I loved the device. And I thought, oh, people will get it. But then I realized during the talkback, not,you know, it took a while for people to reallyunderstand

Phil
to get back to the idea, I guess of like skimming the surface, I think people skim the surface of what it was about. But I don’t think a lot of them thought to critically about it. Like, I think the one the one person who did answer said something like, I was like, why why do you think we pronounce it the way that then she said, because it’s wrong. And I was like, what’s the right way to pronounce them? And she was like, I can’t claim to know the right way to like, pronounce, I was like, Yeah, and I think that’s the point there. And I think that’s what we need to think about. Like, I don’t think we do either. You know, I I don’t think anyone in this entire theater knows exactly how things are supposed to be pronounced in the show, except for maybe, you know, Sichuan, and the things that are rooted in actual, the place. It was really interesting to, like, present that idea out there and have this group of I think, 12, people who stayed for the talkback, suddenly think critically about that choice we made, you know, I think it’s easy to go to a piece of theatre, and recognize that a choice is being made, and not necessarily be like, why did they do that, though, and have them talk about that, during the intermission, as opposed to all the cookies are really good. Today, you know, like, having a real conversation about what everyone just experienced in the room. Which is why I appreciate those any talk back in, which is why I appreciate what we’re doing right here right now.

Monica
Well, what I wonder about is for those audience members who don’t understand that, for whom, like, maybe, maybe it just completely washed over them, and they just considered what they were seeing and hearing to just be a part of the world of the play, and, like, never thought more about it, then, did we, you know, if we, if we set out to, you know, take back this, this appropriation of this story and those words, then does that mean that we, we failed in, in our attempt to do that, or, you know, I just wonder what it means.

Phil
I think we succeed, just in the, in the fact that we made that choice, but that’s just my opinion.

Lily
I agree, I feel we succeeded. I, I’m also being a director, I, like my sensibility is that in every show, and we see different varying degrees, of course, and every show, you know, you hope the audience get, most of the audience gets most of the story, or most of what you’re trying to do, but there’ll be places in details that only a couple people in the audience will get, and that’s okay with me. Like, I feel like that’s the, you know, that’s the sort of deconstructionist postmodern place where in in terms of perception of story and narrative, it’s like, you know, one of the recent shows I directed, it was very much like that, where I’m talking about two mile hollow by Leonardo Winkler, where so much of it like people get, but then she throws in these really up to say, cultural references that even I have no idea about, I’m like, what does that mean? And and, and, you know, well, of course, we did it, we did all of it, and didn’t change the words or anything, which were her words, but, but, you know, every night, one person might have gotten a specific reference. And that’s okay with me. Like, if one person gets it, as long as, like, I don’t need to speak to everybody in the audience at every moment in the play. And, and this is, this is this device, I think, is one of those things like, I think for the most part, it succeeds. And people notice it, even though they may not understand it. And if a few people completely get it and are in the inside of it, then then I feel like we have succeeded.

Phil
Eric, you were talking during one of the rehearsals about like in the insider track and the outsider track or something like that.

Eric
I mean, I think, you know, little you’d mentioned I think earlier about this idea of living within the dominant narrative, right? So because we live in this country, historically, the dominant narrative has been a white Eurocentric narrative. I mean, it’s sort of like, like, when you look at, it’s like, and that’s everywhere, right? If you look everywhere, from casting notices, where unless ethnicity as mentioned in the casting, notice, the assumption is, the default assumption is that the role is for white actor. And so to have that kind of minority experiences, all of us have have living in this country. This idea that somehow, in our entertainment, and in our work as artists that we are in service of that dominant narrative, on some level is an eraser of ourselves, right? Because we’re not allowed to be our full selves in a space when the being of our full selves oftentimes will create confusion, or will create a barrier to sort of participation on an audience as part. So for me, it’s it’s often any opportunity I get to sort of confront an audience with that idea is really important me. So an example is actually the rap that happens in the middle of the play, during shanties song, there’s a sequence that Monica is a part of, along with Sharon, that is essentially just some is wrapped in Chinese with a few English words. And that notion is something that is not for the majority of our audience, it’s like, it’s barely for the people who speak Chinese, because it goes so fast, I don’t even know. But like, it’s there, and it’s present. And it is uncommon. Right, we make no effort to translate it, we make no effort to Super title it, right? We don’t like we’re not like offering things in a program insert or anything like that. It’s just there. And I think, to me, that’s kind of one of the gifts of where we are as a field right now. And as a as a society, which is that we’re in a space right now, where for the first time, many of us have permission, to bring our full selves into the work that we are doing, and to not have to apologize for it or to make excuses for it. So what I what I’ve been saying about good person of session, right, that for me, it’s filled with inside jokes. Do you know I mean, the comment cards are inside jokes. They’re just not, you know, I mean, it’s like, all the common cards are like, they’re inside jokes. And I don’t know, I mean, maybe not jokes are not even the right word. But they they they are an insider’s experience. I use an example, the example that I use a lot is the, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what card that we would raise in the moment in the play when the police officer refers to Wang who was played by Lance Gardner, who was African American man, as boy, do you know, and obviously, we made a choice to cast Lance in that role. There’s nothing in the play that says that the role has to be played by an African American man. But in making that choice, suddenly, it turned in a very profound way, the language of the dialogue of the policeman into this thing that we felt like we couldn’t not address. And so we hold up a card that says, I am a man. So there are certain people who are not going to understand that reference that all but there are certain people who will recognize it as like a central kind of protest slogan from the civil rights era. Right, which was specifically a response to the use of boy in the American South. Right as, as a diminutive as a demeaning kind of phrase, and this notion that, you know, no, we are like, we are more than that. You know, don’t infantilize us, don’t make us lesser than we are. And so the use of that card is a kind of statement of, of, of resistance, but not available to everybody. Right. And, and that’s the case throughout the play. But I think, ultimately, what’s been the great gift of having you on, I was just, I was just saying the other day, sort of like, I have never worked on a play with so many Chinese speaking people. I’m never gonna play with so many Chinese people, right? Like, there’s like, we have, like, we have to we have two crew members, two crew members who are Chinese, which I hardly ever see, first of all, like, I never seen, like, you know, more than two, really, I think there’s

Phil
like the best shouts out to Eva. And she,

Monica
yeah, they are the best.

Eric
Yeah. And we have, like, amongst our amongst our team, there’s a way for Chinese Americans, medicine, someone in the cast and the cast for Chinese Americans. One, one Filipino American, one, South Asian. And so, you know, I think this the idea that there is this large it and I’ve worked on plays that are all API, but it’s like it’s an interesting conversation right around even just the identity within the Asian community. Yeah, I mean, like, and so I mean, I’m very confident saying that this is the these are the most Chinese people that I’ve ever worked with. So like, sitting around on the brakes in rehearsal, and like, like watching y’all eating the snacks and like, and like making fun of the Peking Opera. And I was just sort of like, I was sitting back, and I was like, this is like a total trip. It was like a trip for me. And just a gift. You know, because I honestly never see myself in the work that I do. Never, never, never, I mean, I have to I have to stretch to see sort of my lived experience in the work that I do

Lily
was it wasn’t intentional for you to cast API actors or Chinese American actors in particular. I mean, both right, like,

Eric
you know, we early on had a conversation about whether I should be an all API cast, right, there was a whole conversation about like, are the early days of doing of committing to doing this play of whether or not we should cast them all API company, but like, in in tandem with that conversation would have also been should we say all the Chinese words as if they were actual Chinese words? Right. And, and there was a moment when I just sort of like step back and made this decision, which was that, you know, to do that, on some level, is to excuse the original choice is to is like to put an all API cast Asian Pacific Islander for anyone who’s wanting to put an all API cast in this production, to speak all the words as if they were authentic Chinese words, right? To try and somehow justify the kind of orientalist world that Brecht is creating. And this fable about a young sex worker was somehow to erase the kind of original sin of the choice for lack of a better word. Yeah, I don’t think of it as a sin I think of it is just, it’s just, it’s, it’s how it’s we, we make stories like this all the time, everyone pulls from old stories, and they are, like, we create this distance through storytelling. But, um, but it felt like a wrong choice to me. And so instead, what we wanted to do was we wanted to sort of create a company that allowed us to lean into the, the sort of this this, this notion of cultural appropriation. Right. But recognize that cultural appropriation happens everywhere, right, cuz that’s the other thing about that rap song is it’s a rap song, you know, and it’s sort of like, and it’s like, so it’s like, Chinese rap is like a strange idea. And yet, it’s amazing. But it’s like, there’s also layers of cultural appropriation, but also within rap culture, there’s appropriation of Asian culture, and sort of like, and you see that, like, all over the place, there’s this kind of, kind of, I mean, I would almost describe it as an exquisite Global Exchange that is unfolding, because of the access that we have no.

Lily
Um, one thing that that this made me think of in terms of your casting, Asian Pacific Islander Americans, and doing that consciously and that you said, like, you’ve done cat, you had cast over all API. And here, there was a lot of there was majority API, and the majority the API where Chinese American. One of my friends came to the show. And afterwards, he said, he remarked, he said, you know, it’s really cool, because I’ve seen, I’ve seen, you know, a lot of shows where it’s all all API cast, because in that’s an Asian story is Asian programming, or Asian American story. And then I’ve seen multicultural cast or diverse cast, where there’s a couple API actors in the ensemble. But it’s a whole nother thing to see a diverse, diverse cast like a cat, a cast with multiple racial identities and have him be majority Asian American, like you rarely see that. And so that I think he felt like that was revolutionary in itself, that it wasn’t just all Asian. It wasn’t just a couple token Asians, but it was a new cast white people, African American people API, people of different ethnicities. And most of most of the cast is API. Because that that’s I don’t know if that was a conscious choice, as well, but it definitely made it impact on some people in the audience.

Eric
That’s cool. I definitely didn’t think of that, specifically as we were putting the company together. But that’s cool to hear.

Monica
I feel like this, this whole, you know, collection of people doing this show as a cast has been a real gift for me because it’s really thought it’s really helped me think about my identity in a in a critical way. And I think back to when we all had that Dim Sum experience and

Phil
he took us all out dim sum. So

Monica
yeah, it was great seafood

and how fun it was to be able to really like dive in deep to that food culture, but to also have people I have other ethnicities there who are experiencing it for the first time. And I love the breaks that we had during rehearsals where we could joke about Chinese opera and eat our Chinese snacks and, and you know, even wander around Berkeley bowl West through the Asian aisles and like spam splicers

Phil
finally bought it.

Monica
And being able to, to do that, but but to also share it and expand it beyond just us Chinese American actors, because there’s other people in the room with us.

Phil
Yeah, I felt like it made me want to share it more. Yeah, no, I mean, that was the beauty of the process. Yeah. I became like a super Asian. I don’t eat that many shrimp chips. You Really? usually like, I love noodles. But I was like, I was like in

Monica
you went to town at the

Lily
Asian food expert. I mean, I would ask him like, where’d you get that? Like, what is that?

Phil
what it was, it was weird. I felt it all magnified by the fact that I had people that I knew were Chinese American, by the people that I knew were API and people that I knew who are outside of that experience. And I wanted to, you know, share that experience.

Monica
Yeah, like introducing Armando to custard buns and egg tarts. It was so touching to see somebody light up like that. And

Phil
I have never, I’ve literally never seen him happier.

Monica
I was particularly touched when we were all wandering around that ranch 99 after we had, you know, eating ourselves into a food coma after dim sum. And Eric, we were walking down the snack aisle and you asked us as Chinese kids what snacks which snacks we grew up with. I was so touched by that because it was such an invitation to explore this part of me that I just hadn’t really thought about in so long.

Eric
And we all had like The Almond Rocca right. Those little gold leaf. Oh yeah.

Lily
Oh my god. I used to play with these when I was a kid. White Rabbit candy. The short read that. Yeah. Yeah, the cookie egg rolls.

Eric
Yeah. And then did you all eat those prunes? You know, the in the blue blue and white rapper? Yeah,

Lily
I hated those. Yeah, okay.

Phil
We all collectively. And guess who you brought a giant pack of them opening night?

Anthony!

Monica
Anthony Fusco!

Lily
Anthony Fusco! My reaction was like, Ough…it was a really sweet gesture.

Phil
me that I’m saying this on a podcast. But he came up to me. And he put up he put out a little sign next to the plums. And I and it was a Chinese character. I was like, what’s that? He’s like, oh, God doesn’t mean luck. I was like, for an occasion like this. I’m not sure if that’s the correct one.

And he said ok okay. And he just folded it up and threw it in the trash, and no one ever saw it again, he wrote a sign in English that just but before that he made, he made an attempt at a gesture, which I thought was really sweet.

Eric
We had that issue throughout the play, right? Like we literally painted the wrong characters on the floor. Welcome. They had to repaint it and do something else up there. Like it’s, you know, it’s an interesting conversation, right? Because I kept turning to my wife, Meiyin who grew up in Singapore. And so like, and she liked and she would run it by all of her sisters and her mother to make sure that it was like that it said what we thought it would what she thought it said and and there’s just this this notion of like the impenetrability, right of it’s I think it’s a it’s it’s a thing that people think when they think of the Chinese language, there’s something. There’s something impenetrable about it. But I also think that on some level, that’s about being inside it, right, those of us that are inside of our custom to seeing it with that kind of sensitivity. On the outside, don’t think of it in the same way. We think that they’re like people who don’t speak the language and don’t read the language. See, they see pictures. Do you know and the pictures are any. And we see that all the time in the tattoos that celebrities get are in the things that people were on their clothing, or the sort of like there’s this kind of order? Yeah, yeah, this ornamentation of the culture that is this really insane. And I want to do want to take a moment here just to acknowledge also, like one of the reasons that I wanted to have this continued conversations, we had an issue with Monica’s stage name. Right. And that was my fault. I will say I, in retrospect, going back on, I’m just letting you know, that was entirely my fault. Like they asked me to the I didn’t realize it was in the character breakdown of the play that you were when you came to talk to me about it. I was like, Oh, that’s all me because because of the time we started, like, we’re like, like, in the last few minutes leading into the deadline for the printing, we were all like, maybe we should put a list of the characters that everybody was playing. So that, you know, we could just list you all as an ensemble on the main page. And then we could like get down to the nitty gritty of all the roles, and I just had not, I had not known that you were making this choice around your stage name. And so that didn’t make it into the document. And we just, and it just shows that like, even those of us with the best intentions don’t always know exactly what to, like we’re not, you know, we’re not thinking about that, because we’re not accustomed to be thinking about that. So I wanted to apologize for that.

Monica
I appreciate that. For the podcast listeners who aren’t aware, my, my name that I was given my legal name is Monica, whoa, which you can imagine the last name has connotations. And so this year, I was trying out a different last name, just to see whether I would like it or not, I had made the choice to use Monica Lynn, for this production and for the programs and looked over my bio and had the correct name and everything. And then I just happened to see a program going into tech week. And when I flipped through it, I noticed that it was Lynn on some pages and how on other pages and it, it did bother me when I first saw it, and I’m somebody who has been like struggling with my name for the longest time. I feel like I have been dealt a pretty rough hand in terms of names. When when I was a little kid. The Monica Lewinsky scandal came out and like even though I was only six, seven years old, like the people who would make fun of my name the most were adults, because the kids didn’t know what was going on, you know. And I’ve also had run ins with my name where even Chinese people whose Whoa, they think whole like, like monkey like, what is that? You know, is like your last name? It’s like, No, no, no, it’s kind of sounds like river, it’s, it’s not. It’s not monkey, it’s, you know, something totally different. And on every side, I am bombarded on every side. Yes, and, and my, and my, my Chinese name, my Chinese first name is onion. And it means Thanksgiving, because I was going to be born on Thanksgiving, I ended up popping out like a week late. But I remember playing with my childhood friend. And who was also Chinese, like we wrote Chinese speaking, but we were talking about the subject of like, our Chinese names. And when I told her what my Chinese name was, she was like, onion, they named you onion.

So

and Rick and having that issue with the last name, it’s just felt like a continuation of just like, the struggles I’ve had with them, trying to figure out like, what I’d like to be called, and what my identity is, and whether to own my name as it exists, or whether to pick something that I’m, you know, happier with. So it’s an ongoing process. But I appreciate that we’re having this conversation about it.

Eric
You know, it’s one of those things where I mean, it brings us back to the beginning of this conversation a little bit, right, which is, I just, I mean, I remember we had a very heated conversation around the use of the words of the the pronunciation of the words, in the early rehearsal process. And one of the things that that came up amongst many of the many of us, certainly the API members of the company, was this notion, right of the kind of have this idea that your very identity is called into question when when your names are mispronounced. Do you know, like the sort of this notion that you see yourself as one thing, and then all of a sudden, the thing that you are, is being kind of torn to pieces, or is being is being, you know, thrown against the wall? Or is being squished or, you know, like, all the things that people do when they come upon a name, and you know, there’s all that kind of subtle stuff, right? There’s the subtle stuff, which is like, you know, when they get to your, when they get to that character, they don’t recognize and they pause for a moment, before they try and say it, and then like the over exaggerated effort to try and say it correctly, or to say, you know what, your name inconveniences me. So I’m going to pause for a moment to let you know that your name inconveniences me and then I’m going to try to over enunciate it. So that when I say it, I want you also to know that your name inconveniences me. And so this whole idea that there’s this long history, right? In this country, of people coming over here, having names in languages, that people who speak English, don’t necessarily have the tools to engage with, they don’t have the consonants or the vowels or the, like, they don’t have that the you know, even the, the mouths don’t work in a way that supports that. And the kind of that that sort of, I don’t want to call it a gross effort, because I think my parents were the first ones to say, hey, you’re about to go to kindergarten. So we’re going to stop talking to you and Chinese now. So good luck. Right? Um, but like this, this notion, right, that, that that are, if if you are one of those people that subscribes to the power of names, if you are one of those people that says, you know, we carry so much of who we are, and our identity in our names, and then to be to come to a place where like, like the immigration officer, or the grade school teacher, or, you know, the the neighbor, like basically says Your name is an inconvenience, so I’m going to just start calling you something else. Is it, you know, deeply traumatizing in a way that we don’t always talk about? And so, you know, and I don’t, I don’t know that that I certainly don’t think that the play is going to communicate that to anybody or the choice of the play. But we do that in this play, right? We take that breath. And we over enunciate, because that’s like that is a story that many of us hold clubs consciously or subconsciously, MS. And, and for those of us that have had that experience, we see that and subsequently we are seeing and I think that’s kind of one of the things that I would say is is so special about the commitment that you all have made and the rigor that you have applied to a choice like that, which for many companies would be seen as

Phil
too much work.

Eric
Yeah. Shall we call that and then have our continuing conversations. Anyone else have anything you’d like to add?

Phil
Come see you the good person of szechwan. Boom.

Lily
Yes. Come see. Thank you, Eric, for having us. Yeah. In the cast and in this podcast. Yeah. To speak and

Eric
Lily. Thank you, Monica. Thank you, Phil. It’s been a good time.

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