How do we talk about the Asian experience with Asians at the center?

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Today, in the final episode of a three-part series, playwright and UC Berkeley professor Philip Kan Gotanda discusses how, in his Asian American theater workshop, he encourages students to approach issues, like anti-Asian violence, from an "inside-out” point of view, where they look at the world with Asians at the center. We also hear from a student, Wesley Tam, about how Gotanda’s workshop inspired Tam to start the ARC Repertory Theatre on campus.

Listen to the other episodes in the series:

Part one: Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda on growing up in California post-World War II

Part two: How the Asian American movement began at Berkeley, sparked creativity and unity

Philip Kan Gotanda is a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies and one of the most prolific playwrights of Asian American-themed work in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Philip Kan Gotanda, copyright Diane Takei 2021)

Fiat Vox episode #77: "How do we talk about the Asian experience with Asians at the center?" This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music: "Ferus Cut” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

In the last episode, UC Berkeley professor Philip Kan Gotanda discussed how the Asian American movement, which began at Berkeley in the late 1960s, inspired him to write his own music and led to him becoming one of the most prolific playwrights of Asian American-themed work in the U.S.

Philip Gotanda: The idea for me was finally, finally, I found that I did have a story. You know, with this face, with this body and with this embodiment of history - that I can now write about that in all these stories that haven’t been told.

Today, in the final episode of a three-part series, Gotanda discusses today’s surge in anti-Asian racism - something he thought was in the past - and how the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies is joining the systematic shift toward a more just society that Gotanda sees happening across the country. We’ll also hear from a student of his, Wesley Tam, about how Gotanda’s Asian American theater workshop inspired him to start the ARC Repertory Theatre on campus.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: Philip, you joined Berkeley as a theater professor in 2014. You most often teach playwriting courses, and you just finished teaching an Asian American theater workshop. Can you talk about some of the things you all do in the workshop?

Philip Gotanda: We read plays. We discuss plays. We enact plays in class. And then, I also have them develop their own material. Just very simple stuff: your name, what does it mean? Where do you come from? How do you feel about yourself in relationship to dominant culture? Are you an international student? What does that mean, to be Asian? Asian American? That’s a rather interesting topic.

[Music: "Spark” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

After taking Gotanda’s Asian American theater workshop in 2018, Wesley Tam co-founded the ARC Repertory Theatre at Berkeley that performs works by Asian and Asian American playwrights. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Tam)

Wesley Tam, who graduated this May, first took Gotanda’s Asian American theater workshop in 2018. At the beginning of the workshop, Gotanda asked students to introduce themselves and say where they were from.

Wesley Tam: I think a lot of people started with their family history and coming to the U.S. I think that’s a really crucial part of not only being Asian American, but also I think people in the U.S., in general - to understand how their families got to the U.S.

So, that was something that I started to talk about in regards to me and my history: My mom was born in San Francisco and was raised half in San Francisco, half in Hong Kong. And my dad was born in Vancouver and moved to San Francisco when he was quite young. And so, just reflecting on how that has given me many of the opportunities that I am given today.

It’s not like the class ends, and then we go home and stop thinking about these kinds of things. I think it’s a constantly evolving process.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: Wesley, you met some students in the class and, together, founded the ARC Repertory Theatre on campus in 2019 that performs works by Asian and Asian American playwrights. Why did you decide to start the student theater group?

Wesley Tam: I felt I wanted a space where I could combine issues of Asian American identity and theater as a medium that I’m familiar with, that I’m interested in, that I want to engage with on a deeper level than just, you know, having a group where we can watch movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Minari and other really fantastic movies, obviously, but that don’t really get deeper to really interrogate why those movies are effective or not effective and what they contribute or don’t contribute to topics about Asian American issues - identity, immigration, things like that.

And so, I think there’s definitely a lot of work to be done in this regard, so no matter how small the organization is, or no matter how small the discussion is, I think that it’s a really great start to be able to interrogate these ideas of what it means to be Asian American, what it means to do theater, what it means to be an actor with a certain body, with a certain history, with a certain background in a performing arts space.

[Music: "Li Fonte” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Now, with anti-Asian racism and violence on the rise, it’s more important than ever, says Gotanda, to have difficult conversations about race and power, while keeping in mind everyone’s unique experiences and histories.

Philip Gotanda: My thought has always been, you know, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, and that no matter what’s going on, there was a part of me that felt that, of course, the whole juggernaut is shifting and moving in the right direction.

And it’s become evident in the last four years with Trump that there was so much sleeping beneath the surface, and that it just needed somebody to say it out loud, long enough, hard enough, with a certain position, that kind of brought out this stuff that is just part of the earth. I consider this is part of America, and it’s systemic. I use that word over and over, but it’s so easily triggered.

And right now, amidst this anti-Asian violence... that’s something I thought was gone. I truly thought it was gone. And to see it reemerge again is disheartening, for me, personally. If I were younger, I would say, "I’m rageful.” Now... I’m angry, but I’m very, very disheartened that after all this time, here we are again, and it has to be addressed.

How does one approach something that is ongoing, that you’re in the midst of, in the university setting, in which the class is not entirely Asian? It’s mixed. And so, how do you approach these particular issues from, sort of, the inside-out point of view, where it begins with being Asian American, Asian, and then looking outward and looking at the world, in relationship to Asians being at the center?

[Music fades]

And when you have students who are outside of that - international Asian students, people who are non-Asian, other BIPOC or people of color on the margins, again, how does one teach a course that is Asian American-centric from that point of view and also be inclusive of these other people’s dominant culture, other marginalized peoples, because they’re all different? I think they all have to be nuanced in how you approach them.

Gotanda says that theater, dance and performance studies has begun to compile a canon of works by people of color as a resource, and that it’s now required that at least 60% of the material that they teach in the department be created by people of color.

Philip Gotanda: We’re working really hard to say, "This is the compendium. This is the canon. Look through this. You can pull from it directly. We’re making it easy for you."

I do believe there’s so much that is shifting, and it feels organic this time. You know, I’ve been around long enough that there have been these periods where people say, "Oh, we’re in a major cultural shift." You know, "This is an inflection point." But I do believe something definitely is changing, and changing in a way that’s more than just lip service, a temporary kind of fix. This feels much more systemic, which is what you have to do, ultimately.

[Music: "Tidal Foam” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice. You can subscribe to Fiat Vox, spelled F-I-A-T V-O-X, wherever you listen to your podcasts. For more episodes, visit our podcast page on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

Learn more about ARC Repertory Theatre on Facebook.

Listen to other episodes of Fiat Vox:

By Anne Brice View all articles by Anne Brice

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