By Kevin Shen
Special Relationship Productions in association with Anita Creed Productions presents,
When my producing partner and I set out to produce our next play, we weren’t expecting that it would bring us to India – well, not us exactly, but the characters on stage. However, as we move deeper into production of THERE OR HERE by Jennifer Maisel, a comedy that follows an inter-racial American couple outsourcing their surrogacy to India, it begins to make sense, as we continue to explore themes of the Asian diaspora and question what it means to be “Asian”.
I am an Asian-American (from the East Asia part of Asia), born and raised in the US but having spent nearly the last ten years in the UK. My producing partner is a white British female, and together we set out to produce plays that provided acting opportunities for our own underrepresented demographics while exploring themes of race and gender in an accessible and entertaining way. Our first production was YELLOW FACE by David Henry Hwang, which played at Park Theatre and transferred to the National Theatre the following year. It was a pseudo-autobiographical comedy that explored what it meant to be Asian in the US – from questionable representation in entertainment to political espionage scapegoating. Yet that terminology – being “Asian” – has a markedly different meaning in the US and the UK. Our cast included four Asian actors – and here I feel compelled to clarify – three East Asian and one South Asian, whereas our cast of THERE OR HERE also includes four Asian actors – all of whom are South Asian. As we traveled to this part of Asia, we brought on an Associate Producer of Indian descent, who began as an actor struggling to fit into society’s mould of Asian-ness because of her mixed race background. Both YELLOW FACE and THERE OR HERE are thematically Asian-centric stories. However, it feels that which “Asian” they revolve around needs to be noted, and this demarcation of being Asian and its difference across continents is one I am increasingly interested in. In the US, one generally pictures an East Asian when conjuring up an image for an “Asian-American”, whereas here in the UK, “British Asian” suggests someone from South Asia. Logically, it feels like perhaps these sections of Asia have stronger (and more reparation-worthy) ties to their respective western superpower: Chinese immigrants thanklessly built railroads during America’s adolescence and India was obviously victim to British colonialism. The other Asian becomes the afterthought. As such, it feels a bit like the experience of being Asian in the US versus in the UK are analogous but flip-flopped, depending on which type of Asian one is.
In a way, it almost feels natural to be an East Asian in the UK producing a play about South Asians in America. However, I am often curious about this definitional distinction of “Asian” and its necessity. Clearly the cultural differences between East and South Asia are significant, while the cultures of countries within each of these regions are more closely linked to each other. Yet are the differences between East and South Asia more pronounced than those throughout Europe, for instance between, say, Greece and Norway (or do we refer to Scandinavia distinctly from Europe?)? Or does the necessary distinction between Asians result primarily because of the difference in the colour of our skin? This distinction creates separate East and South Asian communities – both in theatre and in society in general – and these communities provide much-needed identity and visibility for its members. However, these two communities, despite being from the same continent, feel markedly removed from each other.
Regardless of which Asian category one fits into in either the US or the UK, I do believe members of these two diaspora communities ultimately share similar experiences, whether they are British/Americanborn or emigrants. Just as the character Ajay does in THERE OR HERE, Asians often find themselves reconciling their ancestral cultural heritage with their local one. Because of our skin colour, we are continuously ostracized or exoticised – despite the thickness of my American accent, I have still been met with surprise or incredulity that my name is actually “Kevin”. We may abandon our traditions, language, garb to assimilate and avoid bullying at school, but may also embrace them to take pride in a culture that makes us unique and to maintain our filial piety. We are still viewed as foreigners and feared as terrorists, despite our citizenship or birthplace, especially in two countries that have renewed nationalist sentiment. In the theatre world (and in western entertainment generally), Asians of all sorts are perennially viewed as outsiders, given accents and seen in numbers that don’t reflect our place in society. Producing THERE OR HERE targets this, with a cast including four Asian actors (South Asian, that is) in roles with depth and character, a rarity for both East and South Asian actors. While my producing began as a way to increase the visibility of my own East Asian demographic, it feels completely natural to create work that provides representations for Asians generally. Facing these similar struggles, should these two Asian communities come closer together, at least in the theatre world, and embrace a greater Pan-Asian identity? Since moving to the UK, terminologically at least, I have begun migrating from the “orient” into “East Asia” (well, in London if not the whole country), and in America, Buzzfeed lists of exciting Asian/ Asian-American actors inevitably include the likes of Danny Pudi and Riz Ahmed. Perhaps as generations continue to dig their roots deeper into western soil, the taxonomy behind being “Asian” will continue to evolve, and we’ll find our two communities supporting one much larger one.
THERE OR HERE by Jennifer Maisel is produced by Kevin Shen and Lucy Fenton of Special Relationship Productions in association with Anita Singh of Anita Creed Productions and Park Theatre, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It runs from 23 Jan to 17 Feb at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park.
Tickets available at www.parktheatre. co.uk. Follow us on twitter (@thereorhereplay) for details on post-show discussions around race, identity and “being Asian”.
“A thought-provoking play that touches on reproductive yearnings, sexual desire, cultural imperialism and more… never less than engaging” The New York Times
Kevin Shen is an Asian-American producer and actor based in London. He started Special Relationship Productions with Lucy Fenton, and together they produced the UK Premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Pulitzer Prize finalist play YELLOW FACE, in which he also starred, at the Park Theatre in 2013 and its subsequent transfer to the National Theatre the following year. He holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from Stanford University and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.