New Austin Show Celebrates the Lighter Side of Ethnic Assimilation
Lucky Chaos Theatre’s Leng Wong tells us about Living on the Hyphen
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:00AM, Mon. Mar. 28, 2016
Coffee, which is originally from Ethiopia, is the background at Thunderbird on Manor where we met with Leng Wong of Lucky Chaos Theatre to find out more about this Living on the Hyphen show that she and Anuradha Naimpally are staging at the Long Center.
Wong arrived early for the interview, though she’d texted a warning that filming was taking longer than anticipated and might make her a few minutes late …
Austin Chronicle: This is original filming you’ve done for Living on the Hyphen?
Leng Wong: Yeah, the show includes a lot of mediums, and film is one of them.
AC: And – OK, ah, let’s begin at the beginning. Who started this project?
LW: That’s actually our co-producer, Anuradha Naimpally. She has a school that teaches classical Indian dances – this is her 25th year – and we’re both trying to make a living in the performance arts. Well, she’s certainly doing well. But about two or three years ago, we were talking at a coffee shop, about how similar our experiences are because of the hyphen, Asian-American, of having to struggle in more than one world. And because we’ve been in America for so long, longer than the country we were born in, now we’re really confused. Or at least I’m really confused. Because, at least in the old days, I could say, “Okay, I’m not American.” But now I’m definitely more American than when I first came here. In fact, when I go back to visit relatives, they all say, “You’re so American!” And Anu was born in Canada. And she’s Canadian-Indian, because she’s South Asian, but she’s been in the States for longer than I have.
AC: So are you Chinese-American or, ah, Malaysian-American?
LW: Chinese-American. Because I’m Chinese, even though I grew up in Malaysia. So Anu and I have that in common, too. We have what our ethnicity is, which is very strong in the culture that you grew up in; and then there’s the country that you were born in, which also has its own thing; and now there’s where we are, which is America, which is home – and that’s also very different. And we were amazed at how similar our experiences were. So we started wondering about other people, because everybody has a hyphen in some way.
AC: Even, like, Italian-American, African-American, German-American …
LW: Yeah, and Anu and I often talked about doing a show about our experiences, about the Asian-American experience, but we didn’t have the time, because we’d need a lot of time for such a large project and our schedules didn’t match up. So now is the first time – since almost three years ago! – this is the first time that everything has worked out.
AC: So you have a film portion, and you have this dragon that you had custom-made in China?
LW: The dragon was actually made by a Chinese immigrant who’s in Malaysia right now, in a small shop that’s been there for generations. And I was so happy they could make it in less than three months, because it was very close to Lunar New Year – which is around January and February. So I asked him to do it in September, and he was able to complete it, and get it sent across the sea.
AC: It arrived at the Chronicle offices! Our office manager Cindy Soo arranged that, right?
LW: Cindy really helped me with the shipping, with all the customs – because I didn’t know anything about customs.
AC: And this dragon is going to be brought to life onstage by more than one person?
LW: By seven people! And the head of the puppet is somebody who’s not familiar with dragon dancing, but is a very experienced puppeteer. Traditionally, the dragon dances with drums, and everything works to create this whole atmosphere of respect and regalness and all that. But for this show, the character is flawed – so there’s a lot more need of a puppeteer, to react to different things and show emotionally what’s happening. And the dragon’s going to be voiced by Da’Shade Johnson, a hip-hop artist in town.
AC: What’s it been like dealing with a project of this size?
LW: It’s been a lot of fun, because it has so many types of ways of telling a story. I was trying to make it as fun as possible for me, because I like using film and immersing it with live performance, and I like having inanimate objects be characters. And we have four fabulous live musicians, and the musicians are a central part of the show: They’re a separate character, like one organism. Toshio Alan Mana is on bass, and Eddie Hsu plays bamboo flute … Rishi Bajekal plays doumbek, and Amie Macieszewski plays sitar – and it’s so amazing to watch them play and improvise together.
AC: And there’s even more elements to the show, right? From what I’ve heard, y’all have so much stuff going on.
LW: A taiko drum is also part of it as a separate character – that’s my part. I was really inspired by folk tales when I was growing up, as much by stories of Chinese dragons as by Grimm fairytales and all that. And I remember “The Red Shoes,” about the little girl who got red shoes and couldn’t stop dancing? So the taiko drum is a take on that, because the drum makes you want to play it: As long as you’re holding the drumsticks, you can’t stop. And in the midst of all that, we’ve got poetry by Jesus Valles. We’ve got JooHee Ahn singing – she was recently the lead in The Mikado: Reclaimed, and when she hits a high note, it’s like everybody is waiting for a glass to shatter, one of those Julie Andrews type of things. And Anu and Purna Bajekal are both trained in Bharata Natyam, classical Indian dance. And Anu has performed all over the world, but, she says, “I’ve never been in a play before. And I’ve never been in a humorous or comedic performance. But you’re funny,” she says to me, “I want to be in a show where I can be funny!” At the beginning of our plans, our model was just to show that Asian people can have fun, too. It was like a protest!
[laughter]But that wasn’t a very high bar, we wanted to do more than just that. And from there, everything else came together.
AC: It sounds like a lot of work and maneuvering went into this thing.
LW: The most challenging part is training and having rehearsal for three different groups since January. Because you have the ensemble, and the dragoneers, and the musicians. There are seven ensemble members, and seven people for the dragon, and then the musicians, too. So mostly it was the scheduling that was difficult, with such a large group of people. And yesterday was the first time everybody was together in the same room for a run-through, and it was more than I expected it would be. But it’s working, the show is really coming together. And it’s so much fun!