On a recent autumn afternoon, New York's Columbus Park resembled a boisterous Asian-American country club. The square, located on the edge of Chinatown, Little Italy and the Criminal Courts Building, was packed with groups of Asian men and women, mostly middle-aged or older, engrossed in cards and other games. Many sat at folding tables and chairs, others on plastic crates, some waging coins and bills.
It's this insular world that playwright Chay Yew (Wonderland) and director Lisa Peterson (Collected Stories) are trying to capture with The Square, a group of 16 ten-minute plays about the Asian-American experience that is getting its New York premiere at the Public Theater, under the auspices of the blossoming Ma-Yi Theater Company. Side Man Tony winner Frank Wood and Obie winner Ching Valdes Aran lead the cast.
For this unique project, set in a fictitious square based on Columbus Park, Yew and Peterson have not only employed an equal number of Asian and non-Asian dramatists, but some stellar names as well. Work by David Henry Hwang, Ping Chong and Han Ong is interspersed with that of Craig Lucas, Constance Congdon and Robert O'Hara.
"We chose a number of younger writers who are experimenting with language and with metaphor," says Peterson, a Caucasian who has shoulder-length blond hair and multiple piercings going up both ears. "So there are some realistic plays — and then there are plays that are really just tone poems. It's an interesting mix of styles."
Produced in Los Angeles last year, The Square's seed was planted in 1995, when Peterson and Yew became resident artists at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, where Yew founded the Asian Theater Workshop. Thrown into an office together for a couple of months ("we were basically sitting across from a table looking at each other," Peterson recalls), the two began discussing Yew's idea for a series of small plays set in a park. "I wanted to hear how other people, who are not Asian-American, would address Asian-American issues," Yew explained recently in the lobby of the Public, following a trip to Chinatown in search of props.
At the suggestion of avant-garde playwright Mac Wellman, one of the enlisted scribes, Yew and Peterson turned the task into a game. From a hat, they drew a historical period (the 1880s, 1920s, 1960s or 2000), theme (destiny, order, chaos or tradition), number of actors (one to four) and racial makeup of characters (Asian, non-Asian or mixed) as a guideline for each writer to follow.
The results were challenging, even contradictory at times. African-American Kia Corthron, for example, was assigned a one-character play with both Asian and non-Asian characters. She ended up penning a monologue about a mixed-raced character: a black, Chinese cowboy. Filipino-American playwright Jessica Hagedorn was asked to write about Chinatown without using any Asian characters. Her contribution, "Silent Movie," focuses on lesbians in an opium den
Although Yew and Peterson deliberately selected playwrights with different voices and styles, similar themes emerged: loneliness, impossible love, learning English, migration.
And there are parallels among gender lines as well. "If there were Asian women, we saw that they became independent from 1880 to 2000," observes Yew, a Singapore native. "There was an interesting kind of evolution. For Asian men, they were lonely in the year 1880 and they're still singular and lonely in the year 2000."
Peterson also noticed a tendency of some playwrights, especially the Asian-Americans, to "flirt with stereotype." Aside from its opium den setting, Hagedorn's play includes an offstage character named Uncle Wong. Philip Kan Gotanda's "The Old Chinese Man" uses Old World archetypes in its exploration of an Asian woman's self-loathing. Maria Irene Fornes' "The Audition" aims for laughs as it looks at two Asian actors trying to learn how to play Mexicans.
"These are the parts that are surprising to me," says Peterson. "We don't know what kind of effect that will have in New York. I think there's a sensibility here that may be a little more sharply attuned and maybe not so accustomed to it. In L.A. it seemed benign and playful."
A few plays even feature the familiar Asian servant/white employer relationship, including Diana Son's "Handsome" and Yew's "Scissors," which takes its inspiration not from life but from a well-known fictional character: Ito, Auntie Mame's butler. "I was watching [the movie] on TV, and I wondered, `What is that relationship?' " Yew recalls.
In the years it's taken to bring The Square to fruition, Peterson and Yew have teamed up on other projects. She's directed his plays Red and Wonderland and will be directing his adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba next year at the Taper. (Yew helmed it himself at New York's National Asian-American Theatre Co. last year.)
And there's another project in the works, set in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A., that examines that community's changing face, from Jewish to Japanese to Latino. Written by three playwrights, it will look at three different generations of Angelenos who each lived in the same house. It's slated for L.A. next year.
"I'm a sucker for immigrant stories," Yew cheerfully explains. "If I see one, I feel like it's so hokey, but it always grabs."
— Diane Snyder