40 Years On, Pan Asian Rep Still Uses Art as Protest

Interview   40 Years On, Pan Asian Rep Still Uses Art as Protest Pacific Overtures and King & I actor-turned-artistic director Tisa Chang celebrates Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s 40th anniversary.
Tisa Chang
Tisa Chang

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre celebrates its first four decades this month with Acquittal, written and directed by Shahid Nadeem from June 10 to 25 at the Studio Theatre portion of Theatre Row, where Pan Asian Rep has been hanging its shingle the past four years.

Still at the helm after 40 years and 118 productions, founding artistic director Tisa Chang considers Acquittal “an important play because it illustrates the plight of Pakistani women who suffered under the anti-women Islamic laws of the 1980s. And it’s topical, now that we have anti-Muslim sentiments coming straight from the White House. I think that we Pan Asians are doing our jobs when we highlight stories seldom told.”

A strong social consciousness has always been at the heart of Pan Asian’s agenda. “It was always about doing the work first,” Chang says. “I’m not very good at protesting. I prefer to do the work that earns garlands and respect. The integrity of the artistic process and upholding standards of excellence are very, very important to us.”

The daughter of a Chinese diplomat from Chongqing, Chang made her statement first as a dancer-actor in shows such as Pacific Overtures, Flower Drum Song, The King and I, and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen—then, in the early ’70s, Ellen Stewart gave her a shot at directing, “creating full productions at La MaMa, setting A Midsummer Night’s Dream in China of 1000 B.C., experimenting with Asian and Western classics, and utilizing the vast pool of talented Asian-American artists located in New York.”

In 1977, with her salary from six months of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel with Al Pacino, she put her money where her mouth still is and formed Pan Asian Rep. She personally got the ball rolling by adapting the Chinese classic The Legend of Wu Chang. In 1982, Yellow Fever took off and put the company on the map with a Sam Spade-like gumshoe, Sam Shikaze, who came back for two more comedy capers. Shogun Macbeth in 1983 provided another hit and toured to Albany.

Chang has yet to plot out her 41st season, but she already knows it will begin with Daybreak, which Joyce Van Dyke based on how her grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide of the ’20s. “I knew I’d be asked, ‘Why Armenia?’” Chang says. “Because Pan Asian is all of Asia and Polynesia. And I also feel the Middle East needs to be represented. It’s a very affirming play and, again, a story seldom told. If anything, history tends to hide traumatic periods, so I think that it’s a great service we do presenting these stories.”

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