Why We Need To Start Telling A Different Kind of Asian-American Story

Special Features   Why We Need To Start Telling A Different Kind of Asian-American Story
 
“When people look for work by artists of color, they look for very specific kind of work.” A. Rey Pamatmat explains why he plays by his own rules as an Asian-American playwright.
Tiffany Villarin and Tina Chilip
Tiffany Villarin and Tina Chilip Web Begole

A. Rey Pamatmat had a very simple reason for wanting to write House Rules, currently produced Off-Broadway by Ma-Yi Theater Company. “The idea was to have a bunch of Asian American actors playing contemporary parts and just having an awesome time,” says the playwright.

A. Rey Pamatmat
A. Rey Pamatmat

“There are a lot of Asian American actors,” says Pamatmat. “They’ll either be cast in a play where they’re the only Asian American actor, or they’ll be cast in a play that’s somehow historical.” Big, sweeping productions like Allegiance, The King and I and Here Lies Love, immediately come to mind. House Rules isn’t about history, it’s about humans, who happen to be Filipino and American.

“I do think a lot of the time, when people look for work by artists of color, they want race or ethnicity to be primary,” says Pamatmat. “It’s not always a conscious bias, but it is something that happens...they look for very specific kind of work.”

“You start looking for stories where ethnicity is a problem,” he continues. “Or issues of immigration and culture clash are a problem, so you end up only seeing people of color when the work or their presence fulfills that.”

House Rules doesn’t shy away from issues of immigration and cultural differences, yet these themes aren’t the center of the piece. The various narratives in the play—which explore friendship, love and family—revolve around a dying father. They could be anybody’s stories, regardless of race.

“I wanted to write about ethnicity and identity from an insider’s point of view,” explains Pamatmat, who is Filipino American. “I want this story to be about the way that we do actually talk about race when we’re just hanging out…I didn’t want to ignore all of that stuff. I just wanted to include it in a way that was familiar to me.”

“Before there was no work being done by artists of color,” he continues. “[So] I think it actually grew out of a positive impulse, which was to show what people of color can do and how those stories are important within the larger American narrative. But I think we just got stuck in them for a little while.”

Tina Chilip, Jeffrey Omura, James Yaegashi and Tiffany Villarin
Tina Chilip, Jeffrey Omura, James Yaegashi and Tiffany Villarin Web Begole

House Rules attempts to move beyond the stereotype of the “perpetual foreigner,” as Pamatmat puts it. Its characters may be immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they are navigating universal challenges: sibling rivalries, dating woes and career setbacks. For the actors, this is immensely refreshing. “This is my first time doing a contemporary family story. Period,” says Jeffrey Omura, who plays JJ in the play. “This is very unique.”

“It’s very rare that you actually see a story that’s just about people —Asian people,” agrees fellow cast member Jojo Gonzalez. “[Without] a backdrop of history or how Asian families are supposed to be. We’re just like everybody else.”

“I think these kinds of plays are starting to happen more,” says James Yaegashi, another actor in House Rules. “But I think they’re few and far between…it’s wonderful that Ma-Yi is nurturing writers to create these kinds of pieces.”

Pamatmat, who is also the co-director of Ma-Yi’s Writers’ Lab, is appreciative of the organization’s flexible approach to presenting Asian American stories. (The company's primary mission is to develop and produce new plays by Asian American writers.) The playwright says Ma-Yi has never expected him, as an artist of color, to write a “certain kind” of play. “The thing that I love about doing work at Ma-Yi is that … you can write whatever you want,” he says. “There’s a common language in terms of ethnicity, but they recognize that, as a writer, that’s one of a hundred things I’m writing about.”

For the actors in House Rules, their hope is that one day, the ethnicity of all artists will no longer be a talking point at all. “We're such a long way from that, but eventually you will go the theatre, and you will see all different colors and you won't question it anymore,“ says Gonzalez. Omura agrees, “I can't wait for that day.”

House Rules is now playing at the HERE Arts Center through April 17. For more information and to purchase tickets visit ma-yitheatre.org

Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement.

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