Musicians, dancers, performance artists, storytellers, stand-up comedians, and film narrators: Whichever type of performer is your favorite, you were able to find them with the other ones under one roof for one night, for a show celebrating art and the generations of Asian Pacific Americans creating it. Kearny Street Workshop, the nation’s oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization, celebrated their 40th year with a performance showcase entitled “Hand-Me Down: Three Generations of KSW Performance” at San Francisco’s Bindlestiff Studio on May 22nd. The program brought together artists of various disciplines and from three different generations, reflecting not only the diversity in art, but also the stories that can be told and hold true no matter how much time passes by.
Emceed by Bindlestiff’s Allan Manalo, the show opened with folk musician, writer, and historian Charlie Chin performing several songs on his guitar. Having worked as an artist for over 50 years, Chin witnessed and experienced much of the discrimination Asian-Americans have faced. “If you were Asian, you had the face of an enemy,” he said of being Asian-American in the 60s, the long-lasting effects of such actions like the Chinese Exclusion Act going back to the late 1800s and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He spoke of the fight to include ethnic studies courses in California’s public universities, and the role of Asian-Americans in the coinciding women’s movement in the 70s. One of his songs recounted the death of Vincent Chin in 1982, describing everything from the beating to the sentencing of his killers and the moral outrage from the Asian-American community. In spite of all the struggles he spoke and sung about, there was a sense of optimism and messages of pushing forward expressed in his performance.
Kinetic story theater duo Eth-Noh-Tec followed with even older stories from Asian mythology. Consisting of Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, Eth-Noh-Tec used oral storytelling and movement to present myths and folktales. Their pieces for this particular show included a Tibetan tale entitled “Bird of Happiness,” a story about a woman’s perseverance in restoring happiness to her village, and “Heaven and Hell” from China. Though storytelling is the oldest form of art, watching Eth-Noh-Tec felt new, as this more traditional route of expression is seemingly becoming more rare in the mainstream. However, with their strong presence in the Bay Area and nationwide reach—and an attentive and engaged audience at “Hand-Me-Down”—they are proof that traditional storytelling is a solid foundation for all art, and they also stress the importance of it.
“Storytelling is a way that we can begin to understand who we are as human beings, what values are important to us, and can pass down to others,” said Wang. “It has really answered [me and Robert’s] heart and our soul in terms of an art form in which the fourth wall is taken out and it’s wrapped around the audience in the back. It’s an immediate give-and-take of energy. There’s the teller and the listener and it becomes one community, and we’re hungering for community in this kind of world we’re living in now.”
“It can be a fairy tale, or about a god or goddess—that’s a culmination of human experience that’s been turned into performance or narrative ritual,” added Kikuchi-Yngojo. “These stories have been around for thousands for years and if we forget them, we may have lost touch with this journey of the last 20,000 generations since all people stood up on the eastern horn of Africa and started walking, and it’s a great journey.”
Another older yet hidden gem of a storytelling form is Katsuben, a Japanese form of film narration during the silent film era. This came from the Japanese audience’s need to know and understand beyond the visuals, so people in costume would stand on a platform next to the movie screen and tell stories relating to the action on screen. Dennis M. Somera showcased Katsuben for a modern audience by speaking over George Lucas’ film THX-1138, renamed WHTHX-1138 for this particular interpretation. Dressed in white just like the main characters, Somera addressed issues like White privilege and racial inequality, in a film that is already all about problems in a society.
“The underlying culture, the White hegemony still is pretty Euro-centric in the way it wants to tell stories and fit [Asian-American] bodies into that,” said Somera about his presentation. “I think it’s still the same yet things are better, but we still have to still stick to our roots in this country and show people that we’ve been here for a long time and that we clearly have like all other cultures as well.”
Kat Evasco, the Bindlestiff Studio Board Chair (One of her roles amongst other prominent ones at Guerrilla Rep and Youth Speaks) and performing artist, kicked off the show’s second half featuring young female performers with a stand-up comedy act. The 20-something-year-old Evasco delivered humor and perspective with her candid piece on her mom coming out to her as gay, her grandma, and her “eggplant-shaped body,” which she showed off when she lifted her shirt to reveal her super-high “Lola (Grandma) panties.” Blending comedy bits she has performed over the years, Evasco said that she thought it would be fitting to poke fun at her grandma, mom, and herself to go along with the show’s theme of generations.
The performer who delivered the strongest crowd reaction of the night was playwright/actress and former KSW artistic director Samantha Chanse. Performing a one-woman show entitled “The Failure Series,” Chanse not only brought loud laughter throughout the audience with her words and different personas, but also represented more modern art by incorporating theater and improvisation with digital media forms like podcasts and video. Taking on alter egos like “positive” hip-hop artist Truth is Real and snotty filmmaker/renaissance woman Suzette Law, Chanse’s brilliant and thoroughly funny take on what doesn’t define success was a program highlight. Closing out the show was modern dancer, Lina Yang, who performed a stunning number to a remix of the Chinese opera “Princess Cheung Ping.” It couldn’t be more fitting to end with such a piece, reflecting the fusion of the classic and the new and the mingling of different generations.
“Hand-Me-Down” was truly a masterful and eye-opening display of all the different ways stories have been and can be told by Asian Pacific Americans, and a way of celebrating KSW’s 40th year in style. If you’re in the Bay Area and missed the show, don’t worry—the party lasts all year round with upcoming events dedicated to fashion, visual art, and literature! Keep checking KSW online to stay in the loop.