TISA: I don’t consider myself very political or a revolutionary, but the interesting thing is that our plays gave voice to those who were, if not voiceless, seldom heard in America.
TISA: In the early years being a theatre of color was really, um, frowned upon, we were really - quite marginalized, so it was very important we demonstrate to the outside world and to the mainstream arena that we, too, can play the meaningful roles from the great classics, uh, the Clytemnestras of the world, the Blanche DuBois. And it’s also that theatre as we practice it, is total theatre. It incorporates all the disciplines of movement and music and visuals, design, painting. And that is why, I think, we’ve decided to form an ongoing company.
TISA: My father was a diplomat, uh, career diplomat for Chiang Kai-shek and then in New York, as a consul general for 11 years. I came from China as a very young child, uh, and grew up in New York, uh, went to all the public schools and high school and college in New York City.
TISA: Why I became an actor, after being a dancer all those years, and a music major in high school, um, it was seeing Uta Hagen on Broadway. And later, I studied with her. It was seeing the great, great, uh, actors in the American arena, uh, uh, on Broadway, Off-Broadway. I went to Barnard and, uh, left early to join the UN for two years as a UN guide, giving tours in English, but also in Mandarin. I was very fortunate that I had so many great opportunities, um, available to me. Uh, I worked very hard auditioning, no question about that. But all the summer stock and revivals of King and I and The Sweet Charity, uh, uh, and The Flower Drum Song, these were all - instilled in me, discipline, commitment, dedication, uh, you do the work first, you complained last, very much like the Confucian codes.
TISA: Starring in a Hollywood film in the 60s called Ambush Bay, uh, was quite an opener for me, uh, as well as being on Broadway as a dancer. So, these were wonderful opportunities, paying opportunities for me. Um, however, the roles I was given or allowed to play, for instance, um, in The World of Suzie Wong, which I did in summer stock, in, in the role of Suzie, uh, it is about a Hong Kong prostitute. In The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, I play a Vietnamese bar girl. So it was very, very important that in early 70s, I follow my impetus to want to do something more about taking destiny in my own hands and, and shaping my own life and career.
TISA: Ellen Stewart of La MaMa asked me to join her Chinese theatre group as a dancer, and Ellen can be very prickly, but, she never minced her words. And that is something, um, I, I’m very grateful for all those opportunities. and La MaMa at that time, was a very different, a, a kind of a different establishment. And, uh, Ellen never had contracts. She also didn’t read plays. She would look at you and just, just talking to me, she said - I gave her some ideas of, of what I’d like to do. She said, “Good, as long as I have Chinese and costumes, colorful costumes.” And that is where I started my most important work as a director.
TISA: The experimental versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Chinese Mandarin and English, Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, with an all Asian cast set in 17th century Italy, but with all the asides in our own native languages. And that’s basically how I discovered so many extraordinary actors.
ERNEST ABUBA: We met and began working together for two, three years? Maybe more?
TISA: We never even thought of really founding a company, a formal company but because we had done so many shows together successfully at La Mama ’72, ’73, ’74, ’75, I think in ’76 we were able to put on our own productions and to pay for it.
ERNEST ABUBA: It became Pan-Asian was because it just wasn’t Chinese. It was multi-ethnic Asian race, you know. We had Koreans, we had Chinese, we had Burmese, the Japanese, Filipinos, myself, I’m Filipino, French, Dutch, Native American so that’s how the Pan-Asian came about.
TISA: There was a bit of xenophobia in the 70s and 80s, certainly in the 60s, 50s when I was growing up. The fear of the Yellow Peril, oh, and the pre-war and post-war World War II, um, stereotypes was horrendous. And whether we knew it or not, you know, it was manifested in little ways in daily life. I think the 60s and 70s were truly momentous times. We were so - our thinking and our artistic journey were so shaped by the independence movement by so many countries, uh, in - particularly, in, in Africa and, uh, Asia, uh, coming out of colonialism, and, and the Civil Rights movement.
TISA: We were very much perceived as a theatre of color, a minority theatre. And so, that was, in a way, there was a kind of a bias or perception that we’re, well, uh, so specialized or, that we’re not relevant to the - a wider populace. That’s something we really had to fight against.
TISA: Fortunately, we had such good press, such steady support by all the major press, especially The New York Times, so that was very, very helpful for us to reach a wider audience and to gain greater acceptance. There was a faction, however, of the old guard, the more conservative Chinese, the Mandarin Chinese class who felt my experiments were a little bit, uh, too risqué. So, in many ways, it’s taken me decades to earn their, their approval, or to earn their acceptance. Yeah, it took two or three decades.
TISA: I’m happy now to say our communities have really expanded and reached out to some of the newer immigrant groups. You know, Pan Asian is the first to produce the work, uh, highlighting Vietnamese status of women, such as Ming Ngoc’s The Missing Woman. We brought attention to the Tibet-China, uh, history, uh, with KWATZ!, the Tibetan project. It meant a great deal to me that our plays really spoke to - primarily Chinese Americans and, uh, the OCA, Long Island and New York chapters have been and are still very, very strong supporters of Pan Asian. And, uh, the JACL and various Japanese American groups.
TISA: We took on tour Cambodia Agonistes in South Africa. It was just after Nelson Mandela had become president. And though, apartheid was supposedly “officially banned” um, we had two different audiences, a matinee audience of, uh, white people, who responded with a little aloofness, with a little bit of, um, resistance to, to our, our musical theatre play, but in the evening, to, uh, a myriad of, of different tribes African people. And they really responded well to the production. Theatre can excite people, can, um, inspire - to change thinking. But, to start people even thinking about a situation, an issue, a problem, a, a point of view that they have not entertained, wow. That immediacy, that we can touch people every night and make change and affect people so directly, so immediately, there’s just - I don’t think, uh, anything else compares.
TISA: You know, American society growing up in the ‘50s, Ozzie Harriet and a dream of the white picket fence and the little house and the perfect family, I think that’s a little bit manufactured and so I - as artists we have a different reality. Art is our life, art is certainly my life and it’s not - it will never be finished and completed.
ERNEST ABUBA: The artists, whether you’re a musician, actor, director, playwright, painter, it’s the culture, if we don’t have that artist then we have a lost culture.
TISA: Economically, we have no golden parachute anywhere and this is actually something, you know, unions and - and uh - service organizations talk about.
How do we protect our artists? Pan-Asian, our contracts we pay pension and health to the unions, but it’s not 52 uh - weeks a year. So, we are still struggling. You know, how do you create art? How do you make it somewhat livable for our artists? How do we take care of our staffs? It’s not easy. It has been very, very, very difficult.
TISA: Every year, we have to re-announce who we are, what do we do, and very often, many funders, um, don’t find infrastructure or general operating as sexy as something else. In the UK, for instance, the National Theatre and they - they get millions of pounds of, uh, every year, sort of - they know it’s coming. It would be wonderful if we, in this country, the great United States, with 50 states and so many different cultural voices, um, if we could have an ongoing mechanism, whereby we don’t have to keep proving ourselves every year. So I would really hope that there could be set aside a pool of money for - or, or resources, and, um, partnerships that, that theaters of color could tap into. We are like endangered species, like tigers and elephants - we are still very much apart from the mainstream of American theaters. And it, it really is still hard work to try to gain full acceptance, full equity.
TISA: We have 40 actors coming through our theatre every year. Uh - that’s not just actors, directors and designers. Playwrights, we have probably produced over 70 playwrights.
TISA: I think what I have misgivings about, um, and if I were to relive, uh, 10, 20, 30 years ago, is really to take more opportunity, take, maximize the chances that I had. I wish I had made more concerted, uh, effort to partner and build bridges, which now we are doing.
TISA: I am very proud and keenly aware of the responsibility that I have as a pioneer and a path finder…
TISA: One of the ways banning together, and building solidarity is to have a much larger and fuller and more expansive group, theaters of color, and not only African Americans and Latinos, but the diverse Asian Americans. So many younger groups are up and coming.
TISA: This is what I am so looking forward to – thinking bigger, dreaming bigger and doing bigger.
TISA: Advice for the younger generation, I would say is really try to accumulate as much experience, active, actual working experience as possible. Really read your history. Uh, really, really understand what went on before. So, doing the work, being informed, um, is, is, to me, key…of all the challenges, of all the difficulties, of all the accomplishments, uh, at Pan Asian Rep, and in my personal and professional life, I feel that tenacity that, that we’ve sustained, been able to sustain this company through thick and thin, uh, we’re not very, very large, but I feel that that tenacity and that commitment and dedication is truly what will keep Pan Asian going forward for the next 50, 100, 150 years, uh, into the, well into the future. Because I know that the fertile ideas, the creative, uh, energies are all there.