Gwendoline Yeo’s one-woman stage production captures Asian American identity

Gwendoline Yeo, an actress and musician, is writing a funny and powerful autobiographical one-woman show about growing up an Asian American who immigrated as a child from Singapore.

We saw an awesome theatrical performance over the weekend, as part of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts‘ “Stories on Stage” series of dramatic literary readings. The performance was a draft of “Laughing with My Mouth Wide Open,” a work in progress. It’s a one-woman show by Gwendoline Yeo, an actress and musician from Los Angeles whose script is an autobiographical look back at her life as an Asian American who immigrated as a child from Singapore.

Yeo sat on an austere stage accompanied by only one other actor sitting at the back, who read the light and sound cues from the script, as well as some lines as the Speak and Spell toy she speaks to as a child, and later, a college professor who befriends, and then betrays her.

Set up on one side of the stage was a guzheng, or Chinese zither, which Yeo played with great passion and ability several times during the performance. She read from a script she held in her hand — this was only the second time she’d performed the entire piece in front of an audience. The first time was the same day during a matinee reading. The only prop on stage was the Speak and Spell.

Although the completed one-woman play will have props and furniture and costuming, the lovely Yeo didn’t need any embellishments to hold the audience’s attention. She had us laughing and thinking, inspired and outraged, as we followed her life from an 11-year-old from Singapore, raised by a strict, authoritarian father and strict, traditional mother, competing for attention with a perfect, over-achieving “model minority” sister and a freakish but cool brother whose love for cowboys has turned him permanently into a drawling, American-style country boy.

Her stories are full of sharp observations about cultural differences, and the journey that all immigrants, not just Asians, undertake to become Americanized.

She recites stereotypes of white people when her father announces the family is moving to San Francisco in a week. In an effort to fit in at her private school in San Francisco, young Gwendoline tries to hang with a gang of Asian chicks who identify more with African Americans and speak “Chinkbonics,” but can’t quite make it through the initiation crime. She wants to break family tradition and attend college in Los Angeles instead of UC-Berkeley, where her sister and brother go. She wants to study communications, not medicine or law, which are the two choices her father gives her. She gets in trouble with her parents for coming home with a B on a test. The scenes are full of insights about traditional Asian values butting up against American ambitions.

She tells these stories with incredible humor, and mostly keeps us laughing out loud with our mouth open — something that she points out early in the play, is what white people in America do, but not Asians.

Her tale is universal, and the mostly non-Asian audience appreciated her script and performance. But for the Asians in the audience, the performance was much more personal and familiar. I told her afterward that I’ve known every character she wrote about in my life. I heard — and every Asian American I’ve asked has heard — the same admonitions from our parents on who we should date (and African Americans weren’t on the approved list). And lord knows, we’ve felt the pressure and stress to do well in school, and the utter shame of bringing home a B on a test or report card. Really.

Yeo is personable and accessible, and captures these scenes with just the right mix of sensitivity and a self-assured rebelliousness. Like her autobiographical stage persona, she was plainspoken, straightforward, very open and transparent during the question-and-answer period with the audience following her performance.

She explained that she learned to play the guzheng, which sounds like a combination of a harp and harpsichord, when she was studying piano, and she hated piano because it felt dry and academic but felt passionate about the guzheng. She plays original music that draws on traditional Chinese melodies but adds abstract, contemporary flourishes.

She said the plan is to hone her script and then mount a proper production in LA — for which she’s raising money and invites audiences to donate and support her work — with an eye towards taking the show to Broadway. Long-term, she and her producer, who was also on stage for the Q&A, could see her performance as a sitcom, a truer attempt at an AAPI TV show than Margaret Cho’s 1990s “All American Girl.”

Most movingly, when she was asked what her parents think of the script, she said she’s shared it with her brother and father (who evolved during the course of her college years), but hasn’t been able to tell her sister or mother about it. Yeo cried several times during the Q & A, and this was one of them.

I hope that when her entire family does get the chance to see Yeo’s finished performance, they won’t see some of the negative parts of the family’s life as criticisms of themselves, but more a larger mirror on first-generation Asian Americans, and of the immigrant experience in general.

Like the successes she’s accomplished as an actor and a musician, they should be proud of and embrace her ability to tell these universal stories through the lens of her personal experience, and grow into such a terrific emerging talent.

We wish her all the best. We were lucky to have such a performance showcased in Denver, when these types of AAPI cultural events rarely make it to these hinterlands.

Thanks DCPA and Stories on Stage for bringing Gwendoline Yeo, and thanks to Yeo herself for having not just the talent but the courage to portray her life’s journey in such an engaging, entertaining and powerful manner.

Here’s a short video introduction to Yeo’s musical talent:

Here’s a half-hour show that includes the above video, but also has an extended interview and live performance by Yeo:

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