Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | music
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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.

The cast of the Fox TV series "Glee." Erin and I have come to love "Glee!," the Fox TV series about a group of outcast students who join their high school glee club (remember how glee club people were always the nerds?). We enjoyed the sneak preview premier, which was shown last fall, and then waited with great anticipation for the season to start this spring. After several shows, though, we started to tune out the outrageous stupidity of some of the characters (faking a pregnancy to hold on to a husband; lying about the father of a pregnancy to hold on to a boyfriend) even though we really liked the dancing and singing, which are top-notch every week. So we blew it off for a few weeks, then came back to it again one week and got re-hooked by the musical numbers all over again. The first season just ended and did a pretty good job of tying up loose ends, we thought. It also left unresolved the plotline of the evil cheerleader's coach who wants to get the teacher who's the glee club sponsor fired. I just read a very good, thoughtful and laser-focused essay by Sylvie Kim of The Antisocial Ladder, which was also re-posted on Hyphen's excellent blog, that I think everyone should read.

Dawen, LA-based Asian American R&B singer-songwriter The first single from Dawen's debut album, "American Me,"which was released back in September, wastes no time stating his passion for Asian American identity. "Flip through the paper, turn on the telly, go to a movie," he croons in his supple, silky soprano. Then he slips into the first verse:
Just because you saw the movie Crouching Tiger Doesn’t mean that I know kung-fu And just because Mr. Yan has an accent Doesn’t mean that I’ve got one too People tell me I “speak good English” Or that I’m “too thin to be Bruce Lee” Where do they get their preconceptions Of what I’m supposed to be?
That's his first single, but the first track on the album, is more blunt in addressing the inequities of many immigrants of color to the U.S.:
Welcome to the USA Freedom is your right Land of opportunity Only if you’re white Welcome to the USA Sea to shining sea I give my money, give my life Still they stare at me Welcome, Welcome, hey…
On the third track, "Ku Li," Dawen weaves in the lyrics from the folk song, "I've been working on the railroad," into a stunning statement about how Chinese immigrants were treated as slave labor during the taming of the American West. Dawen What's amazing, despite such in-your-face lyrics, is that Dawen wraps his message in an incredible wealth of warm musicality, starting with his soulful R&B vocals to his must-be-classically-and-jazz-trained keyboards and his guitar work, and his hooky instincts for get-in-your-head melodies and late-night funk bedrock rhythms. The album is a mellow, low-key wonder that can play in the background or zoom into the foreground with the sharply-observed social activism of the first eight tracks.

MAY 2011 UPDATE: After a year and a half of hard work, revisions and improvements, East West Players has opened a finished production of "Krunk Fu Battle Battle" which runs through June 26, 2011. If you're in LA or gonna be in LA, don't miss this musical -- we wish we could fly from Denver to see it! Here's a video trailer: Now, back to the original post: It's not often that we get the chance to see the embryonic stage of a theatrical project, and see how a play is developed. So we were fortunate that our visit to LA to attend the BANANA conference of Asian American bloggers coincided with a free "workshop" performance of a new project being developed by East West Players. "Krunk Fu Battle Battle," is a hip-hop musical, which features hip-hop music and b-boy dancing, woven around familiar but tried-and-true plots of a boy who falls in love with a girl from the other side, and has a mentor who helps him overcome his obstacles. Think "Romeo and Juliet" meets "West Side Story" meets "Karate Kid." East West Players produced a reading of the play, which is in very early stages, by rehearsing a partial script, several songs and dance numbers, and performing a 35-minute excerpt for anyone who showed up, then asked audience members for their opinions and reactions. The preview was hosted by the Japanese American National Museum (the EW Players' home, the David Henry Hwang Theatre around the block in Little Tokyo, was busy with performances of its latest play, "Po Boy Tango").

Prediction: Denver band Hello Kavita is bound for national glory. Should musicians be praised and have the spotlight shined on them simply because they're Asian American? Of course not. But if some of us AAPI bloggers didn't pay attention to the Asian American artists out there, they may go quietly under the radar and not get any attention at all. Not that we make such a difference -- success in the music biz is such a random, arbitrary brass ring no matter what you are or who you are. That's the conversation I found myself having with Joe Nguyen of, the Pho King of the World, Ultimate Expert on all Asian American performers criss-crossing the country, and the ones who hail right here from Colorado, the other night during the Release Party for Hello Kavita's very excellent "To a Loved One" CD at the Hi-Dive, a popular local music club. Actually, this conversation took place before Hello Kavita hit the stage, during the opening act, Houses, which had a keyboard player that we figured for a Hapa, either Japanese or Korean mixed race. The fact that we focused on the guy because of his ethnicity even though he wasn't the main player in Houses got me thinking that it's silly to write about Asian American performers just because they're Asian American. And yet, that's the reason I made my way late on a Saturday night to see Hello Kavita. After a long career as a music critic, I'm not big on going out to clubs to see bands anymore, but this one is special. Joe had been raving about them for a couple of years, and he has good taste. The band's led by Corey Teruya, who's Japanese American born in Hawai'i and raised in Boulder. The music's credited to the entire band, but I'm guessing he's the creative spark that runs the engine under the musical chassis. It's still so rare to find a rock band fronted by an Asian American -- with the exception of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who paved that road from the Denver area 20 years ago -- that I wanted to make my way out to catch their live show.

I know it's several months late, but I didn't see a lot of sites spreading this around. Back in 2007, after the prison in Cebu, Philippines started using dance as a way to rehabilitate its prisoners by having them participate in a group creative endeavor and letting them perform for visitors, a video of the inmates grooving in the prison yard to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became a runaway sensation on YouTube -- as of this writing, there are a mind-boggling 34,505,236 views and counting. They've danced since then to rock, classical, R&B and Filipino music. The prison's security consultant, Byron F. Garcia, the man who came up with the idea, even has a byronfgarcia YouTube channel where he shares the prisoners' awesome performances. But the coolest and most moving of them might be the above 10-minute tribute to Michael Jackson, which was choreographed and rehearsed in a 10-hour-straight session after the prisoners heard about his death, and performed performed on June 27 (Jackson died June 25 in the U.S., but it was June 26 in the Philippines by then). It's a testament to Garcia's progressive thinking on rehabilitating criminals, that these men (and some women, who are in a separate wing) can pull together and create what are essentially great performance art. Back in 2007, on the video of the Pointers Sisters' "Jump," Garcia notes, "This is a tribute to all Prison facilities in the Philippines (8 and counting) who are now adopting this non-violent approach to rehabilitation! Thank you, inmates deserve a second chance! If we make prisons a living hell for them, then we might just be sending out devils once they are released. Cruel methods to achieve discipline are a thing of the past! So, keep on dancing!" Here are the original "Thriller" video, and a performance of "Dangerous" (you can click to see all the videos of the inmates, and subscribe to them on Garcia's YouTube Channel page):

The poster for the original Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in 1969I'm a big fan of Ang Lee, the Taiwan-born director of such terrific films as "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain." He glides effortlessly between cultures, putting Chinese values to celluloid in one movie and reflecting America in the next. He also switches genres easily, from comedy to period pieces to drama to action. He's had one certifiable dud in my opinion: his take on "The Hulk." Now, I think there are two. Erin and I were sadly disappointed when we went to see "Taking Woodstock," Lee's take on the 1969 music festival that stands today as an iconic milestone of the rock era and baby boom generation. It's a nostalgic look back at Woodstock, the rock festival held between Aug. 15-17, 1969 in upstate New York. It's become iconic of the era because of the 1970 hit documentary film "Woodstock" and Joni Mitchell's song of the same name (which was a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and a lesser hit version by Mathews Southern Comfort). The song enshrined the number of people who flocked to the three-day concert: "half a million strong," probably taken from early news reports, but the turnout was probably closer to 300,000. Still an impressive number of attendees for what came to define the rock generation's tribalist instincts. Michael Lang from the original Woodstock festival Michael Lang riding his motorcycle around the original festival, captured in the "Woodstock" DVD. Mamie Gummer as Tisha, Jonathan Groff as Michael Lang and Demetri Martin as Elliott Teichberg in director Ang Lee Jonathan Groff playing Michael Lang in Ang Lee's fictionalized Woodstock weekend, along with Mamie Gummer as Tisha and Demetri Martin as Elliott Teichberg. In Lee's misty-eyed look back at 40 years ago, all the surfaces are polished just right. In an early scene, the black-and-white TV in young Elliott Teichberg's parents' rundown motel in White Lake, a hamlet in the town of Bethel, New York, shows the July 20, 1969 Apollo moon landing, just a few weeks before the big rock show. The characters have the right hair, the right clothes, even the right hats (check out the mysterious and pointless character Tisha, and the woman who's captured in Woodstock documentary footage with the real Michael Lang). The cars, of course, are spot-on from that model year and before, right down to the hippie-decorated VW vans. Lee even includes several signature shots from the Woodstock doc, with his fictionalized spin. As Jake rides with a motorcycle cop through the traffic jam to get to the concert site, they pass a group of nuns who are being filmed by "Woodstock" director Michael Wadleigh's crew and one nun flashes a peace sign. Later, Elliott walks past a row of porta-potties where a film crew is interviewing the guy who's cleaning them out. He also spends some time sliding in the mud, another re-creation of a classic scene from the concert. These touchstone scenes from the original movie are fun to catch in the context of Lee's movie. What's completely missing from "Taking Woodstock" is an understanding of and appreciation for -- hell, even baldfaced nostalgia for -- the music that drew the hundreds of thousands to the festival in the first place.

Here's a video that was coincidentally uploaded to YouTube by singer-songwriter David Choi, whose stuff I like very much, on June 23, just two days before Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop" suddenly and shockingly died. (It's the third-listed link on You Tube when you search for "Michael Jackson.") "Ben" is an unusual choice for a Michael Jackson cover -- a moody, plodding story-song that makes sense as a story only if you know it as the title song from a 1972 horror B-movie about a boy (not the young MJ) who befriends a pet rat named "Ben" who leads a pack of vicious killer rats. It was the sequel to the equally cheesy (no pun intended, honest) 1971 movie, "Willard." Choi posted his thoughts on Jackson's death on his blog, and like many others, he admits he sees Jackson's influence more clearly now that the man is gone.