Thoughts on History - Japan's Victory in the Japanese-Russian War

Previously posted on Facebook

Two years ago, I couldn't have cared less what the Japanese-Russian war of 1904-1905 was and what it meant.

While reading and researching Four Immigrants Manga, however, I learned that the Japanese victory in the war meant a great deal of pride for an Asian nation that was trying to prove its might in the face of Western super-powers. And I thought, "I get that. How cool for the Japanese at that time to feel proud of that victory." A sort of "We've finally arrived; we'll finally be taken seriously" kind of moment.

But while reading Quiet Odyssey, a first-hand account of Mary Paik Lee - a first-generation Korean immigrant who came to the US in 1904, that thought has been colored differently. In her memoirs, Lee explains that her family fled Korea in order to escape the Japanese in the aftermath of the Japanese-Russian war. The Japanese victory had opened the door for Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, thus leading to nearly half-a-century of devastating violence against and oppression of the Korean people. This leads to the Pacific events of World War II, which leads to the splitting of Korea along the 38th parallel, which leads to the Korean War, which leads directly to the hardships of my parents - both born just a year before the Korean War began.

Which leads eventually to their desire for a better life in the States, which somehow, oddly enough, leads to my existence.

(Incidentally, all this also leads to the recent Sony Pictures fiasco - not my parents' hardships or me being born, but the stuff before that.)

This simultaneously blows my mind and hurts it. Because we want these things to be easy narratives. We want things to be obviously good or obviously bad. Or at least mostly one or the other. But it almost feels like cause-and-effect just goes on automatic, and it doesn't come with a predetermined meaning. I read into it the meaning I can gather, and the danger is that I will fail to realize that every story doesn't just have another side, but has perhaps an infinite number of sides.

There's also a danger in forgetting that I am not an objective observer of history's chains of events. That I come to it with my well-thought reasoning, my less-well-thought speculations, and my unconsciously active prejudices.

For the record, this is not me being angry at the Japanese or trying to place blame ("After all, I have Japanese friends!" wink-wink). I think it's just another instance of awe in the face of history's complexity.

Now... if I could just make a musical out of all this...

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children’s Books

I was recently invited to write a blog post for the Theatre for Young Audiences Blog. Here is the text of the blog:

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children's Books

As a writer of musicals, I am often drawn to books or written stories for inspiration. My first show Tales of Olympus was based on Greek mythology, my second show The Song of the Nightingale used a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as its source material, and my last show was a musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. My next two projects also pull their inspiration from books. Books are the most appealing source material for me because, unlike visual media such as film, there isn’t already an idea of what the universe of the story should look like. Even though vivid illustrations might accompany certain written stories, for me they serve primarily as a starting point for what a theatrical adaptation of that work could look like.

Looking at the season line-ups of many non-profit TYA companies in America, it is clear that books and written stories are the source of most of the work that we produce. This makes sense because our audiences often want to see something that is familiar, even beloved, on our stages. And yet, oddly enough, this is part of the problem we face as theatres trying to embrace multiculturalism. Earlier this year, I heard a KQED Forum discussion on the topic of diversity in children’s books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that of the 3200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 6% featured a character of color. Read that again: 6%. This does not reflect the diversity of America. This means that books from which TYA companies want to create new works skew towards the ethnic majority in our culture. If only 6% of children’s books feature characters of color, then that percentage will most likely be transferred to our stages.

This troubles me for two reasons. One: It limits the level of empathy that we can introduce to children. Two: It keeps children who don’t identify as belonging to the majority in the realm of the “other.”

On the first point, theatre companies of all stripes tout empathy as one of the most important experiences we offer our audiences. I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own. The depth of empathy we encourage them to experience will be limited to the culture they already know. If, however, we give them an opportunity to relate to characters from different cultures, it can help broaden their knowledge of the human experience. This not only teaches them the richness of cultures that exist outside their own, but that the people within those cultures experience hopes, obstacles and emotions just like any other human being.

On the second point, if our stories remain in the realms of the majorities, those who do not self-identify as part of those majorities are unintentionally sent the message that they are an outlier, an “other.” They merely get to observe the stories of the “main culture” on our stages, but are not encouraged to think of themselves as the leads in our stories. Personal example: As an Asian American, I have grappled with feeling like a career in musical theatre was not an option for me. There were (and still are) very few examples of musicals about or starring Asian American men, and musical theatre’s pantheon of writers remains overwhelmingly white. Thankfully, I have forged a career for myself despite this dearth of predecessors. But I know first-hand how a lack of seeing myself on-stage led to a profound internal struggle about what I “was allowed” to aim for and accomplish.

One thing we do to address this is to practice open casting, where characters who are white in book-form are played on-stage by actors of a different ethnicity. While I think this is a great way of getting multicultural representation in our casts, it does not get at the question of “Whose stories are we telling?” In light of this question, the idea of open casting merely becomes a short-term solution to an on-going problem.

In order to see multiculturalism more accurately reflected on our TYA stages, we need to start by supporting multicultural story-generators, namely, writers. Again, TYA organizations have already begun doing this by commissioning new works written by playwrights and composers from a variety of backgrounds (myself included). But I think we can go even one step further. TYA organizations should be actively supporting multicultural children’s book authors, since they often provide the source materials for TYA writers to adapt.

There are at least two ways TYA producers can do this.

  1. Support the development and promotion of diverse children’s book authors. The good news is that there is already a movement within the children’s book community toward promoting multiculturalism (check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign). We could partner with such movements knowing that supporting them will directly affect the stories that will come to our stages.
  2. Focus in on that 6% of stories that actually featured a character of color. Get to know these authors who are already creating multicultural stories. Find which of their stories excite us, and adapt them into new TYA works. Express to their publishers and/or agents that we are interested in seeing the future work of these authors.

I know the problem of bringing more multicultural stories to our stages can seem insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s about solving the problem in one fell swoop. It’s finding what small steps we can take to eventually find traction toward solving the problem in the long-term. And a very tangible step we can all take is supporting the creation of multicultural children’s books, the birthplace of so many of our amazing works.

Creativity Quotation #6

"I try to resist composing for as long as I can. I really wanna get at something essential before I start manipulating notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind's ear as long as I can. It's maybe an inefficient way to work, but it has worked for me. I find that if I'm trying to remember... trying to hear something that I can't quite name, it focuses my attention in a certain way. And then I finally start composing when I can't not compose. When I have to write it down." - John Luther Adams, composer

Posted on November 21, 2014 and filed under Composition, Creative.

My Experience at the NAMT Festival of New Musicals

As part of my 2014 career map, I set a goal of attending a musical theatre festival in New York. Thanks to funds provided by Theatre Bay Area's Titan Award and the influence of my mentor, Leslie Martinson, I was able to tag along with TheatreWorks to NAMT’s Festival of New Musicals last week at New World Stages in NYC (Holy Hyperlinks!). My main objectives were to observe, learn and get a pulse on what is happening in the musical theatre industry.

I was so excited to receive my packet and name badge!!!

I was so excited to receive my packet and name badge!!!

Here’s how the two-day festival worked. Eight writing teams, who were chosen prior to the festival, prepared 45-minute versions of their current projects for presentation on one of two stages. Festival attendees were assigned one of two show-tracks. On the first day, we waited in line to enter a theatre, watched one team present their 45-minute snippet, exited into the lobby where the writers handed out demos and made themselves available for conversation, then immediately queued up again to re-enter the theatre to watch the next presentation. This repeated until we saw four shows that day. The second day was nearly identical, except we watched the remaining four shows in the second theatre. There was also a special songwriting showcase on the first day, during which four writing teams were able to share two songs from their current projects. Basically, it was a full two days of musical theatre. I should say, NEW musical theatre.

I won't go into too much detail (if you're curious about the line-up of shows, click here). I will say that there was such a refreshing breadth of musical theatre styles represented in the festival. Some were very contemporary and varied, while others stayed true to a particular culture or time-period. There were love stories and tragedies and hilarious comedies. And my God, the talent! From the writing to the musicians to the actors, it was clear to me that these were not mere dabblers in the art of musical theatre. These folks took what they were doing seriously and poured themselves into their projects.

I think that’s what stood out to me most about the Festival of New Musicals. Everyone there loved musicals and wanted to catch a glimpse of where the art form is headed. Theatre companies were interested in finding a work they could invest in and help develop into a fully realized show. I was surrounded by people who loved musical theatre as much as I do. I come away from the festival with great, practical insight into what gets a show to its next steps. But perhaps more importantly, I come away feeling like my passion for musical theatre is not silly or ungrounded - it's a passion shared by others - and I am invigorated to jump right back into my own writing.