Now an annual event, SIS Productions‘ walking tour of the International District this year from October 2 to 5 centers on the role women play in the community. The tour is entitled “Revealed: Celebrate Women—A Theatrical Tour of the International District.”
Kathy Hsieh, director of SIS Productions, was kind enough to take time to respond to questions and also get responses from her female cast on this year’s production.
Alan Chong Lau: How did SIS come up with the idea of a walking tour of the ID with Asian American female figures both living and historical?
Kathy Hsieh: This is our fourth year that SIS Productions has done an annual theatrical walking tour of the ID. The first year was based on the people who live and work in the ID. In 2012, it was based on the people who visit the ID and why. Last year’s tour was inspired by Bruce Lee. And this year, to go with our Celebrate Women season, we decided to focus on the women who have helped shape the neighborhood.
The original inspiration for the walking tour came from the fact that I’ve always loved site specific work (art and performance work that is inspired by the space that it is sited in), walking tours, and the International District. So why not create a project that incorporated all three? It also seemed like a terrific way to create greater visibility of the International District by bringing in people who are less familiar with it. And each year we end up utilizing the talent of between 15–to–30 artists, writers, directors, and performers, so it’s a great way for us to create opportunities for our local Asian American talent pool.
Lau: How did you decide who to include?
Hsieh: Annually, Theatre Puget Sound does a month-long (now year-long) event called Arts Crush to try to encourage arts organizations to engage the broader community in more innovative ways. Since the goals of Arts Crush were perfectly aligned with our theatrical walking tour concept, we chose to produce the tours as a part of Arts Crush.
Lau: How did you research the stories? Did you read books, talk to people who knew them, or interview them directly?
Hsieh: My piece, about two teenage girls who meet at age 14 and then we see them again at age 33, and then again at age 79, was inspired by two things. First, I’ve always been fascinated by the elderly. Whether I’m on a bus or walking, whenever I see them I always wonder what their lives have been. I saw these two elderly Chinese women, probably in their 80s walking and talking and laughing, each with their grocery carts, side-by-side and I loved that they were so connected with each other. I wondered when they’d first met, whether they’d been friends their entire lives, and I was so curious whether they’d ever married, how many children they might have had, etc. So I wanted write a piece loosely based on a possible friendship between two women over time.
The second thing that inspired me was when I was doing a production of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and trying to research women who lived in Chinatown during the 1940s and 1950s and found nothing in history books, films, or online other than one national website about Asian American women in general. And it wasn’t until I started looking into the obituaries of women that I knew and admired that I started finding a little more.
I came across a local compilation of brief oral histories done with many of the people I knew growing up in Seattle—people like Ruth Chinn, Vera Ing, Vi Mar—many of whom were and are incredibly strong, active women who did so much for Chinatown. Yet in another generation, no one may know about what they’ve done because it isn’t really documented in a broader way. So my piece also tries to show that often all we know about these amazing women is very little, but hopefully it will pique people’s curiosity to want to know more.
As I was writing, I used different facts about a variety of women as background research to create my characters, inspired by the lives of Vera Ing, Ruth Chinn, Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Shigeko Uno, and Nobu Miyamoto (over half of whom I’ve had the great fortune of knowing or meeting and talking with at some point in my life, and others of whom I’ve followed for years).
Celeste Williams: I decided to base my script on my own family. I had learned that my Great, Great Grandmother, Kame Takahashi, was a famous dance teacher in Japan and had opened a dance school, the Matsuba-kai, in what was then Japantown (Nihonmachi), in the early 1900s. She and her daughter, Shin, had taught music and dance in Seattle. They performed at Nippon Kan Hall and led the annual Bon Dance along with other dance schools. Shin was known as “Kiyohana,” or “mistress of the dancers.” All of Kame’s children played a multitude of classical instruments including the Koto and Shamisen.
I looked through some family photos from that time period and records of when my family arrived from Japan in 1904, interviewed family members, researched books, photos, and articles from the Wing Luke and Central Library. I watched videos of the Bon Odori. Ronald Edge and Paul Dorpat from the Seattle Times forwarded some old maps and photos. I also took dance classes at the Seattle Buddhist Church in preparation for the 2014 Bon Odori. There I chatted with a couple dancers and organizers. I also had email correspondence with some members of the Seattle Buddhist Church where I learned some of the history of the Bon Odori.
Seayoung Yim: I interviewed three Asian American activists with deep connections in the ID or the local API community. One woman who grew up hanging out in the ID has seen it change over time. The other two are founder mothers of community organizations as well as involved in civic engagement. All had a deep sense of responsibility to the community, and are rebel rousers for justice. I used the interviews as inspiration for the play but none of the characters are exactly derived from a particular person.
I met with these women in person and they all have such rich histories of activism. I was unable to include all their wisdom in a four-minute piece, but I hope to develop a longer piece in the future. I also talked to my friends about what role karaoke plays in their lives and why it is important to them.
Hsieh: Each year, we try to introduce the audience to different locales in the ID, but we site the pieces based on what might best fit each script. There’s always a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces. This year being primarily outside to fit the context of each scene on the tour—some based on historical or cultural significance and others based on the demands of the piece.
Lau: How did each actress prepare for their roles?
Helen Kay: Since I am only in the last part of the play, I read all the play to get a feel for the atmosphere of it and the relationships between the characters. Then I looked into my own past and relationships to get a feel for what the character may be like.
Tomoko Saito: Celeste sent us some reference materials to review, which helped greatly. I was cast as a 60-year-old grandmother, so I called my granny in Japan to get the feel for it, too. She does teach Japanese traditional dance in Japan so it was such a coincidence.
Meg Tapucol-Provo: I prepared for my role by talking with Kathy [Hsieh] about my character and discovered that she had much in common with my husband’s mom. I thought about Asian American women like Nobu McCarthy and Grace Lee Boggs, who had married African-American men at a time when miscegenation was still illegal in several states. And I felt very inspired by these women, who devoted their lives to social justice, as that is something that I am passionate about as well.
Emily Jo Testa: Preparing for my roles involved studying YouTube tutorials of Japanese Bon dancing, reflecting on my activist past, and learning about an obscure yet groundbreaking filmmaker whose work has mostly disappeared. Preparing for the character of filmmaker Esther Eng was the most challenging because I know nothing about her other than a basic biography and a few photos. What makes her even more difficult to play is not being able to see her films, which would give so much more insight into her as an artist. However, there’s a beauty in not knowing enough because I have to rely on my imagination even more to create the character, plus the angst of not knowing is great to use for another character I’m playing who must rely on her imagination as well to connect to her family roots.
Elizabeth Wu: It really helped me to research the historical and political context surrounding my character. Because we only see 1964 Lily for a brief moment in time, I really approached her from the outside-in. My research led me to the stories of post-WWII interned Japanese Americans, the Asian American Civil Rights Movement during the era of Black Power, racism as a result of the Vietnam War, in addition to images, artifacts, and information regarding the International District.
Lau: What do you hope your audience will come away with after this performance?
Saito: I hope the audience will feel those characters real, and know how they endured the hardest time. Although our scene looks like two old ladies simply dancing, it is actually them trying to speak up their existence through the dance. I hope their strength within will come across to the audience.
Tapucol-Provo: I hope the audience will come away with the realization that Asian-American women also contributed to the fight for civil rights in our country. Often discussions about history ignore the contributions of women, and more so women of color. It is as if we are invisible. That needs to change. Until now, I only knew of Nobu McCarthy as an actress, and was unaware of her commitment to social justice. Very inspiring.
Wu: This tour is as much about the space as it is about the characters. My greatest hope is that our audience leaves with a greater appreciation for (and deeper connection with) the International District, its history, and the people who continue to shape its community and culture.
For more information on the tour, go to http://celebr8women.wordpress.com/events-2/revealed/. The tour is free, but advance reservations are required to guarantee a spot and to receive a tour route. Email [email protected] to make a reservation.
Revealed: Celebrate Women
A Theatrical Tour of the International District
• Thursday, October 2 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, October 4 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
• Sunday, October 5 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Editor’s Note (10/7/2014 at 2:52 p.m.): Seayoung Yim’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The correction has been made. The IE apologizes for the error.