Bringing Queer/Asian Stories to the Stage with Melissa Li and Kit Yan
BY JASMINE SHARMA
Edited by Nicky
Finding a creative partner can be tricky. Partners must be able to utilize respective talents, blend different ideas, and leave each other enough freedom and space at work with trust and confidence. At the end, these are all matters of balance. An example of a dream team that demonstrates balance well is Kit Yan and Melissa Li.
Yan, an award-winning artist, was born in Enping, China, and raised in Hawaii. Yan’s works have been produced by the American Repertory Theater, the Smithsonian, and Dixon Place among many others. Yan has been a resident of The Civilians, Musical Theatre Factory, as well as the Village Theatre. They were also a WP/Public Theater Trans Lab fellow.
Melissa Li, a composer, performer, and writer, is a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award and also a Queer|Art|Mentorship fellow. Li’s musical works include Surviving the Nian (The Theater Offensive, IRNE Award for Best New Play 2007), 99% Stone (The Theater Offensive), and Interstate (New York Musical Festival). Li’s works have been supported by organizations including the National Performance Network, New England Foundation for the Arts, Dixon Place, terraNOVA Collective, and Musical Theater Factory, etc.
Kit Yan and Melissa Li can marry not only ideas, but also mediums. Together, the two have created Interstate, a new musical that has been selected as one of the 12 productions to take part in the 2018 New York Musical Festival Next Link Project. Performances of the musical will be running through this Sunday July 15 at the Acorn Theatre.
(Kit Yan as KY, Melissa Li as ML）
Let’s start from the beginning - can you talk a bit about how you two met?
ML: We met in the early 2000s in Boston, where I'm from. Kit went to school in Boston and we ended up getting to know each other better in 2007…
KY: We met at an Asian Sisters in Action event in Boston where we were both performing! After that we kept running into each other until we were regulars at a Queer Asian Cabaret where I asked Melissa in the dressing room if she'd quit her job and go on tour with me. And she did.
At what point did you realize that the two of you worked well as collaborators, so much so that you’d develop a musical together?
ML: We knew we were good collaborators when we went on the road as Good Asian Drivers. We were our own talent, our own manager, tour planner, PR agent, marketing team, and record producer. We would trade off jobs based on what we were good with -- Kit was the businessman, and I was the organizer and executer. But still, this is our first musical together so it's a learning process, and we're discovering ways to be better collaborators every day.
KY: We knew we worked well together when we started performing together in Boston, but not to the extent that we'd write a musical together! That's something we learned on the way.
How have your individual upbringings and identities influenced the work you make? Have you ever felt certain limitations or advantages in this industry because of your identities?
ML: Growing up I didn't see a lot of Queer Asian representation in art and media, so I internalized this idea that only white stories deserve to be told. It’s very isolating for a young Queer person of color to experience that. I learned later on (after seeing movies like Saving Face, Fire, Happy Together, The Wedding Banquet) the importance of seeing our own stories reflected. There's not nearly enough out there -- I can count all of them on one hand -- so as a writer I only want to write Queer work for our POC communities.
KY: I identify as a queer and trans yellow american artist, which is always at the heart of my work. These are communities that I care about, that I write about, and who mean everything to me. I have absolutely felt limitations because of my identities in the entertainment industry many times and not because of my talent or skill but because I've felt like myself and many of the other brilliant artists I know have been creating art that hasn't always been readable to mainstream audiences who have dismissed our art just because they couldn't understand it or it wasn't written for them.
Do you feel one or more identities may be in conflict with another identity you share? How, if applicable, have you navigated that?
KY: I don't feel conflicted about being a complex human with multitudes of identities, but I do feel that when people ask folx to choose one identity over another it creates a feeling that a person needs to be reduced to one aspect of who they are.
ML: Like any other community of course there are homophobic attitudes in the Asian community and of course there racist attitudes in the Queer community. These are problems that I want to tackle through our intersectional art, as well as the larger problem of white supremacy.
Do you feel a responsibility for your specific identities when it comes to making art?
KY: I absolutely do.
ML: Although I do not believe that just because we are Queer people of color this means that we speak for all Queer people of color, for me personally I do believe that we have a responsibility to use our art in our voices to uplift those in our community. My mother asked me years ago why I wasn't writing for Disney instead or something less “controversial”. The problem with that thinking is, if we as queer people of color don't tell our own stories, then who will?
KY: Writing, performing, and producing are things that I never take lightly and carry immense privilege and responsibility. When I create art, it is with much care and consideration for my communities. My work is highly personal, but I am the person I am because of my friends, family, and communities and so when I write about myself, I am writing about many people who have been a part of my life.
Let’s talk about your current project, Interstate, going up at NYMF. What has that process been like?
ML: The process has been a really difficult one. I don't think we’ve ever been in a situation where we've had to do so much in such little time with so few resources. Raising so much money by ourselves to put up a professional full production for 5 performances is not a simple feat. Thankfully, we have an amazing team of producers and it has been really exciting to see this production performed by such talented actors bringing our words and music to life.
KY: It's been a beautiful journey over the past 5 years of building community, making mistakes, learning, and doing the right thing for the characters in our show and the world we want to build. This next step for us is huge and has taken a team of so many talented and committed folx. I've learned so much about communicating, about respect, and about being an intentional artist which is at the heart of the show.
What was casting (a cast which is stellar, by the way), like for this show? There are definitely very specific roles.
ML: Time and again we've heard casting directors come up to us and say that this is not a show that can be cast the way we want it to be cast. Our show features a 16 year old transgender South Asian character, and it's not even the only Asian transgender character in our show. Casting directors will come to us and suggest actors who are either cisgender or East Asian. We are not interested in having cisgender actors portray transgender characters, and we are not interested in changing a character's ethnicity just because it would be easier to cast. Casting directors would tell us that this part was not possible to cast because there was no such person out there who could sing and act. We refused to believe it.
For this production, instead of hiring a casting director, we decided to roll up our sleeves and launch a national search for our teenage transgender character. I personally emailed every single college musical theatre program, college drama program, and performing arts high school in the country and in the UK. In addition, I emailed every single queer youth theatre program, and queer youth program in general. What resulted were 12 talented beautiful TGNC/non-binary young South Asian actors who auditioned for the role. We ended up casting a junior in Ithaca College Sushma Saha whose brilliance we're really excited for the world to see.
KY: Casting has always been a challenge for this show. People had always told us that it will be a hard show to cast, which only made us more determined. I'm proud to say that this production will feature tgnc identified actors in tgnc roles and poc actors in poc role. We wouldn't settle for anything less.
What makes this show different from all your other projects, and different from every other musical out there right now?
ML: I can guarantee that you've never seen a Queer/Trans Asian American musical performed on an Off-Broadway size platform ever. In addition to that, the style of our music reflects the style of performance that Kit and I did when we were on tour -- a blend of spoken word poetry and pop rock music. It will be an experience you won't forget.
KY: This is my first musical! So that's different lol. As for other musicals I'm not sure we've ever seen a queer and trans asian musical written by queer and trans asians on an off-broadway platform. It's a moment for sure, but we don't want this to be just a moment, we need this to break open the doors for more voices.
Why do people need to get out to NYMF and see this show, this moment?
KY: LIMITED RUN! We want our communities to join us in witnessing the development of this piece, to watch the show evolve, to see our characters grow, and to grow with us. We also want to be held accountable to our story so we need our folx to give us feedback, to hold us to the highest standards, and to feel through this with us.
ML: Because our story is important! Our story is written for our community and it's about survival and hope and love and joy -- all the things we don't see trans people go through. And all of this through an Asian-American lens. It's definitely a must-see.
(Buy Tickets to Interstate here)
Every 10 years, everything shifts. What’s one shift you’re hoping for the future 10 years away?
ML: In 10 years, whether or not Interstate is still around, I hope to see more stories featuring trans people of color. And I hope to see more roles for trans people of color as a result of that!
KY: In 10 years, I'll be 44, the unluckiest year for a Chinese person lol. I hope this show in 10 years is in high schools, colleges, community theaters, and regional theaters around the country so that young folx out there can play roles that reflect themselves and I hope there are way more shows like our out there in 10 years. There has to be.
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