Posts Tagged Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song: Featuring Wesley Mouri

mouri-wesley-color

As part of the cast of Flower Drum Song, Wesley Mouri plays Wang Ta, the son of a Chinese opera actor and immigrant to San Francisco named Wang Chi-Yang. Ta is in love with Chinese American showgirl Linda Low but also falling for a new immigrant from China, Wu Mei-Li.

Recently, we asked Wes, “What is most meaningful for you about the role that you play in Flower Drum Song–whether it be your particular character role, your overall role of being part of the production, or both?”

Here is his answer:

Flower Drum Song centers around Asian American theater performers fighting for representation and acceptance in a white majority society, while still desperately trying to uphold and honor the traditions of their ancestors before them. To some, it may sound like a dated plot line; but for Asian artists living in 2017, the struggle has not changed.

Representation of Asian stories, starring Asian characters, played by Asian actors is missing from the American theater. I know that might come across as a generalized and overly bold statement, but the Asian community in America has often been cited as “The Invisible Minority.” Cultural upbringing has created a “don’t speak up, don’t stand out, just put your head down and work hard” mentality for Asian Americans. Whenever an Asian person speaks up about discrimination, people respond by saying, “All of the stereotypes about Asians are positive! You’re really good at math and the girls are sexy and you know kung fu!” This only perpetuates the stereotypes of Asian characters in the media. Nerdy, de-masculinized men. Sexualized Asian schoolgirls. Mystic foreign martial arts masters. This is why a show like Flower Drum Song is so relevant and important to produce in our modern society.

Three-dimensional characters, with high stakes objectives. Romantic entanglements. Standing center stage and delivering a show stopper. These are opportunities that are taken for granted by many actors, but for the Asian performer, these opportunities often never arise. Asians can be the mysterious native (i.e., Bloody Mary in South Pacific), the sterilized simpleton (i.e., Chinese Laundrymen in Thoroughly Modern Millie), or the “Engrish”- speaking comic relief (i.e., Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Mrs. Swan from MadTV, The “Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra” Waiters in A Christmas Story, Mrs. Kim from Gilmore Girls, Rajesh Koothrapali from The Big Bang Theory, etc., etc., etc.) .For the Asian American performer, playing a leading role in any form of media is a huge deal. 

I’m playing a character named Wang Ta. He desperately wants to honor his father and maintain the Chinese opera traditions but also yearns to join the modern world with his “bold and brassy nightclub show.” He is head over heels in love with the unabashed Linda Low, yet also finds himself drawn to innocent and pure Mei-Li. On top of all that, he is struggling to pursue his American dream while holding on to his Chinese roots. Can someone be 100% Chinese AND 100% American? Now THAT is a challenging and interesting character for an actor to invest in.

I have been moved to tears multiple times during the rehearsal process simply by looking around the room and seeing this diverse cast of Asian American performers fully investing and pushing themselves to be more than a funny sidekick or a splash of color in the ensemble. The most meaningful part of Flower Drum Song for me is simply being a proud Asian American actor, playing an Asian American character, telling an Asian American story. It’s my first opportunity to do so, and I hope it’s not the last.

Wesley Mouri as Ta and Stephanie Bertumen as Mei Li Photo by Connie Shaver

Wesley Mouri as Ta and Stephanie Bertumen as Mei Li
Photo by Connie Shaver

WESLEY’S BACKGROUND:

Park Square Debut Representative Theatre Mu Performing Arts: A Little Night Music; Guthrie Theater: South Pacific, The Cocoanuts, The Music Man; Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: Hello Dolly!, The Little Mermaid, Bye Bye Birdie; Children’s Theatre Company: Cinderella; Ordway: Broadway Songbook: Rebels on Broadway Training B.A., Theater Arts, Bethel University

 

Flower Drum Song – Co-Produced with Mu Performing Arts

Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Lyndsey Harter

Ringing in the New Year on the Proscenium stage at Park Square will be Flower Drum Song, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a book by David Henry Hwang. The play is a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. As noted in the previous Chronicle, it is being stage managed by Jamie J. Kranz, and assisting her in that role is Assistant Stage Manager, Lyndsey R. Harter.

Harter has been with Park Square since the fall of 2014, although it was just this past one when she was able to join Actors’ Equity, the professional union for American actors and stage managers in the theatre. This distinction is something an aspiring individual must work for and Harter was able to helm her first play with such a distinction at Park Square with The House on Mango Street. This was after a summer stage managing plays at the Great River Shakespeare Festival with oft PST director, Doug Scholz-Carlson.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

 

In fact, Harter frequently collaborates elsewhere and will follow Flower Drum Song with another play from Mu Performing Arts in the spring at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. She and Randy Reyes have previously worked together at Park Square on Murder for Two.

So how did Harter find herself in this position? Raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she moved to St. Paul in order to study costume design at Hamline University. Despite notable achievements, including two awards with the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, she began to gravitate toward stage management and the unique challenges it afforded. It was during her junior year the stage manager of one of the school’s plays had too many conflicts and needed a new person. Employing her excellent organizational skills and affable attitude, Harter was well poised to jump in. She immediately fell in love with seeing how “all the pieces fit together and how one change affects five others.”

Harter grew up in a military family and while real-world duties of actors and soldiers couldn’t be more different, they both share a sense of extreme discipline and teamwork. These attributes have no doubt been an aid to her career. Whenever she is not behind the tech table she loves to stay physically active and finds exercise to be a great way to find “balance and mental space.” Oh, and peanut butter M&Ms are also a little pleasure of hers.

Who knew all of that was going on behind the scenes at Park Square? When you see Flower Drum Song, don’t hesitate to thank the crew and if you want to bring some of those M&Ms, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Come see it on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square, running January 20 – February 19.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

Tea with Toy: Chatting with the Star of the Chop Suey Circuit

“Why don’t you come over for tea?” She asked.

Through the course of our conversation she invited me over two more times, each time being reminded by her assistant that I was not, in fact, in the Bay Area.Toy_and_Wing

“Thank you, Dorothy, but I’m calling from Minneapolis. In Minnesota.”

Her assistant, Mark, had warned me that she has a tendency to repeat herself. She was just about to celebrate her 90th birthday, and sometimes she forgets when she had already mentioned something. He said that his job was to help her keep her mind on track, in addition to answering her phone and handling her email.

There was a slight ringing in my ears as we talked, not from any technical problems with my phone, but from the shock that I was actually talking to THE Dorothy Toy, star of the famed Chop Suey circuit of vaudeville; THE Dorothy Toy, of Toy and Wing, the most successful Asian American dance duo in the 1930s and ’40s; THE Dorothy Toy, who I had been reading about for 6 months prior to this phone call.

dorothytoy12  Toy-Dorothy-on-Point

I had reached a point in my career where I, recognizing the dearth of substantive roles for Asian Americans, was considering writing my first full length play. After considering my skill set, I googled “Asian Tap Dancers” and what came back were several news articles, book references, and grainy video clips featuring Toy & Wing.

If you haven’t heard of Toy & Wing or vaudeville’s Chop Suey Circuit, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard about either of these things until I started my research. I became motivated to tell Dorothy’s story by the mere fact that I hadn’t heard of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing, despite learning of their many successes on stage and screen.

Toy & Wing were billed as “The Chinese Fred & Ginger” even though Dorothy was born Dorothy Takahashi and was of Japanese descent. She simply thought Takahashi was too difficult for most people to pronounce and that they had a better chance of getting on a marquee with a shorter name, so she changed her stage name to Dorothy Toy. They were the first Asian Americans to dance at the London Palladium, and the first Asian Americans to dance on Broadway just prior to Paul Wing being drafted into the US Army in 1943 during World War II.

Though she was referred to as The Chinese Ginger Rogers, Dorothy always thought this was a misnomer. She thought of Ginger Rogers as very smooth and graceful, while Dorothy thought of herself as a strong, athletic toe dancer. As you watch this next clip, keep an eye on Dorothy’s feet. She does the majority of the dance on her toes. And if Paul Wing’s dancing looks somewhat familiar, he danced Legomania, a style made popular by Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz film.


FullSizeRender 2Their success was only one side of the coin, however. Just as they had begun to make a name for themselves both here in the US and internationally, they were invited to perform in a film with Chico Marx in 1942, but a rival dance duo outed Dorothy as being of Japanese ancestry, and in light of the then-recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Toy & Wing were not allowed to appear in the film. They moved to Chicago to regroup, according to Dorothy, while her family was sent to an Internment Camp near Topaz, Utah.

After the war, Toy & Wing got back together and became a regular act at the flagship of the Chop Suey circuit, Forbidden City night club, the setting for C.Y. Lee’s novel upon which Flower Drum Song is based. Dorothy noted that Paul was never quite the same, but they continued to tour and perform across the country.

22eadb0de862766ca957cc7a66128520Dorothy and Paul eventually married, but mostly out of convenience; during lean times, they could save money by booking one hotel room instead of two, and being married helped them justify booking only one room. Dorothy recalled that Paul would often pawn his tuxedo to pay for the room, and buy it back just in time to perform.

This is only a fraction of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing’s story. In May of 2007, I had the honor of meeting Dorothy in person when she–you guessed it–invited me over for tea at her place in Oakland, CA. We sipped sencha while she gave me a tour of her basement ballet studio where she has continued to teach well into her 90s, showed me pictures of her from the 30s and 40s through the 60s, and regaled me with stories of life on the road with Paul, who had passed away in 1997.

Dorothy Toy still lives in Oakland, and is gearing up to celebrate her 100th birthday this May 28, 2017. She is the subject of the documentary, “Dancing Through Life; the Dorothy Toy Story.” She is a living legend; hers are the footprints we walk in, and the shoulders we stand on as Asian American performers. And yet, most Americans don’t know about her. Let’s change that, shall we?

IMG_1128

Dorothy Toy and Me, 2007

 

  And if you’re wondering if I ever wrote my play, I did. It’s called Kicking The Gong Around, which is a reference to a line in Cab Calloway’s song, Minnie the Moocher:

He took her down to Chinatown
and he showed her how to kick the gong around.

Who Tells Your Story?

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time. Photo by T. T. Cheng

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time.
Photo by T. T. Cheng

My first experience with Flower Drum Song was seeing the 1961 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein production when I was a kid. I must admit that, although not a fan of the R&H version, I am absolutely psyched to see the Tony-nominated 2001 version by David Henry Hwang. That’s the one that audiences will see on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from January 20 to February 19.

With an almost wholly Asian American cast, the R&H version of Flower Drum Song was a light romantic comedy to profit from the popularity of such fare at the time. According to David Lewis in his book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals, “Mr. Hammerstein and his colleagues were evidently in no mood to write a musical drama or even to invest their comedic approach with dramatic counterpoint of the sort that Jud Fry had given Oklahoma! … [They] took the safest commercial route by following the eldest son’s search for love–the most popular theme at the time with Broadway audiences.”

In rewriting the script for Flower Drum Song, Hwang asked himself, “Could I aspire to write the book that Hammerstein might have written had he been Asian-American? Could I re-envision the musical in a way that would feel relevant and moving to more sophisticated, contemporary audiences?” (from “A New Musical by Rodgers and Hwang” by David Henry Hwang for The New York Times, October 13, 2002)

The result was a much more nuanced work that confronts the complexities of the immigrant experience, grappling with such issues as generational culture clashes, stereotyping, racism, assimilation and identity in a way that the R&H version could or would not do. In short, Hwang’s play has much more depth.

In Hwang’s script for Flower Drum Song, we are given, as he’d once put it, not “a tourist’s-eye view of Chinatown”; instead, Hwang wrote it “from the point of view of the inside looking out.” For me, an immigrant from Hong Kong who’d initially lived for several years in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a tale about Americanization–what it means to come to the United States and become a part of it–being told from an Asian-American perspective proves to be much more relatable to my own story, which is/was definitely not a light romantic comedy.

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all! Photo by T. T. Cheng

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all!
Photo by T. T. Cheng

The Magic Number is 17

There are 17 performers of Asian descent in Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of Flower Drum Song. 17. Seventeen. That might not seem like groundbreaking news, until you ask yourself: When was the last time you saw 17 Asian American actors in one production on stage or on screen?

Sure, there are The King and I’s, Miss Saigons, and maybe even Pacific Overtures out there, but now I’m struggling to name another big broadway musical with as many as 17 Asian characters in it, let alone Asian or Asian American performers. And if you add the qualifier of a broadway musical written by an Asian or Asian American playwright or composer, that number dwindles significantly.

Many people are quick to say that in recent years, we’ve come a long way in American race relations, and maybe we have. However, while blackface is considered a thing of the past, yellowface and brownface are still practiced with some regularity, even in 2016. Add to that the practice of Whitewashing, casting a white actor instead of an actor of color, sometimes changing the script to do so. Take a look at #WhitewashedOUT, #MyYellowfaceStory, & #MyBrownfaceStory on Twitter & Facebook for more stories from Asian Americans about [lack of] representation on stage and screen.

A few years ago, during a broadcast of the Academy Awards, I challenged my Facebook friends to name an Asian American who has won an Oscar for a project telling an Asian American story. I noted that by saying “Asian American” I specifically meant that non-Americans of Asian descent did not qualify, and that stories that were set in foreign countries, where Asian American actors might be playing foreign nationals, likewise did not qualify. I meant specifically Asian Americans telling stories about the experience of Asian Americans. I would happily stand corrected, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Tony Awards are slightly better, but not by much. Rarely has there been an Asian American story on broadway, and Flower Drum Song is one of those rarities. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an Asian American, David Henry Hwang, received a credit for writing the new adaptation of Flower Drum Song, which is the script being used for Park Square’s production.

So when you come to Flower Drum Song (opening Jan. 27) not only will you be watching broadway musical history in the form of an Asian American musical written by an Asian American, but you’ll be seeing 17, count ’em: 17, Asian Americans onstage. And you might not see that again for a while.

Happy Mu Year!

 

The Chinese character 'xi,' meaning happy or joy Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio

The Chinese character ‘xi,’ meaning happy or joy
Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt

 

Theater Mu was founded in 1992, added Mu Daiko in 1997, then renamed itself Mu Performing Arts in 2001 to better reflect its taiko and theater programs. In spring 2017, Mu Daiko will spin off as a separate nonprofit entity to continue its work, still carrying its Mu indicia.

But what exactly does the term ‘Mu’ mean? According to Mu Performing Arts, “‘Mu’ (pronounced MOO) is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.”

In 2017, Mu Performing Arts will be 25 years old! This January and February, Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts partner to co-produce the musical Flower Drum Song in celebration of this happy occasion.

Most appropriately, an ancient form for the Chinese character ‘xi,’ which means happy or joy, pictorially shows a flower-like hand holding a stick and a drum to make music and a mouth singing.

 

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric 'Pogi' Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated Photography by T. T. Cheng

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric ‘Pogi’ Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated
Photography by T. T. Cheng

 

 Flower Drum Song – Park Square Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

 

—-
Note: Minneapolis brush painter and teacher Bob Schmitt is professionally trained in traditional Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy by master painters Hong Shang from Shanghai as well as Lok Tok and Yitong Lok of Toronto, Canada. Learn more about him at www.shopatlaughingwatersstudio.com.

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Jamie Kranz

As we head into a new year, new productions are percolating at Park Square. The first one out of the gate is Flower Drum Song, a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. Weaving together a story about love, music and one’s heritage, this classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical  promises to be something special. While the actors on stage number 17, the stage management team is significantly smaller. Leading the charge is Jamie Kranz, stage manager of Flower Drum Song.  Kranz’s beginning into stage management began almost accidentally. While enjoying some java at the campus coffee shop, she happened to see a notice advertising the need for an assistant stage manager. Kranz having had no idea what such a position meant, but the play “looked fun… and I was looking for an activity that had nothing to do with my major,” she said.

img_1515

Jaimie Kranz and House Manager Adrian Larkin look at the seating chart as they prepare for a large student matinee audience to A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Ting Ting Cheng.

That drama unfolded at Wartburg College where Kranz completed her undergraduate education. Nestled in Waverly, Iowa the college isn’t too far from her hometown in Mason City. After her education in Iowa, it was off to New York City where a Master of Fine Arts in Stage Management awaited her at Columbia University. The next stop down the road was Saint Paul where Kranz began her work with Park Square in 2006’s Anna in the Tropics as the play’s assistant stage manager, and guess who brought her on board? The same stage manager who had given her that first job back at Wartburg! Naturally, a stage manager such as Kranz is in high demand and she does plenty of work elsewhere around town. Companies like Mixed Blood, the Playwrights’ Center and the Children’s Theatre Company. In fact, she will be traveling with CTC’s show Seedfolks to Seattle this March and April! Then she’ll return and get started on Might as Well Be Dead at Park Square. With all of this work, what could Kranz possibly do to relax? She says, “In my spare time, I like to run and do yoga and occasionally indulge in the chocolate fudge cake from Café Latte. I’m currently in training to run the Disney Princess Glass Slipper Challenge in Disney World this February. It’s a race weekend that consists of a 10K (6.2 miles) run on a Saturday and a half marathon (13.1 miles) on the following Sunday.” Well, good luck and treat yourself to some cake when you’re finished! banner-flowerdrumsong-960x480-11-14 As for you all, be sure to catch Flower Drum Song on the proscenium stage between January 20 – February 19. Then when you see Kranz hard at work, be sure to give her a big “thank you” or if you happen to have some chocolate cake, I’m sure she would appreciate that too.

An Evening of Theatre During the Day

Education Program - Bus

With the school year now in full swing, student audiences will steadily begin arriving at Park Square Theatre to enjoy An Evening of Theatre During the Day and/or Immersion Day workshops with local teaching theatre artists.

An Evening of Theatre During the Day, which is what we call our student matinees, provides our young audience members with all the same amenities we offer for an evening performance–the same version of the play, concessions available at intermission, and the same playbill we give to an evening audience as well as ticketed seating with usher assistance.

Education Program - Audience

When asked how she’d conceived the idea of An Evening of Theatre During the Day, Education Director Mary Finnerty replied:

I came up with Evening of Theatre During the Day in 1995 when I was asked if we could not seat students in reserved seats to save time which was how many theatres were dealing with Student Audiences.

Since this is usually the first theater-going experience for 90 percent of the students, it is our chance to give them an unforgettable experience that may nurture a future love for theatre.  I think it is extremely vital that we give students this age a truly remarkable theatre experience and part of that was treating them to uncut versions of exceptional productions and customer service that made them feel welcome. If we do not give them an Evening of Theatre during the Day we are cheating them.

Every year, middle and high school groups of all sizes, including home school groups, come to participate in Park Square Theatre’s award-winning education program, which serves up to 32,000 students per year. Its service to one of the nation’s largest teen theatre audiences impacts many communities throughout Minnesota and into its neighboring states.

The general public may also purchase tickets for student matinees as long as seats are available. It can be a truly rich and invigorating experience to watch a play surrounded by these enthusiastic young audience members.

To arrange a matinee performance or Immersion Day workshop for students OR to watch a show with student groups, make arrangements with Quinn Shadko at 651.291.9196 or education@parksquaretheatre.org.

Student Matinee Show Times:

The House on Mango Street – October 11 to November 4
A Raisin in the Sun – November 1 to December 22
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – December 5 to December 22
Flower Drum Song – January 31, February 1, 7, 8, 14, and 15
Nina Simone: Four Women – February 14, 15, 21, and 22
The Diary of Anne Frank – February 28 to April 28
Macbeth – March 28 to May 5

Regular Show Times Evening Performances:

The House on Mango Street – October 21 and 22
A Raisin in the Sun – October 28 to November 20
Flower Drum Song – January 20 to February 19
Nina Simone: Four Women – February 7 to 26
Macbeth – March 17 to April 9

 

Note: Find out the history of Park Square Theatre’s Education Program by reading “The House That Mary Built” (our August 10, 2016, blog post) and look out for upcoming blogs on Education staff, volunteers and services throughout our programming season.

Tickets

The Park Square Ticket Office is open for phone calls Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 5:00 pm.
Please call 651.291.7005.

For service other days of the week, please email tickets@parksquaretheatre.org.

Tickets can be purchased online at anytime.

Stay in Touch!

Get the latest updates and offers from Park Square Theatre.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

    Park Square on Instagram  See Park Square Videos on Vimeo