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Within D.C.’s first Asian-American Theater Festival lurks a protest movement.

Actor Stan Kang had a career epiphany playing Oscar, a gay man who dies of AIDS complications, in the Studio Theatre’s 1995 production of Chay Yew’s A Language of Their Own. “It was the first time I ever played an Asian,” says the Korean-American Kang, a member of the Washington Shakespeare Company. “When I did classical works, the plays took place in some modern time when race didn’t matter. Language was the first time I got to draw on my own background for a role, and it was an amazing revelation.”

Instead of waiting around for that next juicy Asian-American part, Kang joined up with fellow Language cast member Edu. Bernardino to form their own company, ASIA (Asian Stories in America) Theater. Their recent inaugural production, Prince Gomolvilas’ manic Big Hunk o’ Burnin’ Love, earned favorable reviews and eventually closed to a packed house at Arlington’s Clark Street Playhouse, despite running during the Christmas season.

At about the same time that ASIA got going, actors Flordelino Lagundino and Joan Rebecca Taylor founded the Tsunami Theatre, which, this month, launches D.C.’s first-ever National Asian-American Theater Festival. Stretching over three months, the festival started April 3 with a free staged reading of James Hsiao’s Hiroshima and continues this week with two evenings of short plays at the Source Theatre. Two full productions follow at the Warehouse Theater: Brandon by John Kim in May, The Dressing Room by Shimizu Kunio in June.

Suddenly, Asians are appearing onstage everywhere, in nontraditional roles at big-name theaters as well as in smaller productions by ASIA and Tsunami. “When I first started acting, in 1990,” says Kang, “I was one of, like, three or four Asian-American actors in town that I knew of.” Today, on ASIA’s Web site, a directory counts 36 thespians in the region.

But D.C.’s Asian-American actors still find themselves fighting stereotypes, working harder to persuade directors to cast them in nontraditional roles, and struggling to draw in their own communities, which largely lack a theatergoing tradition.

The small group of professional actors who started around the same time Kang did had “more than enough” work in corporate or government training videos, commercial film and TV, and theater, he says. But the roles ranged from supporting to stereotypical.

Kang’s film debut was as a gang member in “a bad martial-arts movie.” And Al Twanmo, who played the father in ASIA’s Big Hunk, recalls an audition for a feature film that became one of the worst experiences of his career. “The role was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant who, basically, spoke pidgin English,” Twanmo says. “It was completely demeaning. Thank God, in the five or six years I’ve been doing this, that’s the only time it’s been that ugly.”

Yet Tsunami’s Taylor, an Indonesian-American who jokes that she may be the only local actor never to appear on Homicide, says that sometimes she doesn’t look Asian enough. “I don’t fall into the typical Asian-girl category,” she says. And Lagundino remarks that having a Filipino’s dark looks has helped him land Hispanic roles.

Actors say stage work seldom calls for screeching ninjas or waiters with thick accents. But in the past 10 years, only a handful of Asian-American plays have found homes on D.C.’s main stages: David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly alighted at Olney Theatre. Studio brought in Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash. And Round House Theatre premiered the first professional production of Rob Shin’s comedy The Art of Waiting. But these plays ended up largely casting their Asian-American leads from New York.

Until recently, the only other place Asian-American actors in D.C. could consistently get lead-role experience was at Qbd. Ink, a D.C. community theater that since 1994 has been producing original plays relating to Filipino history.

Both Tsunami and ASIA aim to give experience and visibility to Asian-American actors. But already the companies have run across snags. “The Thai community didn’t really come out for Big Hunk,” admits Bernardino, who leafleted schools, restaurants, and community centers to advertise Gomolvilas’ play about a Thai-American man who must marry before his 30th birthday or suffer an ancient family curse.

Struggling to establish themselves in a new country, immigrant Asians often don’t have the luxury of turning themselves into regular theater patrons—not that they don’t appreciate the theater arts, as sold-out shows at performances of homeland folk groups attest. But their U.S.-born children and grandchildren show up at a play like Big Hunk and may decide to pursue a life onstage themselves, often against the parents’ wishes.

Bernardino and Kang had trouble casting the role of the Thai mother in Big Hunk. Older Asian actors are scarce, and many plays address inter-generational differences. Bernardino and Kang eventually cast a young actress, Miyuki Williams, who played the part with the aid of gray streaks in her dark hair. Admitting to being in the 40- to 50-year-old age range, Twanmo, who played opposite Williams, says, “I’m really close to being as rare as a henstooth.”

The members of ASIA and Tsunami occasionally confront matters of ethnic authenticity: Williams, who is half-Japanese and half-African-American, worried along with her pan-Asian co-stars in Big Hunk about insulting audiences. But, for the most part, the current generation of Asian-American theater artists wants to advance the dialogue beyond the essentialism of race, to challenge the idea that only a certain group can write about certain issues or act certain parts.

Tsunami’s theater festival brings in a multicultural group of actors, directors, and playwrights. Jennifer Nelson, artistic director of African Continuum Theatre Company, is directing the showcase production of Brandon. For the evening of short plays this week, director Naoko Maeshiba, from Japan via Hawaii, collaborated with African-American actress Kendra Ware on an original piece incorporating Butoh movement, a Japanese legend, and Ware’s research on homeless women.

“I want to do theater that’s a more universal, multicultural art form,” says Maeshiba, an Arena Stage directing fellow. “I want to work not only with people from different races but different countries; it only makes a production richer.”

“The greatest opportunity any artist has is the opportunity to be seen as an individual, and not just as Asian-American,” says Kim. Lately, Kim and several other Asian-American actors have been landing choice and sometimes surprising roles: Monique Holt eloquently played Cordelia in the Shakespeare Theatre’s King Lear. Also at Shakespeare, Lagundino is slated to appear as Abdullah in Camino Real. Kim went directly from the Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Arena Stage’s current production of The Miracle Worker, playing Helen Keller’s sullen brother, James.

“The ultimate goal for me is that we come to a point when we don’t think, Hey, John Kim’s an Asian guy, or Samarra is an African-American, or even Hey, Fred Grandy’s a white guy…a point where that doesn’t become an issue,” says Kim.

But Asian actors have noted how certain types of plays attract nontraditional casting more than others. “It’s so easy to update Shakespeare to a colorblind society,” says Kang. “But it’s impossible to cast me as Stanley Kowalski without making some statement.”

Despite their multicultural casts, colorblind plays often seem less interesting because racial tensions are glossed over. For Kang and Bernardino, playing Asians in A Language of Their Own proved a more powerful experience than dozens of nontraditionally cast parts.

Yet, although colorblind casting will always make a statement in a divided society, the statement doesn’t have to shout. When Tsunami’s educational director, Charles Goyette staged Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs for his thesis production at Carnegie Mellon University, he cast Filipinos as the two Jewish sons. “The fact of them being in the show,” says Goyette, “simply says something about the humanity of all people.” CP