Tired of seeing the stereotypical Suzie Wong and Charlie Chan images on the silver screen and wanting to give young people a positive role model, a group of Asian-American performing artists took their message to Pomona College this week.
"Young people growing up need images put in front of them that reflect them, and they need something more than Michael Jackson and Madonna. They need somebody that they can say, 'Yeah, that's me,' " said Nobuko Miyamoto, founder of Great Leap Inc., a musical and theatrical troupe that performed at Bridges Hall of Music in Claremont on Monday night.
"There are people out there like me that will relate to it. . . . (Some of our audiences) have never seen theater, never seen music reflecting them. They're not used to it," said Miyamoto, a 49-year-old woman who has been involved in the arts since 1968.
The Santa Monica-based group's basic message is that Asian-Americans face the same problems and feel the same emotions as everyone else does.
"I hate just like everyone else, I love just like everyone else," said Jose De Vega, who has been with Great Leap since its beginning in 1978. "Our hurts, our joys are not any different. We treat them a little differently because of our culture and tradition."
The lack of commercial support for entertainment showing positive images of Asian-Americans prevents that message from getting through and leaves a void that Great Leap tries to fill, De Vega said.
The Claremont performance, attended by a small but enthusiastic audience, was organized by the Asian-American Pacific-Islander's Awareness Committee at Pomona College and sponsored by other student and administrative organizations of the Claremont Colleges.
"The business we have chosen to be in is run by white people from their point of view. They are the ones who create the atmosphere," said De Vega, who acts and sings in the troupe's "Talk Story."
"They don't allow the dignity of the people of color. It's not that they don't want to. It all boils down to money."
The first half of the Claremont performance was devoted to excerpts from "Talk Story," a series of musical skits first presented in 1987 as a work in progress, and performed this past summer in the Los Angeles Theatre Center. The music and lyrics were written by Miyamoto, and the production choreographed by Young-Ae Park, who also performs.
The introduction to "Talk Story" prepares the audience for what is to come : "Stories that sing, stories that bite, stories that cling to you like the white on your rice."
For Park, who holds a master's degree in choreography from UCLA, Great Leap provides a chance to act out parts of the story of her life.
"The subject matters that we are dealing with are what I go through," she said.
Park has lived in California for the past 16 years and expresses the frustrations of assimilating through "Talk Story."
One skit, "English Lesson," combines the difficulties of supporting a biracial relationship and dealing with a language barrier. The character Park plays occasionally makes grammatical errors in her speech, and the character's live-in boyfriend exploits that weakness to suppress Park and to assert his dominance.
Another theme of the program is dealing with a past that many Asian-Americans feel has been distorted by mainstream society.
"But, still, I'm waitin' for someone to come along and write the past that's me. The man nobody sees. . . . I'm lookin' for a hero. Someone to come up to me and say, 'Hey, kid. You're all right,' " says De Vega's character in "The Man Nobody Sees."
The second half of the performance consisted of new songs written by Miyamoto, as well as material from a previous musical, "Chop Suey."
"Setsunan" and "Dark Angel" are mystical songs reflecting a quiet, introspective period in Miyamoto's life and her art, after a period of activism on Asian-American issues.
"Now, I feel like I'm moving closer to the personal," she said, "closer into myself."