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Dissent in the 'model minority'

Philip Chung's 'Aziatik Nation '04' offers ribald, scathing views of Asian American politics and community.

November 17, 2004|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

"I still need the evil, sexy dog bark," says director Philip W. Chung to an actor in the lobby at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. "And the hoochie girls are coming in too soon."

What's a nice, bespectacled Asian American guy doing talking like this? For starters, he's battling the very notion of Asian American politesse. Chung, 34, founding co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, is the writer and director of "Aziatik Nation '04," a "Living Newspaper"-style assemblage of scenes, songs and sketches examining contemporary politics from an Asian American perspective. It opens Thursday at Highways.

That lascivious canine, for instance, is from a scene that sends up one of the more strained arguments recently advanced by foes of gay marriage: that it would lead to officially sanctioned bestiality.

"When I heard that argument, I said, 'We have to do something with that,' " Chung says. There's also a song making a scatological pun on the commander-in-chief's surname, and a sketch positing that since Asian Americans already have economic and academic advantages, the only reason they could possibly want to enlist in the armed forces is for sexual perks.

Beneath the foolery, though, Lodestone's agenda is in earnest: to show that Asian Americans, contrary to stereotypes of play-by-the-rules immigrants and their "geeky model minority" children, have a unique stake and voice in America's popular political discourse.

"There have been studies that have said that Asian Americans, more than other groups, are less political," Chung says. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 43% of eligible Asian Americans voted in the 2000 presidential election. Chung points to another barometer of political heat: "There was something that came out from UC Berkeley earlier this year that was trying to find out why it's no longer a hotbed of liberal activism, and one of the main reasons was because there's a heavy Asian American population, and they're apolitical."

Actor Jeff Liu, 34, who plays the generally left-leaning show's token Republican, among other roles, understands this trend.

"It's part of being trained that assimilating and focusing on economics is our way into society," Liu says. He notes that while it's true that Al Gore and John Kerry won the Asian American vote, 60% of Asian Americans are first-generation immigrants who tend to be patriotic, fiscally conservative and often socially conservative as well. And, he adds: "Immigrants who have a history with the American military tend to be more pro-U.S. -- Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese."

For Chung, the inspiration for "Aziatik Nation" came from many of the same events that have motivated such recent political theater as Actors' Gang's "Embedded" or off-Broadway's "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom."

"There's been a lot of stuff done, post-9/11, on profiling, and there are issues like affirmative action that Asian Americans have dealt with a lot," Chung says. "But there are a lot of issues, like 9/11, the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, that aren't directly related to our community in a logical way, but which affect all of us as Americans. With this show, I wanted to ask, how do Asian Americans specifically react or deal with those issues?"

He and his cast of five, who developed the show in improvisatory workshops, make some little-noted connections to Sept. 11: Flight attendant Betty Ong, who made an eerily calm phone call from the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 as it headed for the first World Trade Center tower; NYPD canine officer Daniel Lim, who survived the collapse of one of the towers; and Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the towers as "a monument to world peace."

In addition, citizens of this "Aziatik Nation" include a fictional Filipino soldier, writing letters to his mother from the front lines in Fallouja, and college friends -- one a neo-conservative, the other a lefty lesbian -- who find it increasingly hard to stay amicable, particularly after Bush's reelection.

Despite the show's admitted liberal bias, a "right-bashing thing," Chung says, wouldn't reflect his community's diversity of opinion.

"It's so easy to paint the other side as either stupid, idiotic or evil," Chung says. "I don't agree with them, but I know people who hold those views and they're neither stupid nor evil. I wanted to at least try to give argument to that voice." He points to the show's Filipino mother, whose patriotism is tested but unshaken by her son's extended tour of duty in Iraq. "I know a lot of people, like my parents and their peers, who feel that if the president says it, we're supposed to just accept it."

Chung -- a Korean American who grew up in San Gabriel and decided on playwriting after taking an East West Players writing workshop -- recalls that the L.A. riots of 1992 gave pause even to his mother.

"My uncle, her brother, had lost a store in that area," he says. "I think that was when she understood why I wanted to be a writer. She realized, 'All we're doing is encouraging our kids to be doctors and lawyers, and just working the system and not making waves, and look what it's gotten us -- we don't have any voice at all.' "


'Aziatik Nation'

Where: Lodestone Theatre Ensemble at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; Nov. 26-27

Ends: Nov. 27

Price: $15

Contact: (310) 315-1459

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