BWW Interview: Alex Chester, Diane Phelan and Rebecca Lee Lerman of We So Hapa Discuss Other-Ness, the Haters of Reddit and Their March 27 Cabaret AMERICAN: OTHER
"There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics."
Deep stuff, right? Well, as they taught me at journalism school, "When in doubt, quote Tony Kushner."
Let's cut to the chase. America is a shameful mess, and it's everyone's fault. If you wade through the endless layers of muck and ignorance, the common thread always seems to be race. Race is interesting. It divides the members of this fading republic, reminds us that we are not now and have NEVER been equal, and forces us to reflect on our core values, prejudices and allegiances.
I have no right to complain. I've had a really nice run so far. I'm male, educated, tall, etcetera. But the common thread in my life has boiled down to one very important title: I am Hapa. My mother is Chinese and my dad was a fun mix of European stuff.
Being a privileged man from a marginally diverse part of the country, this was truly never an issue. My mom is a cute Chinese lady, my adopted sister is full Korean, my White side is a mix of pretentious Western Europeans, and I just look ambivalent.
Weekly, someone would ask me, "What are you mixed with?" More recently, because America is going in a great direction, I get a lot of, "So. What kind of Mexican are you?"
I take it all with a grain of salt. Most of the time, these questions are harmless. But it does leave a man wondering where he fits in.
I never really identified as Asian, or White. I was just doing my own thing. But I was introduced to a community of people like me, people with one foot in Asia and one foot in the Midwest. The face of America is changing. Nobody looks the same. Nobody has the same experience. And THAT, to me, is a source of unending joy,
On March 27, Alex Chester (founder), Diane Phelan (director) and Rebecca Lee Lerman (writer) will stage We So Hapa's second cabaret, titled AMERICAN: OTHER at The Triad NYC. They invite you to broaden your idea of what America is. In 30 years, we will all be Hapa---in one way or another---and the world will be richer for it.
We spoke with them ahead of the show to talk about what it means to be an "Other" in America and how to highlight those important voices.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
MB: What exactly is a Hapa, and how did the formation of this company come about?
Alex Chester: A Hapa is someone that is usually half Asian, half White. However, I use the term to describe anyone that is two or more ethnicities.
Rebecca Lee Lerman: Hapa Means half Asian, half Something Else, originating from the derogatory word Hafu that Japanese people would use towards those who weren't full Japanese. And people in Hawaii use the term often. Over time, the word has developed into a source of pride. Alex Chester started her blog, "Me So Hapa" about her foodie adventures and featured interviews from people who are Hapa in the theatre world.
I met Alex doing NAAProject's HELLO DOLLY, and we've since become very close and bonded over being Hapa. I had produced my own short plays dealing with being a Hapa, and I produced this music video #WHITEWASHTHIS in response to the recent casting of Scarlett Johansson in GHOST IN THE SHELL. Alex was in that video with me. We're both very passionate about diversity in the arts and giving a voice to the Hapa Community. She very graciously asked me to become one of the co-producers of We So Hapa, and here we are!
MB: Diversity is very much the hot topic of conversation these days, as various groups band together to be heard and represented. What is it about being Hapa that provides a unique insight into the constant back and forth as to what it means to belong or fit in?
AC: As a Hapa, I believe we have the unique perspective of both sides. We bridge the gap. We are a melting pot of cultures and creeds. We are literally the product of two cultures. Often, I have felt like an outsider looking in, never quite belonging anywhere, which is why whenever I meet another Hapa I get so excited to meet someone like me! I understand loneliness and hope with We So Hapa other people that have felt the way I do will realize that they do belong and do have a tribe.
Diane Phelan: I used to spend my time feeling like I didn't belong anywhere because I didn't ever quite fit in with one race or another. Growing up, I was not only made fun of being Asian, but in some circles, for being too white! As race issues began to come to a head here in the US, I started being very interested in "the Hapa voice" because of this very special perspective of understanding the perspective of a multitude of races. We (often) have a foot in the door or a member of the family with each side of the very complicated racial divisions in our melting pot country. It became obvious to me that we are the poster children for the melting pot that is our incredibly unique cultural heritage here in America.
RLL: Because we are ethnically made up of two or more things, we constantly feel like we don't belong to one race or the other. It seems easier to be one thing---Chinese, English, Korean, Italian---especially in the theatre world where you are constantly being judged on your appearance and what parts you can portray.
But us Hapas are a new race, and we belong just as we are. We don't have to make ourselves look "more Asian" or "more White" or "more Like This" and "more like that," vonstantly pushing and pulling our faces to fit a certain identity. We are here to say we don't have to do that. We belong to the tribe of Hapas.
MB: Can you share any personal stories or experiences in which being Hapa has resonated more with you than if you were to identify with either individual side of your cultural makeup?
AC: We all have such unique stories about culture and belonging, yet they oddly have the same through line of feeling like an outsider. Finding these amazing people has been a Godsend. I finally have a tribe. We finally belong.
So I guess that is my story... Meeting Diane, Rebecca, Alison, Kevin and everyone else in our show is what inspires We So Hapa. Often, being mixed is a lonely road. You are never enough of one thing or the other, but here we are enough.
RLL: When I produced the music video #WHITEWASHTHIS, I felt very much like an Asian Woman that was standing up for the right to have an Asian Woman cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in GHOST IN THE SHELL.
I posted the video to Reddit to get more views. I was in the video, along with a lot of other Hapas and Asian Women. I got a lot of hateful responses, saying there should only have been "fully Asian" people representing the Asian community. It was hurtful. But my fellow Hapa girls were there for me and understood my situation. I wasn't alone.
I identify as Hapa. I identify as Asian. I Identify as Chinese. I identify as Russian. I identify as Jewish. I identify as American. I don't have to pick one. I can be all encompassing like my Hapa Sisters.
MB: Those who saw the first We So Hapa cabaret enjoyed several re-scripted renditions of favorites like "Hello" [from THE BOOK OF MORMON] and "My New Philosophy" [from YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN]. Can audiences this time expect more or the same? Without giving away too much, what sort of material can a first-time We So Hapa audience member expect?
RLL: You can expect changed lyrics to some songs. It is no ordinary cabaret. We will tell a story. We will ask questions and have answers. We have original pieces as well as familiar rock and pop tunes.
DP: It's a mix of new works by mixed race artists and pop/rock/contemporary music that has inspired us.
AC: With SO much that has been going on with the political climate, we decided we needed to create a show about what it means to be American. Because honestly since the election of Trump I'm not sure what that means anymore and I really wanted to explore that side.
So many of us feel betrayed and hurt by our own people since this election. So what does it mean to be American? We are exploring this in our show AMERICAN: OTHER. On that note, our material might be a tad darker. We still will open with "Hello." I feel like that is our way of introducing ourselves to the audience.
DP: This work is indeed reflecting the urgency and, well, outrage many of us have been feeling since the election. All our meetings took place around that period of time and is an exploration of WHY it is we belong here in an America that seems to give the message that "others" don't belong. This show is our contribution to the dialogue happening in America right now about what it means to be an AMERICAN. This show is our contribution to the Resistance.
RLL: We are tackling what it means to be American. America is so fragmented, broken and divided. We can bridge that gap. We can bring worlds together. We want to heal national wounds.
MB: In creating new material, would you say that much of it comes from personal experiences? Has the creation process been very collaborative?
AC: The creation of our show has been incredibly collaborative. Since the beginning of our show, I interviewed other Hapas I wanted to tell their stories. Most of what we talk about has happened in one form or the other. Rebecca has been an amazing writer. She's the heart of our show. She has taken our words and created some awesome monologues.
RLL: Personal experience, articles we've read, stories others have told. This was definitely a collaboration.
DP: I hold a belief that every piece of art is created around a wound that needs healing, a question to be answered. There is so much material around love or wars for that reason. People are aiming to heal. In creating this new piece, I often asked the team what bothered them about race, what they wanted to talk about and, most importantly, why tell in NOW, today, for our audiences. It's been an extremely cathartic experience for us as we gave voice to the stuff we carry on an everyday basis about what it means to be a mixed race human in America today.
MB: How did you go about selecting the ideal cast for this intimate show?
AC: I wanted to showcase people that are usually looked over. I wanted to showcase the underdogs in our industry because talent isn't just one note. So we aimed to hire people we knew were incredibly gifted and perhaps didn't get to share their talents often.
DP: We have a creative collective of artists we love as people and whom we love working with. A lot of us are close friends and the work is an extension of the conversations we have and stuff we're looking for solutions to.
RLL: We want professional, seasoned performers. There is no shortage of incredibly talented Hapas in the arts. I find it is a difficult process because there are so many, but we think about what we are trying to say and then we think about who will tell the story best.
MB: Why is it important for Hapas to be represented in this manner, and what can non-Hapa or people of "traditional" race get from the evening?
AC: I want people to see that you can't put Hapas in a box. We aren't just one thing, we are many, which is so awesome! I want people to see us for us. Not just the ethnically "ambiguous" person. Not just the "exotic" creature.
I believe the one thing anyone can take from our show is that we are all the same, that we are human, and we have an obligation to everyone to be kind and fill our world with love. Be the light. Be the change. What do you want the world to look like?
DP: I think it's exciting to highlight the Hapa voice because we are so often cleaving our identity to fit into someone's idea of whatever race we most "present." As artists, we don't often get to claim our identity fully as "Mixed." I've often been told that my mixed race friends I don't identify one thing or another, I identify most with them--- Mixed. I think it's an interesting perspective for anyone who's ever felt like they didn't fit in in one way or another.
RLL: At the end of this show, we will all feel closer to each other---friends, family and strangers---because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We are all searching to belong.
We So Hapa was created by actor and blogger Alex Chester of MeSoHapa. Helmed by Broadway's Diane Phelan (THE KING AND I, HERE LIES LOVE) with Musical Direction by Jeff Van Damme (NAAP Chorus Assistant Musical Director), it features an A-List ensemble of multi-cultural talent working in theatre and TV including:
Alison Lea Bender (ACADAMIA NUTS - NYMF), Alex Chester (HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, BUBBLE BOY), Chris Ignacio (Assistant Producer at MaYi Theatre Company), Rebecca Lee Lerman (PRISCILLA. QUEEN OF THE DESERT), Carlos Martin (I LOVE LUCY National Tour), Matt Park (PEER GYNT AND THE NORWEGIAN HAPA BAND at MaYi Theatre Company), Gen Parton Shin (Original Japanese company of NEXT TO NORMAL), Kevin Schuering (WEARING BLACK - NYMF) and Tamara Young (Justin Timberlake VS. Ryan Gosling at Ars Nova).
We So Hapa -- AMERICAN: OTHER plays March 27, 8PM, at The Triad NYC (158 West 72nd Street). For tickets and information, visit www.triadnyc.com.