Energy and commitment. According to Claire Shin ’99, these are the qualities one needs in order to be a member of the Asian-American Theater Project. Also known as ATP, the group performed Elizabeth Wong’s stirring play Letters to a Student Revolutionary on Friday and Saturday night in Lasell Dance Studio.
In conjunction with Asian-American Awareness Month, ATP presented its first campus production, a grouping of short, student-written comedic skits in the Spring of 1993. Since then, the organization has evolved dramatically. ATP continues to produce a play each spring for Asian-American Awareness Month.
However, in 1996, ATP members decided to move away from comedy and to stretch the theater group’s range by tackling more weighty issues in the group’s performances. That April, ATP produced a full-length drama written by Kevin Lee ’97. Continuing in the serious vein for the last two years, the theater group has performed full-length plays by published Asian-American playwrights. In the fall semester, ATP puts on a smaller production of works-in-progress either written by student members or published playwrights. ATP has also traveled to area colleges and universities including Harvard University and Union College to give performances.
In explaining why ATP chose to present this year’s play Letter’s to a Student Revolutionary, Shin, who directed the production, stated, “Works [by Asian-American writers] have great potential, but they do not get performed enough.” Letters was an especially appropriate piece for ATP to produce because of its subject matter. “It deals with college students and with issues that we can relate to,” explained Jennifer Fong ’98, who is the ATP coordinator as well as one of the leading roles in the production. “When we first read [the play] we knew it was so ATP.”
Members of ATP have varying levels of theater background. Shin directed several plays while in high school and was involved with Cap & Bells as a Williams first-year; Fong took an acting class in high school. Some ATP members had no experience on stage before joining the group. “We’ve always said that we’re an amateur group,” Fong explained. “If someone wants to be part of the production, it’s simply a matter of joining the group. Auditions are not something we stress in ATP.”
Shin agrees that one’s level of theater experience does not matter: “We’re a very open group of people looking for those who want to try new things.” Senior members of ATP instruct new members of the group by sharing what they have learned about theater from the Project. According to Shin, with this kind of group environment, everyone learns from their peers.
In describing the organization’s role on campus, Fong stated, “The people involved in ATP get to better understand themselves, and the Williams community has the opportunity to be more aware of the serious issues faced by Asian Americans in the past as well as the present.”
Theater experience aside, Letters to a Student Revolutionary was a challenging piece for ATP to undertake. Grappling with questions of identity, individuality, and nationality, Bibi (Fong) and Karen (Deborah Hsu ’00), the main characters, mature from naive girls into strong independent women. However, the play is much more than an average coming-of-age story.
Letters opens in Beijing in 1979 when Bibi, an American tourist, and Karen, a Chinese accountant, meet in Tiananmen Square. The two begin a cultural exchange and friendship that spans an entire decade. Through their letters to one another, the audience watches the events of Bibi’s and Karen’s live unfold. At first, Karen begs Bibi to help her to immigrate to the United States, where she can have freedom. In the personal letters they exchange, the woman reveal family histories and life experiences, which, despite being half a world away from each other, are strikingly similar.
Throughout the play, the stage was nearly bare, and props and scenery were used only to the slightest degree. Communist China in the 1980s was portrayed symbolically by a chorus dressed in black Mao suits. Showing little individuation and chanting pro-state slogans, the chorus loomed in the background ominously echoing the hard-line Communist regime’s control of the government.
Fong, Hsu, and Aran Degenhardt ’98, who played both Charlie, Bibi’s boyfriend, and LuYan, Karen’s husband, filled their roles with carefree ease. However, their acting was not the central focus of the play; the true purpose of Letters to a Student Revolutionary lies in its strong message.
As Karen sees greater freedoms in China, she becomes excited about the possibilities for her future. In the summer of 1989, she heads to Tiananmen Square to take part in demonstrations for democracy. As the joy of the actors on stage begins to swell, members of the audience, who know what must be coming cannot keep their stomachs from churning. Suddenly, there is a blackout in the theater, and gunshots ring out on the stage. Screams are heard in the darkness as the cast runs about the stage.
Then, all is silent. A slide projector is clicked on, and images of Tianamen flood the stage. First, pictures of the peaceful protests, then the tanks rolling into the square, and finally the bloody massacre itself.
The play concludes with a somber message. Karen has disappeared, and Bibi never hears from her again. As the play closes, the images of the Tianamen Square Massacre linger painfully imprinted in one’s mind, as a dreadful reminder of June 4, 1989.