A few months ago, Newsweek magazine ran an article detailing why Asian-American men have become the latest "trophy boyfriend." To sum up: it's perceived that they are sensitive, hard-working, and make a lot of money. The three-man performance group Slant has spent the last few years satirizing such stereotypes associated with Asian-American masculinity. Their explosive 1995 debut Big Dicks, Asian Men was a hilarious exposé on our culture's obsession with the correspondence between penis size, race, and masculine behavior.
So, is the trio pleased with Newsweek's take? "It's nice to be perceived as great people instead of assholes," says Slant member Wayland Quintero. "But the article is based on seeing an Asian-American man with a white woman. So, the standard again has to do with now that white women are dating us, we're okay."
"I think the article generated a lot of dialogue," counters fellow performer Perry Yung. "It even got some people to come to one of our shows when we were on the road. Mike Kang [a filmmaker] is doing a documentary on us. He went around the audience asking people how they heard about us, and these two women said they read the article in Newsweek and just wanted to see if it was true."
Recently, TheaterMania sat down with Quintero, Yung, and Rick Ebihara (the third member of Slant) to discuss their upcoming production, High, opening at La MaMa E.T.C. on June 8. Set in the New York City subway system, High interweaves the stories of a bottle-music playing homeless man (Ebihara), a subway cop (Quintero), and a shakuhachi flute musician (Yung).
TheaterMania: In your previous works, the theme of masculinity--and particularly Asian-American masculinity--is very prevalent. Is that still the case for this show?
Quintero: In a more subtle way. Or maybe not so subtle. There's a lot of bonding that goes on between the male characters, and how it comes about is interesting. It's different. We're not really talking about stereotypes.
TM: Are any of your characters distinctly Asian-American?
Yung: Mine is.
Quintero: They're archetypes. A musician could be anyone, but Perry's character is literally Asian-American because a particular scene addresses that. Rick's and my characters are not specific. I'm not like an Asian-American robocop.
TM: You're working with a director for the first time with this show [Ron Nakahara]. How did this come about?
Quintero: For years, we've asked Ron and other people to come in and give us feedback. We'd take the feedback, continue to work, and then open the show. The three of us had been talking about how we should have a director, and Ron was very open to it.
TM: Was there a particular incident that inspired High?
Ebihara: We were thinking of trying to incorporate three characters and take them on a journey.
Quintero: And the subway system is a great place because everyone comes here. No matter how much money you make, or where you work, or where you go--everyone takes the subway. So it's a great setting for drama to occur.
TM: In your other shows you play a variety of figures, loosely linked together through short comic sketches. In High, how many characters do you play besides the three main ones?
Ebihara: That's it.
Yung: We've put a restriction on ourselves this time. We're only playing one character each. It's fun. It's definitely a challenge, and it makes us think. It makes the piece a little more theatrical in the conventional sense that there's a narrative.
TM: So, this is a more traditional play?
Quintero: Not traditional, but it's different in that it doesn't have that same vignette kind of feel. Each scene serves what comes after and what comes before, and helps weave the narrative.
TM: What about the musical numbers?
Quintero: It's all musically driven. Instead of bringing in preconceived, written scripts, we started with music--jamming, playing, and just kind of seeing what bubbles up, breaks through the surface, what we can work with.
Yung: We chose these archetypal figures--the street musician, the homeless guy, and the beat cop--without starting with the story. The story came out of the music.
Ebihara: Having the three characters drives along the story, which Ron helped us find. He's been great. I think in all of our shows, we've tried to string together a narrative, but this one is definitely the clearest.
TM: How long was your rehearsal processes?
Yung: About two months. We didn't start working until the end of March.
Quintero: And that's coming in and improvising--no scripts in hand.
Yung: The only thing we had was the name of the show.
Quintero: Which Ellen [Stewart, founder/director of La MaMa] named for us.
Yung: Ellen said, "I need to put you guys on the schedule. What's the name of your show?" And I was like, "We don't have a name for our show. We don't have a show yet." So she said, "How about 'High'?" And I said, "Well, I've got to run it by the guys, first!"
TM: So, has the name come to have a significance to the show itself?
Yung: I think metaphorically it has. It's not literal. People can read into it, definitely.
TM: How do you feel about the way the performance is shaping up?
Yung: High is great, great fun for me. I picked up the guitar when I was 12, and thought, "I want to be on stage." That was the reason I became a performer. When we created this production solely based on music, it was really great--thinking that I'm not creating this piece to make theater, or to make me necessarily an actor, or to make something that's considered high art. I'm just playing music. And I'm happy. And that's fine. I think it's going to be one of our best shows.