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Pan Asian Gets Fresh

A 20-something romantic comedy of 1930s style, The Poet of Columbus Avenue marks a change for Pan Asian Rep. Lisa Stephenson reports. logo
Donna Leichenko and Marcus Ho
in The Poet of Columbus Avenue
Photo: Corky Lee
Even after a trip from Los Angeles that hurdled delayed flights, lost luggage, and a hurricane downpour, Dennis Escobedo was remarkably calm about the world premiere of his new play, The Poet of Columbus Avenue. As he should be, in the capable hands of his theatrical team, director Ron Nakahara and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre artistic producing director Tisa Chang.

Nakahara and Chang were impressed by the very qualities of Poet that Escobedo himself possesses: charm, intelligence, and youth. He has pitched a perfect game. Without an agent and with little fanfare, Escobedo submitted his script to Pan Asian Rep. Nakahara and Chang liked it, and based on the response of a single reading, the play moved to a full production that begins previews June 21 at Theatre Four.

The Poet of Columbus Avenue is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, and Nakahara describes it as fresh and well written, a gentle throwback to another age. "Tisa and I were really surprised by it," he says. "It's not the sort of script you often see, in town or out." Four of the five characters are men, but the female lead, Mary, is the spiritual core. "All of the decisions she makes set the action," Escobedo explains. "The plot grows out of her character."

Billed as a romantic comedy--with delightful screwball elements--Escobedo likened it to the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn comedies of the '30s and '40s. He's been working on it for three years, but it all started with a simple idea: to write a sweet play with an urban, Woody Allen flavor.

Nakahara praises cast members, many of whom he has previously worked with. "They aren't just comic actors, but accomplished actors," he says. "It takes a real sense of humor to understand comedy, and not everybody does." Defining funny, Escobedo admits, still occasionally escapes him. "I find it fairly easy to write, but sometimes I laugh out loud in an empty room. But, inevitably, when it's read for the first time, nobody laughs. And then there are other passages that may not read humorously, but which play funny, because the actor defines it as part of their character. That's most rewarding--to have a director and cast bring surprises."

For Chang, Poet represents a time of transition for Pan Asian Rep, which is on the cusp of change. "We want to expand to better meet the needs of, and to reflect, the population of the 21st century," she begins. "And this means that the people in this play are young, hip, sophisticated, and American, and that their Asian heritage is almost an after-thought. It's very right for us to reflect this younger generation's being, their presence and their dreams."
Les J. N. Mau and Charlee Chiv
in The Poet of Columbus Avenue
Photo: Corky Lee
Pan Asian Rep mounts three productions during a season, while Chang receives between 50 and 60 scripts a year. Part of the problem, she says, is real estate. And there is also a problem, Nakahara notes, of being a special interest theater. "The good side is that plays with Chinese-American characters will be submitted, so we'll see it. But the other side is, that if it's not a special interest play, it may not cross our desk. The question facing playwrights is: Who's going to read your play?"

Escobedo and Nakahara have an easy rapport, and the director is cautious about interfering in rewrites. After the play's reading, they agreed that revisions would have to make the play stronger. "I tried to make it as plain as possible," Nakahara comments, "so rewrites wouldn't be done in the dark. Honesty is the bottom line, and since Poet was a well developed play, not much work had to be done."

Escobedo interjects, "There are such horror stories about directors, but what I respected about Ron is that he took the energy of my initial changes and combined it with the polish of the later rewrites. He took my words and added clarity."

The play, they hope, will speak poignantly to the 20-something generation. While people of all ages continue to look for love, Escobedo observes that people who are in their 20s tend to think, once they have found love, "What should I do with it?"

Chang spoke with marked enthusiasm about the milestone of this production, noting its freshness, sincerity, and passion, its poetic language that balances humor and reverence, and its appropriate placement in their millennium season.

"It's a vehicle that showcases younger Asian-American actors, and is a reflection of us now," Chang remarks. "Pan Asian Rep wants to move forward as a sophisticated producer. To nurture plays with caution and with an eye toward excellence. If we produce with integrity and love, we can be a support mechanism to playwrights and directors, and can be part of a productive and harmonious exchange between them."

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