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Square Roots

Chay Yew talks about The Square, a unique Asian-American theater project at the Public. logo

Henry Yuk, Ken Leung, Ching Valdes-Aran,
and Joel de la Fuente in The Square
(Photo: Nigel Teare)
Some of the finest contemporary American playwrights have contributed to a unique project that explores the Asian-American experience from the Civil War to the present. The Square features brief plays by eight Asian American playwrights (Ping Chong, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang, Han Ong, Diana Son, Alice Tuan, and Chay Yew) and eight non-Asian American playwrights (Bridget Carpenter, Constance Congdon, Kia Corthron, Maria Irene Fornes, Craig Lucas, Robert O'Hara, Jose Rivera, and Mac Wellman). The New York premiere engagement, offered by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, starts previews October 16 at The Public Theater.

This ambitious project was created and curated by Lisa Peterson and Chay Yew, who premiered it in L.A. last year in a production by Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum's Asian Theater Workshop. The action of each short play is set in and around a park in New York's Chinatown, and each participating playwright drew structural requirements and limitations out of a hat. For example, there were four time periods to choose from: 1880, 1920, 1960, and 2000. Choices of theme included destiny, order, chaos, and tradition. The writers even drew lots to determine the number of actors (up to four) and the racial makeup of characters (Asian, non-Asian, or mixed) for each play.

"The styles are widely diverse," says Yew. "When we did it in L.A., I think people left the theater feeling two ways: 'Wow, I never realized there's this breadth of writing in American theater,' and also, 'I never realized the history that Asian Americans have in this country.' "

If audience reaction in L.A. is any judge, the production promises to attract people from all cross-sections. Some of the most rewarding feedback Yew has received came from a 14-year-old who came to see The Square, and then sent him a handwritten letter. "He said that he'd been wrestling with these questions of being Asian, and the concerns that some of these plays have made him see his parents in a different light," Yew relates. "Now he knows a little bit more about being Asian American. And I thought, guess what? That's perhaps why I do this. It's not for the money--it's just to connect with someone. Hopefully, that's what Asian American theater is all about."

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