South Asian Theater Arts Movement (SATAM) and the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, Los Angeles, June 2011
- Ketu Katrak, Irvine

July 16, 2011

Los Angeles, California was the veritable hub of theater activity in June 2011 with the Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) 50th Anniversary and National Conference, the Hollywood Fringe Theater Festival, and the Third National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival. The latter (June 20-26, 2011), along with a South Asia theatre Pre-Conference presented a dynamic meeting of artists, scholars, funders, and as always necessary in theatre, an engaged audience willing to explore new directions in Asian American Theatre, the impact of new media on theatre, the global expanse of vision taking artists in exciting avenues in solo and collaborative work. This conference was organized by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), with local Los Angeles hosts, Leilani Chan, Artistic Director of TeAda Productions, and Tim Dang, Producing Artistic Director of East West Players (the oldest Asian American Theater in the US), fabulous stage managers of the conference events and festival performances at two locations along with sumptuous meals for the delegates each evening.

South Asian Theater was the focus of a significant day long Pre-Conference (June 20) to the National Asian American Theater Conference, facilitated by Los Angeles based artists Shishir Kurup and Shaheen Vaaz. Twenty-eight South Asians (and a few others) attended - playwrights, dancers, directors, actors, scholars, journalists, and funders. Some attendees had been part of earlier dialogues of South Asian Theater Arts Movement (SATAM) meetings in 2009 in Minneapolis, hosted by Pangea Theatre’s Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan, and in Chicago by the Silk Road Theatre Company in 2007. 2009 also saw the publication of a volume of plays entitled, Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora edited by Neilesh Bose (Indiana University Press):
The LA gathering agreed to continue with this group identification of SATAM and to energize it via creating a Facebook group where artists can interact and post events.

The opening general discussion explored the pros and cons of delineating a South Asian Theater aesthetic that is evolving. A distinct South Asian dramaturgy attempts to combine western theatre techniques along with eastern ones where dance, movement and theatre, as in the concept of natya, are conjoined.

As people of color in US multiethnic society, South Asian artists recognize that they are part of many different artistic affiliations, not only South Asian based. Artists spoke against ghettoizing themselves or their potential audiences. Facilitator Shishir Kurup noted appropriately, “We should hyphenate the hell out of ourselves so that we don’t get pegged as one thing.” Hence, while we recognize the tension, even limitation of the South Asian classification, we must strive to make it productive, to assert solidarity rather than division. Even as we dig into our cultural heritages we need simultaneously to respond to our local US communities in creating new artistic directions.

In asserting our South Asianness, we do not wish to duplicate the kinds of exclusions that we ourselves have experienced, nor do we wish to get trapped in narrow identity politics. Categorization is the bane of multiethnic US society - by race, ethnicity, region, race, high tech/low tech, audience and so on. And although the US mainstream usually likes only one category for one ethnic group, we must insist on the diversity among South Asians who come from different regions, religions, and class backgrounds, with various linguistic and social customs.

There was a discussion of whether there is a need for a South Asian Theatre company in Los Angeles. Is that sustainable? Is there a model for that? Would that simply ghettoize us? Why is it important to have the space to develop issues connected to South Asian identity, family, community? At the same time, we must not preclude South Asian artists who delve into other traditions. Our vision of a South Asian theatre is one that does not exclude peoples of other ethnicities and is not limited to South Asian themes and actors.

In the US, regional theatres were a response to validate work from different regions of this vast nation rather than focus only on Broadway shows in NYC. How do we as South Asians fit into that? Do we have particular LA-regional stories to tell in theatre?

Other issues discussed included interculturalism, international theatre, diaspora theatre, hybridity, scholar activism and how art can advance social justice. Funding discussion included participation from Cheryl Ikemiya, Senior Program Officer for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that has supported the present and previous two National Asian American Theatre Conferences. A representative, Reena Dutt, of the LA-based Ford Amphitheatre noted Ford’s interest in showcasing South Asian theatre and art creations and that the Ford runs workshops for marketing, producing and publicity. ( Artists expressed the need to get commissions to write plays without strings attached that boxed them into “women’s issues” or “brown issues.” 

The breakout sessions with small groups included useful discussion of four areas: “Innovation” of themes and forms, including the use of technological tools to enhance our work; “Collaboration” and “Cross-Pollination” across disciplines - text-based and body-based - and making our art multidisciplinary including movement, voice, and multimedia; and “Proliferation” of our work by cultivating a diverse audience.

Discussion of audience brought up the matter of who among the South Asian community patronizes theater? How do we create new audiences? How do we optimally use social media to create a buzz and actually get people into the theatre? How do we include new technologies and the virtual body along with asserting the significance of the live body? How do we cultivate more theater goers from among conservative South Asians in the US? How do we make going to the theatre a part of their lives? Can we appeal to them via both themes and a dramaturgy that includes text, movement, music, that can be both serious and entertaining? In targeting younger audiences to the theater, we need to think of interactivity that appeals to this generation - for instance the TV audiences voting from home on popular shows such as ‘American Idol’ - where they have a voice. We need more targeted marketing - to particular groups via “trending,” creating viral videos of the work, You Tube links, advertising in local South Asian newspapers, having Press releases and interviews with artists.  Another idea was to undertake blogging by getting South Asians to write in their stories and then SATAM could create one or more plays from this material.

In discussing concrete next steps based on how productive the day-long face-to-face meeting had been, the group asserted the need to continue such contact via informal artist salons at the homes of local artists, working across disciplines of dance, theatre, spoken word and other media, creating opportunities to collaborate, even linking up the local with the global by connecting digitally with artists in other parts of the South Asian diaspora beyond the US.

SATAM Facebook group can be found at:
Facebook’s e-mail address for the new SATAM Facebook Group page is

After the South Asia Pre-Conference, the National Asian American Theater Conference proceeded with panels on “Artistic Practice”, “Directing”, “Social Justice”, and “Nuts and Bolts.” Artistic Practice sessions included participation in learning movement and acting techniques from Noh, Suzuki, Kabuki and martial arts; Asian American female comedy writers on how to create humor “from intellectual wit to fart jokes, and how race and sex do (and don’t) come into the play” (Program).

The most successful panels connected the realities of wars, refugees, and immigrants from Asian nations (where the US has had military interventions) to Asian America. “Artists Addressing War and Militarism: Near, Middle, and Far” addressed how theatre artists engage with US military interventions past and present into Asia. Provocative connections were drawn between Pakistan (by playwright and performer Pakistani-American Bina Sharif) and Okinawa (by Japanese-American performance artist Denise Uyehara). Wars outside the US were linked usefully to wars on immigrants within the US. Sharif read from two of her powerful plays: The Oil Monologue, and Seven Dialogues, Seven Monologues in a Mirror Cracked. Uyehara’s piece, The Senkotsu (Mis)translation Project focused on Okinawa, the string of islands like “stones in the water” on Japan’s southern tip. The Japanese do not trust the Okinawans who speak their dialect, Hogan. As part of her presentation, Uyehara performed the chilling internal violence of Japanese soldiers on Okinawans and the external aggression of US soldiers after World War II and later.

Another very moving panel entitled “Essential New Voices from the Midwest” discussed the Minnesota-based Korean adoptee population, the largest in the world, and Minnesota’s Hmong population, the largest outside Southeast Asia. “How does theatre from these two groups challenge and expand current dialogues around immigration, colonialism, militarism, and cultural identity?” (Program)

Refugee Nation, from LA to Laos: A Diasporic, Transnational Project” shared the stories from Laotian refugees collected by Refugee Nation. This project creates partnerships “across oceans, from Los Angeles to Laos, to explore war, global politics and US citizenship.” TeAda Productions’ Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng moderated this panel.
Alison De La Cruz, multidisciplinary theatre artist and cultural organizer and Regie Cabico, Artistic Director of Sol y Soul, spoke on the Queer South Asian artists panel, moderated by theatre performer D’Lo. The discussion included how audiences are changing, and how artists need to explore “strategies for creating performance that challenges the old guard, suburbanites, and traditionalists.” One important agenda that the panelists put forward was to identify themselves (and they had the audience do the same) by their “preferred pronoun”, namely, “I am… and I go by ‘she’ or ‘he.’” This is to include transgendered community that may identify as male or female.

 “Cross-Pollination of Cultures and the Urgency to Break Barriers” explored fostering global exchange of artists and included playwrights and actors from the UK who spoke about the British Asian scene, the need to create “an international canon of Asian work,” to foster translations and adaptations, to cross-fertilize efforts and network across the US and internationally.

Festival performances:
The high-caliber performances of ten shows (of which 3 were about South Asians) included theatre, dance-cum-theatre and multimedia artists. The most memorable theatrical experiences included Denise Uyehara’s Archipelago: Islands of Land, Water and Legend, and Navarasa Dance Theatre’s Encounter. Uyehara’s multidisciplinary work created in collaboration with video artist Adam Cooper-Teran included monologue, video, music, and ritual “remix(ing) ancient origin myths of Okinawa (Japan’s southern-most islands) and Native people of the American Southwest, situating them in contemporary times” (Program). The work was stunning for its visual artistry. Uyehara wore an unusual kimono and a broad-brimmed hat on which video images were projected. On one side of the stage hung a huge block of ice with water drops falling in a container below as if recreating the tears of the traumas suffered by the Okinawan people at the hands of the Japanese military. Uyehara in her spoken piece narrated how she, as an American of Okinawan descent visited her ancestral land and was warned about the military horrors perpetrated in the “caves” where babies if they cried had their heads cut off. The devastating history was presented without glossing over the cruelties; however, the piece ended with beauty and hope. Uyehara noted that the Okinawans believe that their departed become butterflies; evocatively, the image of a fluttering butterfly was projected onto the rim of Uyehara’s hat as she backed the audience and walked slowly to the back of the stage as if carrying the spirit of her ancestors in the image of a living butterfly that then fades away. A consummate performance by a highly multi-talented artist whose imagination creates a powerful aesthetic scenario that has resonant political implications.

Encounter by the Navarasa Dance Theater based in Boston, created by Artistic Director Aparna Sindhoor and Anil Natyaveda was superb for its high quality performance and for its evocative political rendition of a Mahasweta Devi short story about the violence and injustice perpetrated by the Indian military on the bodies - especially women’s bodies - of indigenous communities in India. The program drew connections to such violence against tribal populations in other parts of the world. The choreography, an engaging blend of movement (kalari martial arts, folk dance and Bharatanatyam) with spoken script and song - was performed by five dancer-actors. Their poignant refrain in the piece was: “Our fight is for food. Our fight is for our land.” But the State hunts them down to destroy their just struggles.

The piece used a long wooden pole on which the soldiers climbed up and descended to gang rape the female tribal leader - a chillingly effective and aesthetic rendition of a gang rape without diluting its horror. As the rapists leave satiated, the ravaged woman who can barely move is summoned by the military commander who himself had sanctioned the rape by his soldiers. Although brutally bruised, she rises with courage to confront the commander verbally. She humiliates her rapists by publicly tearing off her clothes and declaring that they are useless since they do not guarantee any respect for women.

Aparna Sindhoor is a very talented actress and dancer who demonstrated the rasas with great effectiveness - from shringara (love) rasa between herself and her lover (who is summarily caught and killed though when she is caught, she has to be gang-raped first), to the profound rage and anger (raudra rasa) of the wronged woman taking on the fiercest aspects of Devi with bulging red eyes and body upright and ready for battle. Although Encounter was a 30-minute excerpt of a 75-minute production, the story was conveyed powerfully - the violence perpetrated on the female body and the deliberate disruption of indigenous peoples’ lives by the Indian State’s military authority - via movement, script, lighting and effective use of space.

A new play, Dancing on Glass, by Bangalore-based Ram Ganesh Kamatham was directed by San Francisco-based Vidhu Singh who “founded the RasaNova Theater that produces bold new plays from Asia, its diaspora and other world theater traditions” (Program). The play explores the dark side of globalization in urban India, specifically, the lives of two young professionals working at a call-centre in Bangalore. The emptiness of their lives in doing this unfulfilling work, the fallouts of working at odd hours at call-centers in order to service the US population, the numbness that overtakes their psyches, and their dehumanized responses to the sad though common traffic-related deaths in the Bangalore cityscape are rendered in a darkly humorous style.

Sunoh! Tell Me Sister is a multimedia dance-theatre work performed successfully by three of the four members of the Post Natyam Collective whose members are based in Los Angeles, Germany, and Kansas. Their “long-distance choreography” is created uniquely via internet technologies. In Sunoh! the Collective integrates the artistic contributions of Carole Kim (multimedia design), Loren Nerell and Ravindra Deo (music composition), Mona Heinze (dramaturg), Sangita Shresthova (dance-media collaboration), and Kedar Lawrence (technical direction and lighting design).

Sunoh! Tell Me Sister draws on stories of India’s courtesans and connects the “artistic” uses of the female body to contemporary realities of domestic violence and women’s resistance to such oppressions. The work is divided into short segments with imaginative connections among them. Cynthia Lee poignantly narrates her story of being Taiwanese-American, studying Kathak in Kolkata as she tries to accept the unquestioned adoration of Krishna by his many gopis, or learning to “walk” with swaying hips. As a non-Indian with short hair, she feels excluded from the circle of belonging in the dance class, so in the piece, she creatively wears and manipulates a long braid made of a long piece of fabric. Lee admits that she could not speak up against the objectification of her own body in portraying Krishna’s dalliance (even when he crosses many lines of morality and socially acceptable norms) or Radha’s desire for him despite all his wrong doings. “I did not say a word,” Lee repeats during her piece, since as a foreigner she did not wish to offend her guru.

“I did not say a word” is heard again this time in the moving recreation by Shyamala Moorty of a contemporary South Asian domestic violence survivor, Uma. Her husband insists that she tell him “how much she loves him.” When she “did not say a word,” his fury is unleashed. Shyamala evocatively uses the same long fabric (used by Lee) that she drapes over her body (standing behind the screen and in view of the audience), then covering her face and reenacting the violence by pulling at the fabric as her face looks increasingly distorted with palpable fear at the oncoming physical blows. Finally, she steps out of the bondage and circles the stage in freedom and abandon.

The solo enacted by Collective member Anjali brings together childhood stories of corporeal punishment on the young girl, endured in silence, again, not saying a word. The piece develops to an imagined and poignant dialogue across a screen between an old-time courtesan speaking to a contemporary dancer, sharing “secrets” of how the courtesan performed her duties, and whether the courtesan felt “love” for her patrons.

Sunoh! portrays women’s experiences of being silenced, and finding voice, and asserts how women are supported by sisterly community. The commingling of the stories of courtesans from the past, of survivors of domestic violence in the present and of the artists’ own struggles with tradition, whether in learning a classical dance style with its own rigid codifications often limiting for women, or in dealing with trauma of violent childhoods, and adult marital relationships. The Post Natyam Collective attains a skilful interweaving of high aesthetic standards of performance along with a strong statement against contemporary forms of violence on women’s bodies. They work with the support group for women survivors of domestic violence and other forms of sexual harassment run by the Los Angeles based community organization, South Asian Network.

Overall, the National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival along with the South Asia Pre-Conference provided a stimulating and exciting artistic and scholarly treat for audiences - some local, and others who traveled from New York, Minnesota, and London to be part of the dialogue about new directions in Asian American Theatre.

Ketu H Katrak is Professor in the Department of Drama at the University of California, Irvine. Katrak's book entitled, Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan in September 2011. Katrak grew up in Bombay and lives now in California.