10 years later: Tracing remnants of an artist life

The first Sulu DC show. Basement of St. Stephen’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, Washington DC.
November 21, 2009.

Two weeks ago I was part of the 10 Year Tribute + Retrospective of the AAPI Community of the DMV presented by DC APA Film via YouTube live. Christian Oh, President of the Board of DC APA Film and co-founder and former Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, reached out to me in August about recording a video for the event. (At the time, Kollaboration DC was the DC branch of the Asian American talent competition.)

We’ve known each other for 10 years now, first meeting in person at a restaurant near George Washington University’s campus. I was co-director of Sulu DC at the time and he had just started Kollaboration DC. Both organizations had similar missions and visions—to nurture artistic growth and to increase the visibility of Asian American artists. One was a talent show competition, the other a monthly showcase of artists in a variety of artistic disciplines. Cousins, you could say. Our audiences went to their shows—I even performed in the first one as a guest performer along with spoken word poets, Gowri K and Alex Cena, who is also a Sulu DC co-founder. Quite a few performers from the competition eventually featured at Sulu DC shows.

That period of time from 2009-2013 was truly extraordinary. You could sense the urgency and the hunger for spaces in which we could bring our whole selves, build community, and just have a grand old time. For many DC transplants, especially those from the West Coast, Sulu DC was a little bit of home. For those from the rest of the US, Sulu DC was a home they didn’t realize they had been searching for.

I’ve been reflecting on these years a lot in the past year. First, when I was writing my application essay for graduate school (MA Arts Administration), and then in leadership class my first semester. There are times I am weary of always thinking about it because it’s been so long since I was immersed in it and let’s be honest now, memory can’t be trusted completely. Even in this post I get the sense that I’m romanticizing that time.

One particular night stands out in my memory. It’s not from a show, but a year or so after I left the organization. I was drinking wine outside a bar with a friend in Fells Point. I shared what I had been thinking for a while but didn’t want to admit: I don’t want the best of what I have to offer to be behind me. The fear that I wouldn’t somehow do bigger and better things after Sulu DC consumed me for a while. It’s part of why I didn’t write and perform for years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tuned into the live stream. Within a few minutes I found myself squealing in my room at remembering certain performances from the first Kollaboration DC competition. We were all so young. We believed we could make a career as artists. The world felt so open and endless then.

Prior to writing this post I took a look at my twitter account, which I last updated in 2015. Aside from photos and Facebook statuses, it’s the only evidence of my life back then. I stopped writing in a journal during that time and I lost all the blog posts when I discontinued my website (I know, I’m still very sad about it). What a busy little bee I was! In DC 2-3 times a week, a Sulu DC show here, a college show in Georgetown, rehearsals and meetings, hosting open mics. (Oh, and I was terrible at twitter. It was a bunch of tweets about “en route to the city” like anyone was that interested in where I’d be next. Who did I think I was? A rock star?) I was living that artist and artist manager life. I wasn’t tired yet, just eager to share my poetry and do whatever needed to be done to produce our shows. I certainly had the heart, the drive, leadership instincts, and some skills. Even more important, I was surrounded by such a supportive network, who were still there even after I left.

Now 10 years later, I am a lot more intentional, more self-assured, more forgiving especially of myself, and still angry. In the video above you’ll hear my response to what I hope to see in the next 10 years for AAPI communities. Here’s what I didn’t say but I’m saying it now. That we never have to hear the question, “Where are you from?” ever again.

“Where Are You From” written and performed by Alex Cena, Gowri K, and Jenny C. Lares. 2010.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie: The Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

The Farewell

I saw The Farewell last week at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. Having watched the trailer and skimmed a few reviews, I was ready to see Awkwafina shine and to cry out my feelings. But surprisingly, I didn’t. Not because there weren’t moments worthy of tears—I more or less psyched myself out of it.

I thought I’d walk out of the theater a crying mess because I’m sensitive to any story about grandparents, having only spent a significant amount of time with one grandmother, and never being around a grandfather. Instead I was filled with this yearning to be surrounded by my family—all of them, from both sides—and all our imperfections.

There’s a scene in the movie when the camera pans around the table and Billi (Awkwafina’s character), her dad, her nai nai (grandmother), uncle, and cousin are playing a drinking game. I may not have understood what they were saying but there was so much joy in that one moment it’s almost bringing me to tears as I recall it.

I can’t remember the exact details of a moment like that from my own history, but the feeling is familiar; I know it’s happened before. And so, the next day, with The Farewell fresh on my mind, I put aside some work and spent more time than I usually would with my mom. We didn’t talk about anything in particular; I simply accompanied her to her best friend’s house. She picked vegetables from their garden and afterwards, we all shared halo-halo (the Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, lots of different toppings, ube ice cream, and evaporated milk all mixed together, hence the name “halo halo” which translates to “mix mix”). It was a most ordinary and extraordinary Friday evening.

(Part 2 coming soon)

In my element

On Saturday I was the Master of Ceremonies for the 33rd Anniversary Dinner Dance of the Filipino American Association of Upper Chesapeake (FAAUC). My family has been part of this organization since 1996. It’s an integral part of our history and life in Maryland; my parents met many of their closest friends through the association and I grew up with a group of friends many of whom have families of their own now, although we’ve grown apart in recent years. I have hosted this event on and off since I was 16. I’ve lost count exactly how many times I’ve been MC; it all blurs together most of the time. Except for this one.

For the first time, my outfit matched how I felt inside: powerful, grown, self-assured. My hair was styled. I was wearing make up. My cue cards in my hand, handwritten numbers on the top right corner in pink marker (I wrote my script that morning). I was ready to go.

(For those interested, I wore a faux jumpsuit—black, shimmery wide leg pants and a black v-neck satin sleeveless top—with a Filipino kimona, and blush heels. I’m usually not that trendy.)

I shared a poem about balikbayan boxes which was, surprisingly, a big hit with the crowd. I became part of the cultural program providing the transitions between acts–most of it ad lib as I had only prepared the minimal thinking that I wouldn’t have to introduce each dance or singer; in the past the program has been one long medley of songs without breaks. I made people laugh.

For the first time in a long time, I showed who I was and what I could do without giving a thought to my weight or my unruly eyebrows or how I would be perceived. When I featured at Busboys and Poets at the end of March, I still didn’t take up space and was super conscious of how large I must have looked to others up on stage, the lights so intense there was nowhere to hide.

So when someone asked me why I was so beautiful that night, I said, “Because I feel good.”

I took this selfie before I left the house. I usually don’t take a selfie alone. I’m not that comfortable taking a selfie alone. But I made it a point to take one so I could look at my face and not criticize every inch of it, to recognize how long it took me to get to this point of acceptance and love, to capture me at my best, in my element.

I’ve struggled with my weight for a long time, more notably so in recent years. I dread going to the Philippines and seeing family because they’ll always comment on my weight first. Once, a childhood friend saw me for the first time after 15 years and when we were alone, his first words to me were: “Why are you so fat?”

I’m not conventionally pretty (my mom would argue that I am, but what parent wouldn’t?). Cute would be the closest I’d say. Only because of my dimples. It bothered me more growing up when comparing yourself to others is a daily ritual and none of the boys around you seemed to find you attractive. So I focused on academics and writing instead, on developing skills and my sense of humor, on community and working towards social justice, believing that in the end, those things would matter more. And they do.

It is all of those things and talent and stage presence and practice and experience and my support network that created me in this specific moment in time. We carry all of who we are every day and everywhere. And on this particular day, I felt good. Despite certain parts of my life in limbo for the past 11 months and being fabulously broke, I know who I am, I know I am powerful, I know I have a lot to offer. And I wanted to celebrate that.

Color and Creativity

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A few weeks ago, my sister and I went to Color Factory, an interactive exhibit celebrating color and creativity. It began last year in San Francisco, and this year, took inspiration from the color palette of New York City.

The exhibit was an absolute delight! Every room was a unique experience, and we had a grand old time playing, dancing, eating treats (which was brilliant!), and discovering our secret color (mine was a purple called “psychological thriller”).

One of my favorite things about Color Factory was the “Poems for the City” by Won McIntosh, a Queens-based writer. Won McIntosh translated the color palette into ten poems about daily life in New York City. The poems were displayed on the wall in the lobby for all to see and absorb while waiting in line. It inspired me to try and write short poems about the city but as someone who’s not a New Yorker and not quite a tourist either. Something in between?

Mercer Street (SoHo)
Here we are
Footsteps on cobblestones
Stepping sideways around strangers
In pace with people
Who have places to go

Canal Street Market
Here we are
Greeted by merchandise stalls and cafe regulars
A one-stop shop
Where choices are plenty
And nourishment always possible

They’re not the best poems, and have nowhere near the profoundness of Won’s poems, but hey, I’m just glad I actually wrote something! Hopefully, the trend will continue. Here’s to more color and inspiration in daily life.

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Camp Artscape

On Saturday I dragged my sister to Artscape in Baltimore. This is the third year in a row I’ve gone to Artscape. The first was in 2015 when I volunteered for a few shifts. Now it’s slowly becoming a summer tradition.

Like last year, I was looking forward to the artist market. I love walking from booth to booth, admiring the art, and buying artwork when I come across something I love (and within my budget, of course). Last year I bought a screen print of the English alphabet and numbers in highlighter pink from Baltimore Print Studios. It’s on display at my work desk and served as the inspiration for the rest of that particular wall of my cubicle.

I didn’t walk away with artwork this time, but I did buy a ring made from traditional Japanese textiles by Tigerlilly Shop. It’s so pretty I want to wear it every day! (no pic, unfortunately).

Shortly after I bought the ring, it started to drizzle. Neither of us checked the weather before we left the house. (I swear it was only supposed to rain on Sunday!) But we continued to walk through the streets keeping our fingers crossed that the summer storm would hold back, even just a little.

No such luck.

At least we were able to get food right when the wind picked up. We walked through the rain, clutching our bowls of bibimbap until we found a building with an overhang.

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Our view as we ate with our backs to the wall of some building.

I actually love summer rain storms. (Don’t let this post fool you). Running through the rain, not caring about my clothes getting drenched. There’s a sense of freedom somehow in letting the rain wash over you while others hide from it like it’s the proper thing, or the only thing to do. But I digress. This post is about Artscape, not rain storms.

After eating lunch we went in search of ice cream and caught a few musical acts along the way. On the way back to the car I spotted the cutest little sunglasses. There it was, just chillin on the bricks.

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And that, my friends, was our time at Artscape 2017. Seriously, aren’t the sunglasses just the cutest thing?

(I’m still getting used to writing recaps so forgive the lack of focus of this post).