(Photo Credit: Alexander Morozov)
(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Asian American Theatre Artists
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
REGIE CABICO: I am a theater artist and poet. My roots began as a teen actor in Washington, DC. Upon graduating from NYU with my undergrad degree in Acting, I started to write poetry and began performing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The power of performing and writing my work before a packed house on the edge of their seats was thrilling and something I never experienced as an actor. This freedom to write, what is essentially, a solo three-minute play without costumes, props or music. In New York, I performed with an Asian American group called Peeling and developed my work as a writer and performer through The Writers Voice and The Asian American Writers Workshop. I performed at Dixon Place, The Kitchen, Joe’s Pub and became an ensemble member in the New York Company of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. I am also currently a part of the Encyclopedia Show DC, which is a monthly series that brings together performance genres, academia, literature and sketch comedy with a specific topics, for example, the moon, vice presidents or mythical beasts. It’s interesting to note that the poetry slam, the Encyclopedia Show and Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind are theatrical forms originating in Chicago. These genres have kept me growing and vital as an artist. Recently, I have started a weekly cabaret and spoken word series called LaTi Do with a fellow Filipino-American actor, Donmike Mendoza, to fuse my love of musical theater and spoken word culture.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
RC: I am (in no particular order): a gay/queer Filipino-American actor, playwright, spoken word performer, storyteller, Tina Turner impersonator, monologist, host, emcee, performance curator, performance artist, editor, stand-up comedian, and teacher who makes a home in Washington, DC. I belong nowhere and everywhere.
Very early in high school, I was told I would never be cast. The Washington, DC theater community supported my talents. But I could see that persisting as an actor who was not white was going to be a long, long battle. So for almost two decades I have taken my career in the underground of performance via spoken word, the poetry slam.
And I still create solo plays and direct theater pieces and produce works on my own terms. As much as I would love to have my work produced by a big Broadway impresario, I have existed and served my own communities: queer, Asian, spoken word etc…and I have not let the state of American theater, which is mostly for lack of a better word white, slow my growth or artistic development.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
RC: I don’t feel like I have worked in the “American Theater.” My theatrical projects were based on culturally specific communities soliciting my work or the poetry spoken word community asking me to audition or to participate in a project. I feel that my involvement with Peeling was a grassroots community effort to just have Asian American voices heard on their own terms. The New York Neo Futurists was a community effort to bring a much needed theatrical aesthetic to New York. I do think that in casting for Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, my Gay and Asian identity made a difference since most of the people of color were cast in the original company. In my three years of being a part of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, I can see how the ensemble wanted to cast people who they were “familiar” with and I believe it was important to cast people who are further “away” from their experience. I can see a lot of people of color not getting cast. The present company is very diverse. This is important since the ensemble aesthetic demands that you to be who you are.
A life in performance is always a struggle and it is hard to tell what has been open for me because I am Asian. It is a hustle. Ultimately, I just want to grow and learn and impart my skills to emerging spoken word theater artists and at-risk youth as well as creating a forum in theater and/or literature where disenfranchised voices get to be heard.
Presently, La Ti Do is run by myself and Donmike Mendoza at The Black Fox Lounge which is a restaurant co-owned by a Filipino American. We are affecting and building theatrical community as Filipinos who, in my experience are a community-oriented, hospitable group of people. La Ti Do is not an Asian Theater Company; the mission is to blend spoken word and musical theater and reignite cabaret culture in Washington, DC and in New York. In 2012, we were nominated in The Washington Blade for Best Theatrical Production alongside The Normal Heart. I am always secretly delighted when my work gets theatrical mention, especially in this case, when we are not a “traditional” theater company. We just run a weekly series of singers, poets and storytellers. I should mention that La Ti Do just produced a musical at the DC Capitol Fringe Festival. Donmike and I never thought that this would happen but it has become an organic evolution of our series.
My recent solo play is produced by Doorway Arts Ensemble and I am grateful to Matt Ripa, the artistic director, who is open to spoken word slam poetry as a theatrical venture. Getting my work produced did not happen because I was Asian but because he read and watched my work as a spoken word performer.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
RC: We need culturally specific theaters, yes, but that alone does not solve the problem. Bindlestiff is a Filipino American Theater Company in the Bay area that has done phenomenal work for decades, developing and supporting the performing arts for emerging and established Filipino artists. It has taken me two decades to finally bring my work to the Bay area and its not because we did not know each other. The Magic Theater, a non-Asian theater company in San Francisco, invited me to be part of The Asian Explosion and that is when the connection happened. So the question is how can culturally specific theater companies serve their groups on a national level. I do think it’s important to build a strong local group of artists and audiences, but ultimately importing talent outside of the local community is key to artistic growth and voice.
JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offenses and/or great accomplishments.)
RC: I must commend the Asian organizations who are not traditional theater companies for supporting Asian American performance. The Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia has done tremendous work in building Asian theater voices and works. I have seen The Public Theater’s production of Here Lies Love and am thrilled to see a cast of Filipino / Asian performers and to also see innovation at work. The piece as I understand it is not a traditional musical but a theatrical happening set in a dance club environment, bringing to the theater David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim who are not the usual American theater artists. Most recently, I saw Prince Gomolvilas and Brandon Patton’s two-person show, Jukebox Stories, produced by Impact Theater. The show breaks the Fourth Wall, uses Tarot cards and game show audience participation devices as well as biographical stories of and original songs. The Impact Theater, which is not an Asian Theater company, exists in the basement of a pizzeria. La Ti Do exists in the basement of a bar/restaurant. So American Theater promoting culturally specific voices is finding savvy ways to exist.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
RC: Honestly, I wish that every American Theater Company would have a spoken word poet-in-residence. Slam poets are in touch with the grassroots of several communities in their hometowns and can bring diverse and younger audiences to the theater. These poets have the potential to write plays. Go back to ntozake shange’s contribution as a performing poet and her inspiring and timeless work, For colored girls who have considered suicide/ When the rainbow is enuff. The spoken word/literary community can radically change the theatrical dynamic. I also want to commend Matt Ripa and Alan Balch for producing the Second DC Queer Theater Festival at The DC Center and Jenny Lynn Towns and Brent Stansell of The DC Theatre collective for producing political theater in Washington, DC. These artists have reinvigorated local DC voices and are showing that theater can create social change and serve disenfranchised populations of our community. Right now, in Washington, DC, theater companies of color have gone extinct and while companies will produce an Asian play or a Latino or a Gay play, there is a difference when the work is not produced by its own minority group. The big regional theaters develop a season way in advance and in my opinion spend a lot of their resources programming on what wins the accolades rather than developing their local voices. There are many Asian American Mike Daiseys to be found just outside a theater’s doorstep.
Regie Cabico is the first Asian American and openly Queer poet to take top prizes at the National Poetry Slam. As an original founding member of the New York Neo Futurist production of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, he received a New York Innovative Theater Award for Best Performance Art Production. His work has been presented at Contact Theatre, The Humana Theater Festival, Dixon Place, Asian Arts Initiative, Theater Offensive and Youth Speaks, among many others. His latest solo play, Godiva Dates and One Night Stands premiered at The DC Fringe Festival July 2013, produced by Doorway Arts Ensemble. He cohosts La Ti Do, a weekly cabaret and spoken word series in Dupont Circle at The Black Fox Lounge. He resides in Washington, DC and performs throughout The United Kingdom and North America.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com