Why this Philippines Benefit?

by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza

in Activism

Post image for Why this Philippines Benefit?

(This post by Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, Ma-Yi Writers Lab, about the upcoming “Ma-Yi Theater Company & Playwrights Horizons present MGA KASABIHAN / WORDS OF WISDOM: a benefit for the Philippines.” Get your tickets here.)

Moments of tragedy call for community-building, not just financial rebuilding.

by Mike Lew

When the Philippines were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in November of 2013, Ma-Yi knew we had to do something. Ma-Yi Theater Company was initially founded by Filipino artists, and we still have several family ties there. Ma-Yi Writers Lab is the largest collective of Asian-American playwrights in the country, and our artistic impulse was to create a series of brand-new short plays inspired by translations of Filipino proverbs. It’s our hope that the audience will come away from this evening with a deeper appreciation of the Philippines – that the program will become a kind of primer in Tagalog, and that each play will serve as a powerful mnemonic for remembering each Filipino phrase.

All proceeds from the evening will go towards buying new fishing boats for villagers affected by the storm. Our goal is to raise the money on behalf of Negrense Volunteers for Change (NVC), a not-for-profit organization based in Bacolod, capital of Western Negros, an island hit hard by the typhoon. By providing funds directly to a private, non-government volunteer organization working with the communities, we will avoid unnecessary overhead costs and provide immediate relief for the victims of the typhoon. NVC will be able to restore and manufacture fishing boats with clean motors for every $500 we raise, with support going out to Negros, Cebu, Panay, Leyte, and Samar.

This is a chance for Ma-Yi to use our expertise in the Philippines to channel funding towards relief efforts that will directly and palpably affect the victims, and to handle the tragedy in a culturally sensitive way. Oftentimes we in the theater hold up this art form as a commons for discussing today’s political landscape, and the real-life impact of ongoing global events. Last year, in response to ongoing casting controversies in which several theater shows portrayed Asian characters in Asia without using Asian actors, Ma-Yi Writers Lab staged an evening of protest theater in partnership with the Signature, on the set of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. This year, the Lab was given the challenge of directly addressing the typhoon, if they dared. The theater won’t survive as a viable art form unless playwrights and producers keep pushing to create work that reflects the deep emotions and ideas presently rocking the world.

This benefit is also an effort at community-building within the NYC theater. In an effort to keep tabs on a rising crop of talented Asian actors, Ma-Yi held an open casting call to fill some of the roles in our ensemble. We received an overwhelming volume of submissions – so much so that we extended the audition process from one day to two – and made first contact with over 100 up-and-coming Asian actors. We’ve partnered with Playwrights Horizons, and they’ve generously donated space and logistical support for this evening. We’ve received publicity support from Ensemble Studio Theater, and several master playwrights – David Henry Hwang, Sarah Ruhl, and Chuck Mee – have all come forth and offered sponsored tickets for artists.

Financial rebuilding is crucial after a natural disaster. But so is community building. This benefit seeks to provide typhoon relief in a truly considered way, and present our collective response to the tragedy in a way that considers our larger theatrical community.


Telling Our Stories, and Sharing Them Too

by Rehana Lew Mirza

When the Asian American theater movement began cropping up in the 60s and 70s, it was an artistic response to a lack of Asian representation in the mainstream media, and was largely in keeping with the political “yellow power” movement. Ma-Yi Theater, now celebrating it’s 25th anniversary, was founded largely as a splinter from that, in order to recognize the ‘brown’ brethren – or the Pacific Islanders – who weren’t at the time considered part of that movement. The Philippines – with its history as an occupied power under the US – has always had a different relationship with the U.S. than other Asian countries. (In actuality, the Philippines as a country has a stronger shared history with other U.S. satellites like Puerto Rico, than say, Thailand.)

But as is the case with all good theaters, Ma-Yi has evolved over the years. Their mission has changed as the needs of their community changed. (Ahem, theaters, take note.) In 2004, Sung Rno founded the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, now the largest collective of Asian-American writers in the country, and what began as a Filipino company began to embrace all Asian-Americans under its umbrella. As South Asians began to immigrate to the country in larger masses, they too felt left out of the Asian-American Theater movement, and yet Ma-Yi again expanded its ranks. When playwright Mike Lew and I first joined the Writers Lab in 2005, Mike not only fell in love at first sight, but also thought, “Wait – she’s Asian?”

What all of this means is that Asian/Pacific/American identity is fractured and not homogenous by any means. Within the umbrella of “A/P/A” hundreds of languages are spoken.  That movement encompasses 52 nations, and thousands of different culinary delights.

So when a group of Asian-American playwrights approaches a benefit for the Philippines, it feels both natural and foreign. In some ways, Ma-Yi is the absolute authority on creating an evening of theater around Typhoon Haiyan. Or are we? What do we have to say about the Philippines? Sure, we have 3 1/2 Filipino playwrights, all of varying levels of connection to the homeland, but so what? And what about the rest of us?

Ultimately this benefit will include a gamut of stories that are incredibly diverse, all showing our unique perspectives even as all of us used a Filipino phrase as a jumping-off point. While we have the freedom of not being ‘responsible’ for representing a culture (which, even if we were of that culture, no one can really represent an entire culture), we also have access to sensitivity gut checks and honesty from those who have a decided stake in how their ancestry is represented onstage. When Asian-Americans are so often underrepresented in the mainstream, it helps to have a clever combination of both flexibility and authority, imagination and knowledge.

With five New Dramatists residencies, two PONY fellowships, and a boatload of awards including the Leah Ryan, Kendeda, Laurents/Hatcher, and Helen Merrill Awards – Ma-Yi Writers Lab is kicking ass and taking names. But I think it’s largely due to the heterogeneous make-up of the term “Asian-American” and our need to acknowledge differences and commonalities amongst one another. Innovisor, a consulting firm, conducted research in twenty-nine countries and found that “diverse groups often perform better.”

Hell yeah we do. Our art is all the better for our differences yet united by a common sense of purpose, and this benefit shows that.


Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza met and married in the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Mike is currently Co-Director of the Lab alongside Rey Pamatmat, after Rehana stepped down from Co-Director duties earlier this year.

Mike’s plays include Tiger Style!, Collin, Bike America (Alliance, Atlanta; Ma-Yi, NYC; Juilliard and Lark workshops, NYC; Kennedy Center/NNPN workshop, DC; Playwrights Foundation workshop, SF); and microcrisis (Ma-Yi, NYC; InterAct, Philly; Next Act, Milwaukee). He is a former resident writer for Blue Man Group, an EST member, and recipient of the second annual Lanford Wilson Award (via the Dramatists Guild), the Helen Merrill Award, NYFA Fellowship, and Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award. Training: Juilliard, Yale. www.mikelew.com

Rehana’s plays include Neighborhood Watch (NNPN/InterAct commission), Soldier X (2012 NYSCA Commission; Lark Development Center Studio Retreat); Lonely Leela (workshops with Magic Theatre, Desipina/HERE, and New Georges; reading at 2G); and Barriers (productions at HERE and Asian American Theater Company; Princess Grace Finalist; included on the curriculum at West Virginia University, Yale University and NYU). She is the recipient of an IAAC playwright residency with The Lark Development Center, a Tofte Arts Residency, a TCG Future Leader fellowship with New Georges, the NBC DiverseCity ShortCuts Audience Award, P2 for a Cause Grant, Leopold Schepp fellowship, a 2G residency, and an LMCC artist grant. Training: Columbia, NYU. www.rehanamirza.com