Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists (PAPA) arrives with Tiger Style!

Carl(os) Roa sits in on a rehearsal for "Tiger Style!", a comedic play, written by Mike Lew, about two Chinese American siblings coming to terms with their upbringing on an inter-continental voyage. Running from January 26th through February 4th at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, this will be Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists’ first full-fledged production since their founding three years ago. Roa also speaks with key members of the PAPA community about what makes their organization so vital.

Philadelphia’s traditional theatre scene loves to tell you how friendly it is. If you happen to find yourself in a conversation with a white theatre artist in town, count how many minutes it takes them to blindly praise the warmth and inclusiveness of their community. When the collective anthology of the “theatre canon” speaks only to white experiences, however, there’s little opportunity for artists of color to express their own complexity.

The antidote? Organizations like Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists, a collective of theatre artists, producers, performers, and playwrights of Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. In its three-year history, PAPA has made significant strides in its mission to explore issues of critical importance to the AAPI diaspora. One incident that led to its inception was a particularly orientalist production of Julius Caesar by a local theatre company in which white actors were cast as Japanese characters. The AAPI theatre community rallied around these grievances in protest – both galvanizing and inciting a desire for change.

artblog carlos on papa
Members of the “Tiger Style!” cast and crew (from l to r): Kimie Muroya (Assistant Director), Cat Ramirez (PAPA Producer), Stephanie Walter (Principal Role), Anita Holland (Supporting Role), Richard Chan (Principal Role), Arlen Hancock (Supporting Role), Daniel Kim (Supporting Role), Jeff Liu (Director).

But PAPA’s mission is far from reactionary. Its founders were inspired by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), a yearly conference that brings together AAPI theatre artists of all backgrounds, as well as by InterAct Theatre Company’s world premiere of Christopher Chen’s Caught — directed by influential theatre artist Rick Shiomi. InterAct’s financial support of PAPA, via the Doris Duke Foundation soon followed, and PAPA has since been a self-sustaining organization in its own right.
Cat Ramirez, who is the Producer for PAPA’s programming, facilitates a majority of their activities through artist outreach and collaborations, both within and outside of the collective. Working alongside theatre artists Bi Jean Ngo and Makoto Hirano, Ramirez presents an eclectic array of programs that serve AAPI artists, from play readings to mini-residencies.

“Part of our strategy is to be programming-driven,” explains Ramirez. “We keep seeing these really irresponsible representations. There’s a need to say, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of talent here – why do you keep doing this?”

They certainly lead by example. Over the course of three years, PAPA has amassed a roster of around 30 artists, production staff members, and administrators who come together to create work that celebrates their stories. They are an inescapable presence in the Philadelphia theatre scene, with luminaries in their ranks such as Ngo, who was the recipient of the F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Artist, and Hirano, who is celebrated in experimental theatre circles for performances that have been featured off-Broadway and at Yale University.

Currently, PAPA is preparing for its first full-fledged production: Tiger Style! by Mike Lew. Tiger Style! spins the tale of Albert and Jennifer, a pair of third-generation Chinese-American siblings who go on a “freedom tour” to California and China in response to their frustrations over their upbringing. The play’s tone induces both uncontrollable laughter as well an audience’s cringe reflex.

“I believe laughter is the way in,” says Stephanie Walters, who plays Jennifer. “Our bodies naturally open up when we laugh. We open enough for the unsavory to be placed in our mouths. This play does that.”

Indeed, Tiger Style! tackles systemic racism against Asian-Americans with a comedic audacity that begs for self-reflection. Moments that stand out include: the siblings jumping on their parents’ dining table and declare that they’re going “Full Western,” the casual racism of the white characters portrayed by Arlen Hancock, and Albert and Jennifer’s discovery that China was not what they expected it to be.

“Their feeling of not belonging is something I identify with very much,” says Walters. “As a second generation, mixed Korean American, it has often been difficult for me to find my place in the world. This script lets me explore that emotion in a very real way.”

Many members of PAPA expressed comfort in the space they’ve created for themselves — a sigh of relief in an overwhelmingly white ecosystem of theatre practitioners. Richard Chan, who plays Albert, is one artist who revels in the camaraderie of his environment. “In my years of being an actor, this is the first time I’ve been in a process where the majority of the team — including the actors and the production team — have been Asian. Never in my life has that happened before.”

Mike Lew, the playwright of Tiger Style!, intended for the piece to reflect on the consequences of “tiger parenting” — a style of parenting that, contrary to popular belief, is not a staple of Chinese culture, but according to Lew, a tactic that first-generation Chinese immigrants utilize in order to ensure their children’s survival.

With director Jeff Liu at the helm, the nuance behind these assumptions isn’t left unexamined. Jennifer and Albert might have misgivings about their upbringing, but their revelations in China lead to some uncomfortable truths about the differences between their parents’ experience and their own.

Tiger Style! opens on Jan. 26th and runs until Feb. 4th at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake. I had the privilege of sitting in on a designer run where I proceeded to fill the rehearsal room with my shrill laughter. Not that I felt self-conscious: it was about a week and half into rehearsals and the cast and crew couldn’t contain themselves either. What I saw was not just the development of a well-crafted piece of theatre, but a collective of artists who demonstrate that they’re a force to be reckoned with.

“It feels like we’ve arrived,” said Ramirez. “We’re here and we’re not leaving.”