A BAAS- A Beautiful Asian-American Show
The New Ong King Arts Center, for those like me who haven’t visited since their move from King Street, is tucked away in the heart of Fort Street Mall. Visibly, it remains an art hub- there are murals, a stage with unused instruments tucked away, and a very hip looking bar. There, in the center of this big room lay a nice informal mix of seating arrangements- audience members had the choice of enjoying this production either on chairs or couches. The set itself seemed fresh and ready to go- a blend of a home and a teacher’s office, with dressing elements that cross into both. The lights dimmed, and EVOLVE Artistic Director Reiko Ho welcomes us all to the third and final show of their season. Cowboy Versus Samurai, by Michael Golamco, kicked off.
Cowboy Versus Samurai is part rom-com, part incisive yet fun look into Asian American race relations, and part modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. A romantic comedy at its heart, it follows Travis (Sean-Joseph Takeo Kahāokalani Choo), an Asian-American that moved from Los Angeles to Breakneck, Wyoming. He and his friend, Chester (Marcus Lee), are the only two Asians in town. Life is kind of set for the two of them- never getting Asian food like tofu from the grocery store, being the only members of their militant Asian American Alliance, and Travis teaching English while Chester, an orphan, struggles with identifying who he is. This all changes when Korean American Veronica (Kris10 Misaki) comes to town. Veronica, teaching at the same school Travis is at, is pined after by both Travis and Chester, but while opening up to Travis, he gathers that she not only wants to remain single, but is only interested in white men. Enter Del (Nick Jeffs), Travis’ PE teacher colleague and friend, who is also attracted to Veronica but recognizes his shortcomings very quickly after an encounter with her. Thus, in that Cyrano de Bergerac fashion, he asks Travis to write letters to Veronica for him and signed by him so that he may win her affections, which Del ultimately does, and that leads to all manners of complications for everyone.
Golamco tells most of the play through solid two person scenes which zeroes in on the heart of what makes these characters fun to watch- their humanity. Choo plays an earnest Travis who is at odds with himself, haunted by a former lover and negotiating this tokenism his race afforded him in this town in the middle of nowhere. A wonderful writer who does not confront issues and things he wants head on. Lee playing the zealous and militant Chester shows us a man who is a walking stereotype- but only does so because he doesn’t know who he is, and it heavily affects who he is and what he does, almost always to a fault. A strong performance from Jeffs shows us a man who is reaching above his station- and he knows it. Del gets the girl through deception, sure, but he is acutely aware and even recognizes the writing on the wall about their relationship before it takes a turn. Misaki rounds out the cast with her Veronica who has the experiences of the big city in her back pocket, and is perhaps the most human of them all. Like the daily life we all navigate, her choices may instigate and confuse the characters around her, but she sticks to her guns and demonstrates a freedom that Chester and Travis chase in their own ways.
Director John Wat has gathered a strong ensemble and tells this nicely woven tale well, and he and the design team behind EVOLVE have also made this show rise to the occasion. Kaci Yokohama designing lights, Sarah Danvers designing set, and the cast alongside Reiko Ho taking care of the costumes truly transformed this “artistic hub” into a quality, intimate experience. Other technical choices that were simple yet worked fabulously was keeping the transitions to a minimum and having the onstage costume changes be understated yet effective.
Thematically, there is a lot to unpack from this production. There are many themes about race, gender, self-esteem, and identity that proliferate the play, and Golamco does his best to subvert and reframe many preheld notions and conceptions about these issues. To address them not in a lengthy paper would be a disservice, but be aware that the discomfort you may feel from the show is intentional. It doesn’t come from an ignorant or hateful place, but I think it comes from a place meant to question and have discussion over, a great place for any piece of theatre to operate from.
Cowboy Versus Samurai has one more weekend left, running Friday through Sunday. It is playing at The New Ong King Arts Center, 1154 Fort Street Mall. Tickets are available at the box office and for more information, please contact Director Wat or EVOLVE Artistic Director Reiko Ho at email@example.com.