Asaki Kuruma on Writing, Immigration, and the Racial Dynamics of Philadelphia Theater

Previously published on the FringeArts blog, republished by kind permission.

“It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man.”

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“Uh, are you okay? You look like you’re giving birth,” Asaki Kuruma’s roommate asked while watching her write. Asaki, who has acted in Philadelphia for about ten years, premieres her first play, Bi(?!)lingual, as part of the SoLow Fest, June 26–28. Asaki developed the play with help from Simpatico Theatre Project’s SoLow Incubator, an artist residency program to develop shows for the SoLow Fest. Asaki describes the writing process as “fun . . . and torturous,” adding, “the idea is there, but it’s so fuzzy—I cannot put it into words.”

Months of writing and rewriting later—she refers to cutting beloved but unnecessary passages as “killing the babies”—Asaki finally feels confident in her script. Bi(?!)lingual is based upon her move from Japan to the United States ten years ago, and all the misunderstandings and laughter that accompany being bilingual in a foreign country. We sat down with Asaki to learn about her show, her life, and her view of theater in Philadelphia.

Asaki grew up in Yokohama, Japan, a hilly port city near Tokyo. She attended a middle and high school founded by American missionaries, which had a very good English program. “But it didn’t matter,” Asaki insists, “I was still terrible at it!” Asaki first experienced theater in this high school. A classmate wrote a play inspired by a tragedy from their school’s history—during World War II, an air raid destroyed the school and killed several students and teachers. Asaki’s classmate enlisted her as an actor, and Asaki immediately fell in love. She remembers knowing, from this one play, “I wanna do this as a career.” Though she quickly laughs and adds, “which is not really a career, unless you become really famous.”

After high school, Asaki attended Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) in Tokyo to study English. Her decision to attend TUJ, rather than an English language prep school, was directly influenced by 9/11. Following the attacks, Asaki remembers multiple rumors spreading rapidly. One theory was that the attacker was North Korean. If this turned out to be true, Asaki—who is ethnically Korean—was unsure how American attitudes towards Koreans would change. In case she could not move to the U.S., Asaki decided to go to TUJ, where she could earn a degree without transferring to another college.

But after a year, Asaki did transfer, moving to Temple’s Philadelphia campus at age twenty. At this point her English was, by her own estimate, “fairly fine.” Yet she quickly found that “speaking with native speakers is completely different.” Asaki laughs, exclaiming, “People in Philly speak so fast! East Coasters in general, but Philly especially has this weird accent.” Asaki describes being baffled by Philadelphians’ pronunciation of words like “water” and “now.” Even today, she sometimes struggles with the accent when she is very tired.

Despite the linguistic confusion, Asaki loved Temple, where she majored in theater with an acting concentration. After graduating, she took up a smattering of odd jobs. Currently, Asaki supplements her acting by working as a house manager at a theater company in Philly, and by helping out at a friend’s cosplay company, which specializes in Game of Thrones costumes. Asaki laughs with slight embarrassed while describing sewing costumes, crafting jewelry, and modeling for photos, but admits that it is very fun.

With the support of these jobs, Asaki can afford to keep acting. “It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man, and can do acting and singing,” Asaki remarks matter-of-factly. In response to whether being Asian affects her acting career, Asaki lets out a half-laugh, half-sigh: “A lot. . . . There’s a weird tension between races, especially in Philadelphia, which is really unfortunate because it’s such a diverse city.” But this diversity is segmented and stratified. Asaki maps out different neighborhoods on our coffee table—here is the Latino neighborhood, there is the Cambodian neighborhood, this is where the rich people live. These racial boundaries are reflected in Philadelphia theater, which Asaki describes as “very white, plus a little bit of black. No Asian or Latino, at least not as much as there should be.” So often, she has heard at casting calls, “Oh, she cannot be Asian, sorry.” Asaki mentions that many Asian-American actors become so frustrated with the dearth of roles in Philly that they move—usually to New York or California—or leave acting all together for backstage positions. Casting is even more complicated for Asaki because she is not a native English speaker. She grows more serious and continues, “I have an accent, and people can tell I’m a foreigner, which I’ve been working on, but since I learned English as a second language—not since I was a little kid—it’s really hard to overcome.” She looks away for a moment before adding, “It is frustrating—I can do so much better than this, but not many people see that way.”

Power Street members Asaki Kuruma, Margarite Sutton, Erlina Ortiz, Gabriela Sanchez, and Rebecca Vail

Despite her frustration, Asaki quickly spins the conversation to positive changes in Philadelphia. She is a member of the newly formed Power Street Theatre Company, which she fondly refers to as her home. The company’s first show, Minority Land, in which Asaki played a Japanese immigrant named George, debuted in the 2013 Fringe Festival. Founded by Gabriela Sanchez and Erlina Ortiz, Power Street sees itself as a creative home for those sidelined by much of theater, particularly artists who identify as “minority” in any way.

Asaki is also encouraged by the formative conversations within the Asian-American theater community that followed the Lantern Theater Company’s controversial production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar last year. Lantern Theater staged the Shakespeare play in feudal Japan, without any Japanese actors. In the uproar that followed, an Asian-American theater community began to form for the first time in Philadelphia. Before, Asaki remembers knowing only one other Asian actor in Philly. She relays excitedly, “This was the first time we got together in one place, saying, ‘Hi, we’re here, now what?’ I’ve been here for almost ten years, and it finally seems like it’s happening.”

Since then, Asaki has participated in workshops at the Asian Arts Initiative, and hopes to create more work fueled by this new sense of community. She states with conviction and hope, “We should stand up instead of being meek and quiet and polite, which is our tendency, unfortunately. We’re being ignored or not noticed.”

Despite these issues, Asaki’s affection for the Philadelphia theater community is obvious. When discussing moving, she says, “I cannot say about tomorrow, but right now I’m still here. It’s a good community; I love the theater community in Philadelphia. I want it to be a little more open, that’s all!”

Power Street Theatre performing MinorityLand in September, 2013.

Asaki appears most excited when talking about projects that do just that—open up the theater world. She has had so many great conversations and met so many interesting people while creating Bi(?!)lingual, that she is considering expanding the play into a series of interviews with people who have experienced immigration or multilingualism.

For now, however, all of Asaki’s energy is focused on preparing for Bi(?!)lingual. “A solo show is scary as hell,” she laughs, eyes wide. But it’s all worth it, because Asaki has clearly found a topic she is passionate about. Although the play is based on immigration and bilingualism, it is also a coming of age story. Asaki is eager for the talkbacks after each show, and the opportunity to share the stories that didn’t make it into the final draft—“those babies we killed and cried over.”

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

Bi(?!)lingual

Created and performed by Asaki Kuruma

Directed by Chelsea Sanz

Asian Arts Initiative

1219 Vine Street

June 26–28 at 8pm

Pay what you can ($5–$10 suggested)

No reservations necessary

Walk up sales only

solowfest.com

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