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Thursday, May 23, 2024

American drama gets reinterpreted with ethnically diverse cast

The dialogue around diversity reached a fevered pitch earlier this year with an open letter from dozens of theatre professionals pointing to a lack of diversity at our city’s annual theatre awards. Two of those signatories were Chris Lam and Lissa Neptuno, who will present Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds with an ethnically diverse cast, and presented at a Chinatown venue.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the production is solely a response to the diversity conversation though, Lam says the decision to produce the play came before they signed the letter, and a desire to simply create theatre with friends and people that they wanted to worth with.

“I didn’t want it to be political, but it does feel very political,” says Lam.

The question of diversity is tough to ignore though given Lam’s casting choices, and the decision to use Vancouver’s Chinatown as a backdrop.

“I wanted to see if I could do this existing text and superimpose this face on it, and see if we were still able to tell the story and get those universal truths to come about. What it comes down to though, as long as we are telling the story and honouring the truth of these characters, I will feel like we succeeded,” he says.

Written over 50 years ago, the oft-produced drama tells the story of a dysfunctional family trying to cope with their lot in life. With its universal story that crosses cultural lines despite its American roots, it is one in which Lam saw parallels to his own family.

“There is a bit of ambiguity,” he says. “What is happening in rehearsals is that I have points of reference from my family or from the actor’s families, and we pool those collective stories and experiences that are primarily Asian, and honour them within the context of what this family wants.”

That has resulted in what Lam calls a “weird hybrid”, something he is trying to navigate by making connections,  and in supporting the diversity of his actors.

“I negotiate that all the time in rehearsals,” he says. “It feels like it has a heavy Asian flavor to it, but at the same I’ve been trying to pull back on it, have a little restraint. I’m trying to align that.”

Lam also saw the story fitting inside the Chinatown venue in which they will be performing.

“I wanted to do a site-specific show, and I hadn’t seen one done before in Chinatown,” he says. “I found Skylight Gallery, this interesting artistic space, and I thought: what if it was about this family that lived in Chinatown?”

Originally set inside the Hunsdorfer family home on New York’s Staten Island, Lam sees the change in location as both a reflection of his heritage, and the changing nature of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

“It is a kind of reaction to my own sense of identity, and my own personal connection to the area,” he says. “The show is like a small microcosm of the state of Chinatown, and the lack diversity in the Vancouver theatre scene.”

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds plays the Skylight Gallery (163 E Pender St, Vancouver) from November 18-28. Find more information online. Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.

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