Jul. 1, 2003

A production for future generations
Asian troupe has new perspective

Seeks end to `fresh off the boat' plays


An actress since age 6, Nina Aquino wanted to write her master's thesis on her first love, Asian Canadian theatre. That is, until she found out the University of Toronto library didn't even have a category for the topic.

"It felt awful, like I didn't exist," says the 25-year-old Aquino. "I said to myself, `Wow, I have to do something about this.'"

Aquino is now artistic director of fu-GEN, an Asian Canadian theatre company founded in January, 2002, as a response to the sense of displacement she and other Asian Canadian actors in Toronto were experiencing.

Fu-GEN's mandate is to develop Asian Canadian artists through the production of new and established plays," says Leon Aureus, 28, founding artistic director. "We hope to introduce new faces, stories and perspectives, helping to enrich the Canadian theatre scene and strengthen multicultural bonds."

General manager Richard Lee, 25, says the company's name, short for "future generation," represents the mentality of this group of young performers."We are the future generation of artists," he says. "Never mind Asian."

In July, 2002, the company's premier performance, Love and Relasianships, took place at Adelaide St. W. bar Una Mas. A cast of 12 performed excerpts from various Asian-North American plays to a sold out crowd.

While fu-GEN's showcase has included the work of well-known Asian American playwrights such as David Henry Hwang, Aquino says she wants to move beyond stories based solely on race.

"I'm tired of the immigrant, F.O.B. (fresh off the boat), whiny, weepy, where-do-I-belong stories," says Aquino. "We want a funky, active approach to describe our experience. We want to reflect us."

Deborah Chantson, 20, shares Aquino's desire for contemporary tales. The young theatre-goer says she enjoyed fu-GEN's showcase, but is more excited they wrote a stage adaptation of Terry Woo's successful novel, Banana Boys, which they are workshopping this month for production next year.

"I couldn't relate with a lot of the stories because there was a lot of history (-based) plays about wartime and I haven't lived through that," she says. "But Banana Boys talks about university and relationships from the point of view of Chinese-born Canadians, and I can relate as a Chinese Canadian university student."

While the company wants to focus on Asian Canadian productions, it doesn't want to be labelled as "ethnic" theatre.

"We want people to come watch us because we're good and professional," says Aureus.

Aquino agrees.

"Why is there always the tag of `Asian' play?" she asks. "In the end, we're all Canadian theatre companies."

Various cultural theatre companies have existed since the immigration boom to Canada in the mid-1800s. One of the earliest Asian companies was the Chinese United Dramatic Society, formed in 1933 to present traditional Cantonese operas.

The '80s saw the rise of groups like Carlos Bulosan Cultural Workshop, a Filipino theatre company, and the multidisciplinary Canasian Artists Group.

Today, theatre groups such as Loud Mouth Asian Babes in Toronto and the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre are trying to revitalize this tradition and take it in new directions.

"It's one part of a wave that's been going on for about 15 years, and there's more to come," says Jean Yoon, the "Seoul Babe" and founding artistic director of Loud Mouth Asian Babes.

"More Asians are active in Canadian theatre now. Before, I could count the number of actors on one hand."

Aureus says actors vying for Asian-specific roles don't face the same degree of competition as those who play more generalized characters, "but the roles aren't that developed," he says, pointing to gigs as a Chinese delivery boy or Triad gangster.

"So we don't just need actors, we also need producers, directors and writers (in artistically significant roles) and we need Asian Canadian flavour."

To help rectify this situation, Aureus and other members of the theatre community launched fu-GEN with a weekly play-reading series and skills workshops at Trinity-St. Paul's United Church. He stresses the importance of having Asian Canadians write about their contemporary experiences.

"The earlier generation had to touch on issues of identity and there was a strong connection to the past," says Aureus. "We still touch on it, but we're moving beyond it now. The stories are about ourselves as people living in Canada and our relationship with this community."

Currently, fu-GEN is run by a few core volunteers and is home to 35 actors and a resident playwright, David Yee, who recently had his play Filial selected for the SummerWorks theatre festival in August.

Fu-GEN aims to be in full production by next year and is developing several plays, including Terry Watada's Tale Of A Mask and a new Filipino Canadian play called Singkil.

Richard Lee says fu-GEN has created a place for artists to flourish. But he hopes to abandon it one day.

"(Previous Asian artists) have pushed so hard to get us where we are, so we're pushing so we can get further," he says. "Eventually, we can push the door open for the next generation.

"The goal is not to need fu-GEN any more, so we don't need a home specific for Asian artists."

For more info, check out the Web site, http://www.fu-gen.org/.