Chicago plays host to the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival
There's a lot of excitement and some trepidation about this summer's Hollywood adaptation of Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel "Crazy Rich Asians."
On the one hand, many cultural commentators are applauding how the romantic comedy features a majority of Asian acting talent. Yet others are tut-tutting over the fact that it has been 25 years since the 1993 release of "The Joy Luck Club," which is cited as the last mainstream Hollywood film set in the present to feature a predominantly Asian cast.
Historically, the theater world has been much more welcoming to Asian performers -- particularly for artists who have carved out a place for themselves. Chicago gets a major dose of this fact when it hosts the sixth annual National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, or what the organizers have affectionately abbreviated as "ConFest."
"This festival and this conference is an opportunity to see the best of performances, artists and theater from across the country," said Chay Yew, the artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater and a founding board member of the conference's parent organization, the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA).
"It's like one of those wonderful European theater festivals, where at the end of the year they curate all of the best shows and they bring them to one place," Yew said. "The luxury of that with Chicago in the summer is we have another festival where the world convenes at our doorstep."
With the theme "Revolutionary Acts," ConFest 2018 features six fully staged productions from CAATA-affiliated troupes. There are also several play readings, workshops and special speakers like Pulitzer-nominated playwrights David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly," "Yellow Face") and Rajiv Joseph ("Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," "Guards at the Taj").
Yew is also very proud of the diversity of the play offerings. They range from a look at the fraught history between Native Hawaiians and Americans in Christopher K. Morgan's "Pohaku" to Kyoung H. Park's "Pillowtalk," which explores the intersections of race, gender and class via a recently married queer couple. Daria Miyeko Marinelli's "893 | Ya-ku-za" is a Japanese mob drama, while Shahid Nadeem's "Acquittal" weaves together the story of four Pakistani women who have been unjustly jailed in the 1980s.
"Given these complicated times, the platform to share, to come together and learn from each other is an important one," Yew said. "There are also opportunities to see ourselves and ask what it means to be a global citizen."
The majority of events are centered at Victory Gardens Theater, though The Theater School at DePaul University and Silk Road Rising also are hosting select lectures and play readings. For instance, Silk Road Rising shifted its regular New China Festival of English-translated contemporary Chinese plays to run alongside ConFest.
Jamil Khoury, a Mount Prospect native and the founding artistic director of Chicago's Silk Road Rising, recently became a CAATA board member. Khoury has been pleased to see CAATA expand its geographic focus to align with more of the countries explored as part of Silk Road Rising's general mission, which focuses on the cultures of people along the historic Silk Road stretching from East Asia to the Mediterranean Sea.
"It's become a much more expansive definition of 'Asian-ness,' and a much more inclusive one," Khoury said. "I think that as Asian-American communities of theater artists look at the landscape of representation, there's a much greater emphasis on owning one's story."
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Sixth National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival
Other venues: The Theatre School at DePaul University, 2350 N. Racine Ave., Chicago; Silk Road Rising's New China Festival at Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Chicago
Showtimes: Various times between Saturday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Aug. 19
Tickets: $10-$25 for individual play readings, lectures and shows; Multiple Show Passes cost $75-$400