by Beverly Aarons
As Seattle’s theater scene continues to migrate to online platforms, Pork Filled Productions has joined the shift. This year’s Unleashed Festival is going all digital. Beginning Tuesday, November 10, 2020 at 7 p.m., Unleashed will live-stream staged readings of new works by POC playwrights via YouTube. The online staged readings will begin on November 10th with I Thought I Was Safe by Patrick Zhang, and end on November 14th with Mustard Seeds by Michelle Tyrene Johnson. The festival will also include a selection of short plays and two other full-length staged readings. The full schedule is available online. Tickets are being sold on a “name-your-price” model.
Pork Filled Productions, originally founded in 1998 as the Asian American sketch comedy group Pork Filled Players, has a long track record of amplifying the voices of POC playwrights. I had an opportunity to speak with one of the founders, Roger Tang, about his company, its Unleashed Festival, and his thoughts on the future of American theater. I’ve met Tang in person – in the “before times,” when we were both part of Building Art Space Equitably (BASE). He had always seemed to be a man of few words, and at first glance I got the impression that he was shy. But my first impressions didn’t quite match the vivacious conversationalist I discovered just beneath the surface. During our most recent conversation, it was obvious that Tang is driven by a love for all things genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir) and a strong desire to produce theater that explores the depths and complexities of POC life.
“We want to talk about all aspects of our lives,” Tang said. “We have to bring our full selves to the stage. And while some of our self has to do with our ethnicity, not all of it is … it certainly tinges and colors, you know, not to make a pun … it affects every aspect, but not every aspect is about our ethnicity.”
Tang said that mainstream theater is mostly interested in producing “identity plays” by POC playwrights because white-run theatres are unable to imagine that people of color (especially Black people) have an existence outside of their racial identity. They want stories that explore “oppression and pain” not “cool stuff that everybody else in American culture talks about.”
Tang, who described himself as an advocate who wants to give POC artists their fair share of the stage, said that the demand for “identity plays” is rooted in racist assumptions about the humanity of people of color.
“It’s the way they’re trained,” Tang said. “It’s the way they were brought up. It’s a larger issue. It’s how [the] larger society looks at people of color. Their humanity, and the only reason to look at them is because of their differences. … I think white people in general find it very hard to conceive of people who think as well as they do, but not the same as they do.”
Tang wants to give POC artists a space to create genre theatre highlighting “larger-than-life heroes” in their own image – superheroes (and supervillains) like Dr. Doom and Magneto. Both characters have faced hardships as members of oppressed groups — Dr. Doom as a Romani person and Magneto as a mutant and holocaust survivor. But their experience of oppression never defined them, and for Tang, these are these kinds of POC characters that are needed in theater.
“I mean, Doctor Doom is of … is of Romani blood, you know, background,” Tang said. “But that’s okay. That’s not his major thing. His thing is about being the biggest intellect on Earth and being able to rule the world because of his intellect and natural superiority.”
In many ways, Tang is a powerful force in the Seattle theater scene. He’s a veteran theater artist with four decades experience as a playwright and producer. He’s sat on the boards of ReAct Theatre and the Northwest Asian American Theatre, and he’s a recipient of a 2016 Equity Award from Stanford University. And of course, there is his most recent mission: to produce genre theater by POC playwrights. Something few mainstream theaters will touch — it’s simply too risky. When I asked about how Tang got his start in theater, I was surprised to hear it all came about by “happenstance.” In college, he and his dorm mates produced annual musicals called “Dorm Room Dramas.” And in Tang’s senior year, one of those musicals was written by David Henry Hwang, a dorm mate who would go on to win Obie and Tony awards. As I probed for more details about Tang’s history, it was clear he wasn’t interested in rehashing old college tales and past professional exploits. He’s a man of vision and the future. Since 2017, his energy has been focused on the Unleashed Festival, which is actually a playwright program that culminates in a festival. Every 18 months, Pork Filled Productions puts out a call for POC playwrights creating work in genre. There’s a catch, Tang said: The work absolutely must be genre (science fiction, horror, fantasy, and noir ), you must be a POC, and you must be good. Don’t send Pork Filled Productions the crude from your sludge pile – they’re not having it. If you’re one of the lucky ones selected for Unleashed, you’ll be paired with a dramaturg and have an opportunity to receive a live staged reading by professional actors. And in a theater community that’s intensely focused on producing the work of dead European playwrights, Tang is offering POC theater artists a rare opportunity.
“Larger theaters, regional theaters, they can become ossified,” Tang said. “They tend to become cultural embalmers instead of cultural innovators. And I think it’s because they’ve been working along the same vein – white American, European culture for the last 150 years. And they’re not allowing a new audience [or] new artists with different voices into it because they’re afraid of chasing away the old audiences.”
Tang says that American theater must adapt and change or risk becoming a stale cultural artifact. America is changing demographically, so if American theater wants to survive, it must also change and expand the stories it’s telling.
“If you’re chasing audiences with stories that are about white families, that’s a tactic that’s increasingly becoming removed from the everyday experiences of American society, because more and more Americans are not white,” Tang said. “From 2013-17, about 3-4% of roles on Puget Sound stages were filled by Asian actors—whereas 15-18% of the Puget Sound are Asian. … So I think you need to be able to tell stories through various lenses, [to] look at the world through various ways, through different cultures, you know, cultural variations.”
The 2020 Unleashed Festival will be live-streamed online from November 10th – November 14th. Tickets are on a “name-your-price” model.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image courtesy of the Unleashed Festival.