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Controversial Musical Builds an Audience One Seat at a Time

By Nick Christophers

Even though our society has grown to understand other cultures and embrace them there still lives an underground racial divide. In a recent musical stage reading presented by the YangTze Repertory Theatre of America they brought racism to the forefront in this true story. The performance was based on the life and times of Frank Lee in 1905 Chinatown, San Francisco. The musical / reading was written and directed by Marcus Yi a native of Singapore.

The story leads us on the journey of Frank Lee who desires to be the first Asian singer/comedian in America. During that time it was unheard of for an Asian to be allowed to perform professionally as a singer. The racism that existed then was almost accepted and natural. Not that the Asian community approved but in those times they did not have a voice. Yet Frank was determined and never took his foot of the gas pedal. The show offered a cast that generated an energy and talent seldom seen in such a small space like the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory. Between the lead performers Garett Taketa (Frank Lee) and Jann Punwattana (Mei Sing) it was hard to chose who stood out more.Jann P

“I ran into Marcus in December at this audition process at the National Asian Project at their showcase. At the time I was not able to be a part of his show. But he kept me on file. Marcus contacted me in April and wanted me for the lead so I jumped at the chance. There was a lot of pressure how to portray this great Asian man who was daring. There is definitely a void for Asian actors who are being portrayed by white actors i.e. X-Men Psylocke (Olivia Munn). It is important for us to show what we are capable of,” said Garett.

Jann who played a “slave girl” who Frank saves from a local gang, is a gifted actress. She studied theatre at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. Her resume speaks volumes of her experience and talent. The same can be said for Garett whose BA in Theatre from the University of Hawaii landed him many roles. He is due to lead an Off-Broadway show this summer. The rest of the starring cast like Viola Wang, Chih-Heng Liao, and Jacob Presley added spice and character to the show.

“I worked with this YangTze Repertory before and was asked to audition for this musical. They needed someone who is multi-talented and since I sing, act, and play the violin, I was a perfect fit. I am happy for this opportunity but the racism Frank faced still exists today. I go to auditions and almost never do they have a part for an Asian. But hopefully we can change that, said Viola.”Frank 1

The director Marcus Yi is a seasoned director who is the artistic director of the Living Room Theater. He has over a hundred productions under his belt. Marcus is the proud winner of the 11th Annual NJ Playwrights Contest for his show Micro Shrimp Musical. He has had shows presented in festivals like the Midtown International Theatre, Midwinter Madness Theatre Festival and more. In 2014 he was voted Indie Theatre Now’s People of the Year.  He has been working theater for over fifteen years.

“I look to write shows that are relevant to my audience. I wanted to bring the issue of race to the forefront since nowadays it is buried under the rug and not discussed as much. I first discovered Frank and his journey through vaudeville and how he became the first Asian-American performer when I had to write a paper on comedy in performance. He inspired me and made a mark. I did take some liberties with the story adding the slave girl that Jann played, the sharp-shooters, and the Chinese triad characters,” added Marcus.

The reading / musical touched upon a touchy subject and drove the message home. It had comedy and drama that brought the story full circle. The talent that filled the room was impressive and unexpected. If this show does not make it to Broadway sometime soon it would be a shame. The writing, production and acting should be seen by the masses. As they say great things come in small packages. Learn more about the company and keep up with future shows.

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