Asian American theater group pushes for the day when it doesn't need #StarringJohnCho

If you want to see a production starring John Cho of the “Star Trek” and “Harold & Kumar” movies, you could check out the viral phenomenon #StarringJohnCho, the hashtag website and Twitter account that photoshops Cho into posters for Hollywood movies starring white men, highlighting the industry’s diversity problem.

Or even better, you can watch Cho in real life Saturday at a staged reading of “Dinner With Friends” at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts. The reading, a fundraiser by the Los Angeles collective Artists at Play, does similar work on a more intimate scale.

Artists at Play produces shows by Asian American playwrights featuring mostly Asian American casts. The group began almost by accident, according to director Peter J. Kuo. He and actress Julia Cho had worked together on a play a few years back, enjoyed the collaboration and wanted to work together again. She brought him the play “Ching Chong Chinaman” by Lauren Yee.

Kuo and Julia Cho recruited Stefanie Wong Lau and Marie-Reine Velez as producers, and as the four worked on their first production, “We realized, ‘This is good, we get along, we get things done,’ and through that process, the idea came about to make it an official group,” Julia Cho said.

That was in 2011. Since then they have produced one show a year.

“I think we kind of marvel at the fact that we’re still around year to year because theater is not easy,” she said, adding that the group is neither a nonprofit nor a business, though "hobby" is too light a term for the amount of work they do.

“There’s still a lot of tweaking that continues to happen, but it also gives us a lot of freedom," Cho said. "We’re all theater nerds at heart, and also, on a grander scale, we realize there is a niche that needs to be filled.”

Added Kuo, “A lot of our early works were plays that had been in the Asian American canon for a good five if not 10 years but for whatever reason hadn’t hit Los Angeles.”

They’re gearing up for their sixth main-stage production this fall, and their first world premiere, “The Two Kids That Blow [Stuff] Up,” by Carla Ching, who’s a writer on “Fear the Walking Dead” (and whose original title uses a word that’s unprintable here). The group doesn't have a permanent location; instead it finds a site that suits each production. This year’s play opens Aug. 21 at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood.

The group also holds a spring reading series as a way to introduce more Asian American playwrights to the community without the cost of a full production.

By contrast, Artists at Play's summer salon takes plays that aren’t specifically about white identity but are cast that way, and it recasts them with Asian American actors. Preceding "Dinner With Friends" were staged readings of Christopher Durang's “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and Beau Willimon's  “The Parisian Woman,” which had premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa with Kuo as assistant director. (He received Willimon’s blessing to present it.)

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Kuo, who will direct the "Dinner With Friends" reading, spoke while waiting for a plane from New York to Los Angeles. He’s on sabbatical from Artists at Play while he’s earning his MFA in directing at the New School for Drama. He applied, in part, because he noticed white colleagues were getting directing opportunities that passed him by, “and I couldn’t help but feel like I might be slighted because it wasn’t an Asian American show,” he said. “So working on a show like this for me, but also for the actors, is like, ‘I did a Donald Margulies play, that’s on my résumé now.’”

In “Dinner With Friends,” John Cho, Kerri Higuchi, Melody Butiu and Reggie Lee play two sets of married friends. When one couple break up, they’re all pushed to reexamine their life paths. Butiu and Lee play Beth and Tom, the couple breaking up; Cho and Higuchi, a couple in real life, play the ostensibly happy Gabe and Karen.       

“It’s just great to be able to see these performers who we know and love, who don’t necessarily always get the meaty roles that we know they’re capable of,” Julia Cho said. Added Kuo, “You get to see the StarringJohnCho hashtag come to life; it’s fantastic.

“But at some point, the fact that the actors are Asian kind of melts away, and you fall in love with the characters themselves. Then you get to tell people, ‘I got to see someone like me create something three-dimensional and beautiful.’”

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Artists at Play summer salon

When: 11 a.m. brunch, noon reading of "Dinner With Friends," Saturday

Where: Armory Center for the Arts,145 N. Raymond Ave.,Pasadena

Tickets: $70,  e-mail AAP.BoxOffice@gmail.com

Info: artistsatplayla.blogspot.com

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For the Record

This article has been corrected to fix the spelling of the writer’s name.

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