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Telling Stories, Opening Minds

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Touring the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s International District, Elizabeth Wu felt the presence of ghosts—especially in the bathhouse, which had been a social hub for Japanese Americans before their forced departure to internment camps during World War II. “It gave me the chills to be in that space, knowing the history,” recalls Wu, who graduated from the UW this month with degrees in drama and English. “I wanted to do something there.”

Elizabeth Wu

"I didn't want to have a Plan B," says Elizabeth Wu of her interest in drama.

Wu was already planning a spring quarter conference about Asian American theater and now envisioned adding short plays, performed in historic locations in the International District.  The result was Stories from Chinatown: a living theater project, a sold-out event on May 30.

Few graduating seniors would choose to organize such an ambitious conference while juggling their final quarter of coursework and a part-time job. But Wu felt the conference was a continuation of her previous work at the UW, from a theater-centric study abroad in Edinburgh to directing David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face for the Undergraduate Theater Society.

Wu arrived at the UW intending to major in business. By the end of her freshman year she decided on a creative writing major, but she also took drama courses and found the two disciplines to be complementary. “English is very much an internal art,” she explains. “It’s you and a text. It’s critically looking at your own ideas in relation to ideas in a text. I think that’s also crucial to any good theater artist.”

I see what stories can do to change a community, to change people’s opinions and ideas.

Her first acting class deepened her interest in drama and led to her second major. “That acting class, that’s when I knew that drama was something I wanted to fully commit to,” she says. “I didn’t want to have a Plan B. I wanted to turn up the heat and get it going and really start cooking. You can’t start cooking until you have the commitment and confidence that what you’re doing is really important and worthwhile.”

Yellow Face cast

Students take a break during a rehearsal of Yellow Face.

The School of Drama’s study abroad program in Edinburgh fueled the flames. Offered each summer during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the program immerses students in theater, from traditional to avant-garde. Wu attended 35 plays in one month and discussed them in class, exploring their connections with assigned readings by Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, and Carl Jung.

Her senior year, Wu wanted to dig deeper by directing a play. She applied to the School of Drama’s student-run Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS), proposing the play Yellow Face. The semi-autobiographical play explores issues of race and politics as a director mistakenly casts a white man for a leading role intended to be Asian, then tries to cover his error.  “I thought it was an awesome play logistically, with parts for lots of students of various ethnicities. Plus it’s funny, it’s witty, and it’s current, with a very real political message.”

Wu knew that Yellow Face would be a departure for UTS, which tends toward classic Western canonical works like Shakespeare and Chekov. She was surprised and thrilled when she and the play were selected. And then she was terrified.

“When the eight wonderful undergraduate actors I had cast for the show stared at me from across the table at our first table read through, all I could think was: What am I doing here? Who the hell put me in charge of these people?,” Wu recalls in a School of Drama blog post about the experience, concluding that “in the process of showing up to rehearsal, interacting with the actors, and confronting the fear in the room night after night, something incredible happened to me. I found my courage.”

Poster for Stories from Chinatown

That courage would prove valuable as Wu took on her next challenge, the ambitious Stories from Chinatown conference. “After Yellow Face, I wanted to continue this dialog about race perspective in the theater,” she explains. Besides securing locations and panelists and inviting renowned Asian American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda as keynote speaker, Wu commissioned three local Asian American playwrights to write site-specific works, to be performed by UW students and directed by Wu.

Wu received two scholarships—a UW Mary Gates Research and Leadership Award and the School of Drama’s Donal Harrington Memorial Scholarship—that made the time spent on Yellow Face and Stories from Chinatown a bit less stressful. “Those scholarships made it so I didn’t have to take out loans,” she says. “Now that I’m graduating, that is such a blessing. It is an incredible weight off my shoulders, especially being in the creative arts and having to start at ground zero. And to have someone say ‘You make us proud, we believe in you’ meant a lot.”

In July, Wu will head to England to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art’s (LAMDA) summer Shakespeare program. Looking ahead, she hopes to eventually attend LAMDA’s year-long MFA program.

“I see what stories can do to change a community, to change people’s opinions and ideas,” she says. “I want to continue to tap into the Western foundations of drama in relation to the Asian American experience and create plays that redefine how we see Asian Americans. Many of those stories haven’t been told yet.”