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Salonista Feature: A Conversation with Theatre Artist Jiawen Hu

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

Art, Immigration, and Social Justice: A Conversation with Artist Jiawen Hu

by Wenxuan Xue, with Jiawen Hu

This October, I saw a beautiful, multilingual, devised theater piece, Somos Más (We Are More), created and performed by People’s Theatre Project, here at The Lark. Comprised of mostly immigrant theater artists, the company told a moving story about immigration, assimilation, and revolution. 

As someone who shares a similar liminal identity, I was reminded of when I first moved to the U.S., what I had to learn and adopt - the accent, the small talk, and the everyday interaction - in order to convince myself and people around me that I belong. It wasn’t until recently when I started to realize the baggage I have to carry in order to fit in a room with mostly Americans, and the impossibility for me to “unlearn” the baggage in order to embrace my full self.  

Jiawen Hu, a Teaching Artist at People’s Theatre Project and also a Performer from Somos Más, shared with me that the immigrant identity is something beyond a piece of document. It’s a complicated experience that is always in flux. “We live with this uncertainty and vulnerability every day. But just because we are immigrants, or just because we don’t speak English fluently, it doesn't mean that we are less. We also have values.”

WENXUAN XUE: So Jiawen, when and how did you get into the theater in the first place?

JIAWEN HU: I think it's the second year of my undergrad program. I was an English major. At that time there was this theater competition festival for all college students in my city. I started a small group with my peers and we devised a small piece within 2 or 3 days. That was the first moment I realized I'm very passionate about theater and I love creating things with our others. At that time we didn't know the word "devising", but actually we were doing devising theater. Each of us contributed our stories, ideas, and experiences to the process. That's the moment when I started to consider making theater as my future career. I first applied for becoming an exchange student at SUNY Oswego in my third year of the undergraduate program. I took all the drama theatre classes and I realized that I really liked them. Then I applied for the master's program at NYU. During that time I thought that I liked directing, but after several years of practicing I realized I'm more interested in creating a safe and energetic space where everyone can contribute their story, their words to the piece, as opposed to in directing, I create an idea and everyone act out my story.

WX: That's amazing! I also studied abroad in the third day of my undergraduate program. I went to London and that's also the first time that I was exposed to devising theater, how equal everyone is in the room. In a regular rehearsal room, there's always a director in charge, and there's a stage manager and there are the actors. The actors cannot make suggestions to the script, you know, so there are very clear boundaries in terms of what you can or cannot do. But in devising, everyone can bring in their own story, or their design ideas in a more egalitarian way of making theater.

JH: In devising theater, actors are participants. They don't have to categorize themselves into a character; they can just be themselves.

WX: Could you tell me a bit more about your experiences in People's Theatre project?

JH: People's Theatre Project is an educational theater organization based in Washington Heights. I'm a Teaching Artist there. They sent us to public schools that they have partnerships with. We teach theater curriculum to students. What I really like about People's Theatre Project is we use theater activities to explore social justice issues, like identities, race, age, physical appearance, gender. I think that's like what I'm passionate about, because theater is about real people, it's about exploring your identity. I feel it's extraordinary to have the young kids from immigrant families and let them acknowledge their value and identity in an immigrant community. In addition to being a Teaching Artist, I'm also an actor in PTP. I am acting in their Ensemble a piece called Somos Más, which is about the immigrant experience in the United States.

WX: I really appreciate what you said about how you use theater to explore social justice issues. I feel like in the United States, people see theater as a commodity, as an entertainment. But there's so much more you can do with theater. So how is it like to work with immigrants youths and other immigrant artists?

JH: One thing I really appreciate is this equal and diverse working environment. When I work with immigrant artists or immigrant youths, there's no hierarchy in terms of languages, cultures, or countries. In our professional development, we had a session for cultural exchange. Everyone brought one thing from their original countries or cultures, could be a song, could be a memory, could be an object. PTP emphasizes the value of their original culture or country. Of course, we're in the United States, we need to learn how to communicate with others in English.

WX: Maybe ten years later, English is no longer the dominant language here.

JH: We'll see! Hahaha. Yeah, it's also important to acknowledge our unique identity as an immigrant. Also, we share like teaching skills and leadership skills. I've been in the U.S. for four years, but a lot of other immigrant artists have been here for 20 or 30 years. I feel so encouraged by their leadership, how they care about their communities, how they speak up for their groups. Inspired by their energy, I feel that as an immigrant I can do something, I can be a leader, I can speak up for my group. I hope I can also pass this energy to the kids I teach in the classrooms. Some of them have been here for just one month or two months. They might be feeling overwhelmed, and they cannot speak English fluently. So in the classroom, I also share how I first came here, how I overcame a lot of challenges, I told them they are not alone and they also have values. Just because they are immigrants, or just because they cannot speak English, it doesn't mean that they are less.

WX: It's an ongoing process of sharing. You learn from other artists and then you pass it on to these children, and they might pass it on to other people in their lives. So let's talk about your performance in Somos Más. The performance first took place in a theater in the Bronx. Then you toured this piece to museums and cultural centers, including The Lark. How was it like for you and the ensemble to bring this piece to multiple venues across New York City?

JH: So we performed this piece in the Bronx, and then in public schools, local galleries, and museums. At each venue, people react very differently. For example, if the audience come from immigrant families, they connect to a lot of the words, stories, like the experience of living in the limbo. For people who are not from immigrant families, they brought up a lot of questions because some of them have not experienced this feeling of in-between before. We also brought the piece to young kids. They focused a lot on the details of the performance. A lot of the physical movements felt natural to them. We have a talkback for each performance. So one kid from an elementary school asked, "Can you tell your story in Chinese again? I felt the language is so beautiful." Most of the kids are from Spanish-speaking families. They listened to my story in Chinese to carefully. It was a moment of appreciation of different cultures, but we're also similar because we're not from the U.S.

WX: We talked about the immigrant experience, like you mentioned, how immigrants are living in the limbo, and they don't have a sense of belonging. So when did you start to identify as an immigrant?

JH: Recently I started to identify myself as an immigrant. I used to think that immigrants are people who got their citizenship or a green card, and they feel very safe here. But after I started working with immigrants artists in Somos Más. I realize a lot of people share this question of whether they belong here. Like I'm applying for an O-1 Visa so I don't know where I will be in the next year. A lot of immigrants also share with this uncertainty every day for 20 or 30 years. They're not sure about their future, their family, their career, just like what I experience now. We live with uncertainty and vulnerability every day. Now I feel more empowered to say I'm an immigrant.

WX: This identity can become a strength itself. It unites a group of people who feel uncertain about their future. Having this identity creates an anchor or a space for discussions. I also shared that aspect of an immigrant. I personally have been struggling to say that I'm an immigrant because personally I don't know if I want to or if I'm able to stay. There is the legal definition of what an immigrant, but then there's also the social definition. It's empowering to say I'm an immigrant and I belong here. So you are an Actor, Performer, Teaching Artist, and you're also a Stage Manager. How do you switch your role in each space?

JH: I'm still learning, but the important thing is communication because different roles have different needs. Like as a Stage Manager, I need to care more about the schedule and time, and I also need to respect the directors' and the actors' artistic choices.

After I came to the U.S., most of the projects I took on, I was a Stage Manager. But after being an actor, I learned how vulnerable actors can be on stage. It's super challenging for the actors to know their cues, to remember their lines, to know their relationships with the space, characters, props, etc., and also to receive audience reactions. I realized that I needed to treat my actors with more care in the future as a Stage Manager. That gave me more inspiration about how to work with actors from their perspectives.

It's also similar when I'm the Director or Teaching Artist, I'd need to make actors or participants feel excited about the piece. It's not just I pay you and you do the work.

WX: It's not a monetary exchange. But it's actually about building a community in which we trust each other and be friends with each other.

JH: It's an organic relationship. When I come to class, I also learn what my kids are passionate about, what music they're into, what movies they like watching. So I write them down, and after I go home I will do research. In the next workshop, I will bring what they are passionate about to the class so that they feel that they own the space.

WX: Wow I wish I had a teacher like you when I grew up. HAHAHA. I know that there is a lot of uncertainty in the future. But what do you see yourself doing in a dream world, regardless of visas or citizenship or borders or money?

JH: In the future, I want to be a community-based theater artist. I want to work with different groups and create theater pieces with them together. I want to create a space where people who don't have a lot of power in society can express their voices and tell their own stories to the public. I'm always fascinated by real people's words. They're not poets, they're not playwrights professionally, but their voices matter. When I interview people, sometimes they cannot find an accurate word to describe their feelings, and sometimes the grammar is broken; they have the hesitation to speak and they have moments of "ummmm" and "ahhh". These moments fascinate me. They're breaking this limitation of expression in their own way. In the future, I want to highlight this unique expression because it's natural, it's beautiful, and it matters.

WX: Oftentimes we see theater as a text-based. It's like it needs to be a literature, it needs to be well-written, but in real life people talk with natural pauses or broken grammar. That is also a part of being human, that is also a part of self-expression, including eye contact and body language, etc. It's not just about the words but about everything that we see and hear and experience from people. I think we definitely need to value that more, so it's incredible that you want to create that space for them. So, regardless of all of these challenges, I hope your dreams come true!

Jiawen Hu's Bio

Jiawen Hu is a theatre researcher, educator, director, and playwright based in New York City. She is working as a teaching artist in People’s Theatre Project, a leading provider of creative youth development programs in Upper Manhattan. Hu has created partnerships with organizations worldwide, most notably within the educational art organizations and International schools in China. At Dorothy’s PlayLab, Hu, as the education specialist, continues to develop innovative content for

theatre programs including pre-K and elementary students’ curriculum. Her educational theatre work was published at the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s 32nd annual conference and NYU Educational Theatre Forum 2018: Performance as Activism. Hu, awarded Outstanding Achievement, holds her master’s degree in Educational Theatre in Colleges and Communities at New York University.

Wenxuan Xue's Bio: 

Wenxuan Xue is a transnational Chinese-born playwright, director, and theater maker. He is currently the Communications Apprentice at The Lark and a Teaching Artist at Bilingual Birdies. He is interested in making new work and conducting research on intercultural, postcolonial, queer, sinophone, and transnational Asian theater performances. He strives to create theater for community outreach and social transformation. He recently taught “Making Performance Art” at Xupu No.1 High School in Hunan, China, and “Performing Asian Transnationalism” at Wesleyan University.

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