At Come to PAPA, the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists’ first festival, you can watch a staged reading of Vampires vs. Chinese Cowboys: A Lo Mein Western and get a first look at Half Magic, an autobiographical show by a biracial artist exploring why he identified as white for most of his life.
But you can also share a virtual meal with members of the PAPA community while practicing boundary setting and saying “no,” take part in a group self-reflection focused on the question, “How do we see ourselves as alien?”, and participate in a real-life director’s commentary-esque viewing of Rush Hour where attendees are encouraged to share their memories of the movie in real time.
It’s a testament to the expansiveness of PAPA, a collective founded in 2014, which designed its festival to evoke its values and serve its community as much as it showcases Pan-Asian artists’ work.
“PAPA isn’t just here to put up really shiny things on stage, although shiny things on stage is awesome and we love to see it,” said Cat Ramirez, PAPA’s creative director. “We’re also here to talk about, what do artists of Pan-Asian descent need beyond performance opportunities?”
The festival, which runs June 10 to June 20 and is almost completely virtual, except for Memory Rush!, the Rush Hour screening, features nearly three dozen events and more than 100 artists from 21 cities. Many events are pay-what-you-wish, starting at $5, and all tickets come with a “PAPA-cket” that includes a cookbook of recipes from members, a guide to festival-themed cocktails, and events you can watch at any time.
The plays, which explore themes such as trauma, community, and one’s relationship to mythology and history, are all written by members of PAPA’s Playwrights Project, led by playwright Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters.
Many of the works also confront questions of tradition, said Chantal Vorobei Thieves, the 33-year-old artist behind Memory Rush! and a featured play called Center, Black, described as a “comedy about murder, racism, genocide, and love.” They examine such ideas as “where traditions fail to hold new ways of understanding, where traditions inflict their own forms of trauma,” she said, as well as “how to create new traditions now.”
The artists behind PAPA began the collective as a response to the isolation many Pan-Asian performing artists felt, said Ramirez, 30, who directed two of the plays in the festival, including Joseph Ahmed’s The Recognition of Anjali Batra.
In recent years, artists have spoken out about racism in the Philadelphia performing arts scene — from “all-white seasons” at the Philadelphia Theatre Company to performances rife with stereotypes and historical inaccuracies about Asians to a play-development nonprofit accused of a white supremacist culture. Other companies have emerged, such as Power Street Theatre, as a response to the isolation and lack of opportunities for artists of color.
PAPA member Anita Holland worked as an actor for 15 years, “telling a whole bunch of other people’s stories, mostly stories written by white people, in rooms filled with white people, directed by white people.” And in that time, Holland, who uses they pronouns, forgot they had their own story to tell.
“Maybe one day all these white people will see me and let me make the art I wanna make,” they thought.
Instead, Holland decided to step back from professional theater and what they call “the entertainment industrial complex” and explore other areas, like the healing arts. At Come to PAPA, they’re the dramaturge of Thieves’ Center, Black, hosting a “deprogramming alienation” workshop, and leading guided meditations.
This experience — of stepping in and out of different kinds of artistic roles and encouraging that kind of experimentation — is another that’s core to PAPA.
Ahmed said just six months ago, he didn’t really see himself as a writer. Ahmed, 30, identified more as an actor, a choreographer, an acrobat, among other things. But on the encouragement of Kyung Sun Walters, he submitted a short play to the Playwrights Project, which became The Recognition of Anjali Batra. It’s now being performed at the festival.
PAPA “respects a real multitudinousness within a person,” said Thieves, who herself takes on several roles during the festival: playwright, actor, conceptual artist, reader of stage directions.
That spirit is a rejection of the “scarcity model” that’s often baked into art making, said Ramirez, one that prompts artists to think: ”If I only had this much money, if I only had this many people … What is the smallest version of my art? What is the smallest version of myself that I can present to people so this thing can go up?”
For PAPA, though, the question tends toward: “What is the most expansive version of myself? What is the most expansive version of my artistic practice? What is my definition of being an artist?” Ramirez said. “At this festival, you get to see so many definitions of what it means to be an artist.”
Tickets and full schedule at phillyasianartists.com.