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This Amery Ken Life – Urban Theatre | Projekt NewSpeak
Written By:
Posted: 2011-05-28
Categories: Projekt NewSpeak

The Mexi-Asian Perspective: A Mexican’s Guide to All Things Latin, Asian or Both

by David A. Romero

Have you ever watched or listened to an episode of “This American Life?” I haven’t.

But, I heard it’s good.

Projekt NewSpeak’s latest Mexi-Asian guest knows a lot about being an American. This son of Hmong Chinese immigrants bears the namesake.

A rising star of the underground Los Angeles theater scene, Amery Ken (Ameri-can) Thao was recently given the title of Artistic Co-Director for the much-buzzed-about Urban Theatre Movement collective based out of Long Beach.

This young director, already a veteran of plays like The Orphan Boy and Dragon Princess, Identity Crisis: Scenes from the Skin I’m In and Spit!, conveys that he more than up to handle the challenge.

I met with Thao to discuss his family life, directorial style and mission in regards to the future of this exciting new company of directors, actors and performers.

Your parents gave you the first name “Amery” and the middle name “Ken.” Did this name of “Ameri-can” shape your conception of yourself growing up? Does this choice of name reflect their expectations of you as Hmong immigrants making a home for themselves in this country?

Well, when I asked my parents how I got my name, my mom told me it came to my dad in a dream. Growing up, I didn’t really like my name because I thought it sounded like a girl’s name. But there’s actually a lot to my name. “Ken” is a derivative of a Hmong-Laotian word which means good, or skilled. I guess this planted the idea of what I thought I had to strive to be growing up, but it wasn’t until my college years that I started to look to myself to find myself. That’s a big factor in what’s shaped me into the artist I am now. I’m sure there was also some patriotism in the reason they chose the name. I think it’s appropriate for Hmong-Laotian immigrants to name their first born, first generation Hmong American, after the country they now proudly call home.

As the director of Spit! and Identity Crisis, you have dealt with different artists with different cultural backgrounds, styles of performance and themes present in their work. How do you combine all of those disparate elements into a coherent presentation?

I am a big fan of collaboration, and as a director, you have to, because you aren’t always going to be the expert at everything. I try to find a through line, something that connects everything together, especially since with these two pieces there isn’t really a linear story. So I look at the themes I find similar and sew them together, usually one theme will touch upon the next, or I put opposing arguments together. I try to find a way to get everyone on the same page as me as far as what I want us to accomplish and let them do their thing. It doesn’t always come as easily as ABC XYZ, but usually I know how I want to start a story and how to end it and everyone else fills in the rest.

Seemingly freeform musical sessions with beat boxing and dancing have appeared in two of your productions, Spit! and Identity Crisis: Scenes from the Skin I’m In. When did you first develop this device? What inspires you to keep channeling this cipher-like energy through your performers?

Ha! This was just a fun acting exercise used to warm up your body and vocal resonators, but I also found that it was a great tool in creating and developing an ensemble energy. I call it “the sound circle,” although I’m sure there are many names for it. The first time I used it for a show was in Identity Crisis to enhance a piece I used in another context by Lyn Nottage. Since both SPIT! and Identity Crisis were ensemble pieces, both with elements of hip hop, I found a way to finagle it in. I use it as it’s needed.

With The Orphan Boy and Dragon Princess, you’ve successfully directed a play in a decidedly Japanese style. What are some of the differences in terms of presenting traditional Japanese theatre as opposed to westernized theatre? Were there any unique challenges for you as a director? Were you familiar with the style at all prior to directing the play?

Well, first let me say that I’m no expert on Japanese Theatre. It was something I wanted to explore because well, it’s not something that’s widely studied like Shakespeare. That being said, The Orphan Boy and Dragon Princess isn’t traditional at all. It’s actually a Hmong fable, but since there is no history of Hmong theatre I used inspiration from other forms of Asian theatre, mainly Noh, Kabuki, Butoh, and one based on a popular TV series in Japan, Kaso Taisho, which has its roots in Bunraku Puppet Theatre. I’m sure there are a ton of differences in terms of presenting traditional Japanese theatre as opposed to westernized theatre, but I can’t explain the differences any better right now. To me it was still theatre, I just tried to take the essence of what I saw in my research, and understand why they did it the way they did, or why they do it the way they do, and apply it to my own.

The challenge with working on this piece was the fact that I had only three weeks to get it up and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it by myself. I had a great team of designers, actors, crew, and musicians, not to mention an assistant director, so communication was key. I shared with everyone everything I was doing, I sent them images, music, and videos of things I found were useful and told them to do the same so there was always a clear channel of communication, but I always went back to my original inspiration to base everything on. It was really an exploration of myself and where I come from, having no documented history beyond the Vietnam War besides word of mouth. That’s why there’s a narrator in the show by the way. My only real knowledge of the style(s) prior to directing the play was the one week we spent on Asian theatre in my theatre history class; it’s one of the millions of reasons that drove me into it.

You have recently risen to the position of Co-Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Movement. Please speak about what you see as the vision of Urban Theatre Movement. How will you use your identity and past experiences to help to expand and/or redefine this vision?

To be honest I never had any intention of becoming Artistic Director. I joined the company because I saw it as an opportunity to direct. Then I fell in love with the company motto which seemed to be “We don’t know what we’re doing but we’re doing it!” which may seem a little weird, but what it said to me was ‘we make our own opportunities’ as opposed to waiting around for someone to discover me and give us one. Then the Founding Artistic Director Brenda Banda, who was a big part of the reason I was even in the company, stepped down after our last main stage production. The thought of being Artistic Director hadn’t even crossed my mind, but now the dream had no dreamer. When the position was offered to me I laughed because I thought it was a joke. People always say that theatre is a dying art form, but I believe that’s how you know it’s alive, and with Urban Theatre Movement it’s in the name. The only way this dream is going to die is if we stop moving. So I talked to my friend and fellow company member Israel Lopez and we felt the same way so we both agreed to take on the task of being Co-Artistic Directors.

My vision for the company is to stay true to the mission statement. “Urban Theatre Movement is a multicultural collective of artists dedicated to producing original, contemporary and classical works. We strive to create accessible art and life changing experiences through innovative theatre that serves and mirrors our rich and diverse inner-city communities. We seek to re-envision theatre and evolve as artists by empowering the residents of these neighborhoods. We aim to nurture, support and encourage underserved young artists. To give them voice and hone their potential starting at their most vulnerable stage in life. We will channel their cultural and regional roots to create a more productive and enlightened society.”

But going beyond company, every great somebody comes from somewhere. Every great actor, writer, artist hones their craft somewhere, and develops it in order to be great. We just produced a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of the most well known playwrights in the country. Well, he didn’t just wake up one day and discover everyone thought he was great playwright. I want to make UTM that place where people can find how great they are through the original work we develop and create. And to have fun while we’re doing it.

As a director I always try to bring my own unique perspective to anything and everything I do.  I have always tried to use everything I experience in life, whether it be a lecture I heard in class or a video I saw on Youtube, to what’s going on in Egypt or maybe even just the experience of watching with my baby sister for the first time who is 25 years younger than me. It always comes together, even though at the time it may seem insignificant, I know there’s always a reason I am where I am at that very moment. This combined with the fact that I’m a minority among minorities but still American is all fuel for the fire. The mission statement is written in a way that it’s specific to the individual and yet all inclusive of everyone so I haven’t found the need to expand or redefine it yet. But I always look to it before deciding what move our company will make next.

As far as going beyond the company and fostering and creating original work. People often ask me where I’m from and I say, “here.” What they usually mean to ask is what my ethnic background is. When I tell them I’m Hmong they ask, where’s that? The answer is… well there is no simple answer, only more questions. My approach is to get people to ask the right questions and then let them find the answers for themselves.

Asian Latin fusion food has become a veritable phenomenon. Do you think that Asian Latin fusion food is just a passing trend, or the future?

I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner, I mean we do live in a postmodern society, in the country that is known as the melting pot of cultures. I mean even as children we mix all the flavors of ice cream in one bowl or all of the flavors from the soda fountain just to see what it tastes like. It’s instinctual in a way. Don’t let my stature and frame fool you, I love them both separately and together.

Who is your favorite Latino celebrity, historical figure, or fictional character?

Director Guillermo Del Torro with actor Michael Pena’s character Daniel in Crash (2004) in a close 2nd.

Would you rather date an Asian or someone of Latin descent?

I know my parents would prefer if i was ended up with a Hmong girl, but i don’t discriminate.

Any last words or shout outs?

Yeah, check out www.urbantheatremovement.com and look out for the next SPIT! and SPIT! auditions. We’re looking to put one up every quarter.


David A. Romero is a cheese enchilada-making spoken word artist who knows something about Mexicans. A lover of boba and a citizen of Diamond Bar, CA, he also knows a thing or two about Asians. http://www.davidaromero.com/

Have any ideas for the blog? Questions? Comments? Hit me up below! Or email me: davidaromero@projektnewspeak.com