CHICAGO — The long march of progress often happens in stages, but sometimes it happens on stages.
In the ongoing quest for representation, an all- Asian cast and crew is producing an original show at the most well-known comedy theater in America: The Second City. It’s part of a first-of-its kind program: The Victor Wong Fellowship, designed to promote Asian American artists.
Luke Moghimi Connell is a 22-year-old comedian who is part of the cast.
“All the writers, performers, they’re all Asian,” he said. “Asian musical director. The director, the producer. So, it’s literally everyone involved in the project is Asian American and that’s just mind-blowing to me.”
It’s a step forward for performers of Asian descent, a group so often overlooked and underrepresented in the nation’s comedy scene.
Huy Nguyen is one of 16 Victor Wong Fellows.
“Honestly, sometimes it’s been disheartening when you go to callbacks of auditions and you don’t see another Asian person there with you, or any Asian American people in the audience, that’s hard,” he said.
Nguyen says it’s encouraging that The Second City recognizes the power of diversity.
“The Harvard of comedy is making a space for AAPI people to make comedy,” he said.
Heather Mari, a Filipino-American from Rockville, Maryland said she moved to Chicago to try out for the Wong Fellowship, on a mission to prove wrong the stereotype that Asian-American are “too serious” to be funny.
“You can find comedy anywhere,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to audition for this, I need to travel to Chicago.’ And if I didn’t do it, I knew I was going to regret it.”
The Victor Wong fellowship is named for The Second City’s first Asian American performer, who went on to have memorable roles in several films including “Big Trouble in Little China,” “The Golden Child,” and “Three Ninjas.”
It’s a high-profile acknowledgement that Asian American comedians continue to battle damaging stereotypes. The Victor Wong fellowship was funded by Peng Zhao, the CEO of Citadel Securities, and his wife, Cherry Chen.
“One of the stereotypes of an Asian American is the ‘model minority’ myth,” said Jonald Reyes, the creative lead and showcase director for Victor Wong fellowship. “(The myth said) we’re just hard working, we always keep our heads down. We don’t stir up any craziness.”
Reyes, a Chicago improv comedy veteran is leading the Victor Wong fellows through a tuition-free 10-week master class, at the end of which, the ensemble will stage its own original comedy show, entitled “It’s a Bao Damn Time.”
If journalism holds a mirror to society, comedy holds a fun house mirror – exaggerating how we see ourselves and others.
“There’s a lot to be said about how, even as actors on stage, we’re really just mirrors of what’s happening in the world,” Reyes said. “So, by presenting it to the audiences, we’re able to give them a little bit of the moral of the stories – a spoonful of sugar, using comedy, for them to see something that’s really messed up in the world, but laugh at it, too, you know.”
For the Victor Wong fellows, reflecting on Asian American identity through their own comedic lens is not only their goal, but also their gift. The fellowship amplifies Asian voices who are ready to poke holes in old stereotypes and make their own punchlines.
“Yeah, maybe that Asian person is good at math, but they worked very hard to get good at math,” Nguyen said. “Or maybe they worked very hard to be a bad driver.”