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Cultural Diversity at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

written by Shelley Scott in April 2004

The year 2003 marked the twenty-second annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. Dubbed “Attack of the Killer Fringe,” the Festival this year presented more than 140 different theatre companies on twelve indoor stages, two outdoor stages, and twelve Bring Your Own Venues (independent spaces arranged by artists themselves). A section of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood is blocked off from traffic and becomes a giant carnival site, with buskers and vendors of all kinds. At the heart of the space are the TransAlta Arts Barns, newly renovated this year and housing the new office spaces of Fringe Theatre Adventures, the company that produces the annual Festival with corporate assistance and many volunteers.
The Edmonton Fringe is billed as the largest of its kind in North America, although Fringes in Minnesota and Winnipeg are also in the running. With eight hundred performers appearing onstage in Edmonton, (according to the press package), I was curious to see what kind of self-identified cultural diversity might be represented at the 2003 Edmonton Fringe. About 70,000 tickets are sold to the indoor shows and half a million people attend the Festival site (Matwychuk 12), so it is a significant cultural and economic phenomenon. Who appears onstage and whose stories are told are important questions. Fringe organizers emphasize that the Festival is unjuried and uncensored, with acceptance determined by a lottery system, but they also stress that it is “dedicated to the creation of theatre that challenges and celebrates the cultural fabric of our communities” (Fringe Program 5). One might therefore hope to see a representative cross-section of North America’s theatre-making population.

Asian–Canadians are the identifiable ethnic minority community with the strongest presence at Edmonton Fringes past and present.

Certainly, I saw a number of shows at the 2003 Fringe that were identified as originating from a particular ethnic perspective or were intended to provide audiences with a glimpse of diverse cultural issues. For example, Shylock was written by Mark Leiren-Young, performed by John D. Huston, and directed by John Juliani. This complex and intelligent show featured Huston, who is Metis, playing a Jewish actor who is forced to defend his portrayal of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice against charges of anti-Semitism. Another example was The Making of Warriors, Sharon Pollock’s powerful exploration of the links between racism and sexism, originally written as a radio play in 1991 and adapted for the stage in 2000. Directed by Heather Inglis, The Making of Warriors tells the stories of two women: Sarah Moore Grimke, a nineteenth-century American who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage, and twentieth-century Native Canadian Annie Mae Aquash, murdered because of her involvement with the American Indian Movement.
A Man, A Magic, A Music was a one-man autobiographical show by 58-year-old African-American entertainer Melvin Brown. This distinctly old-fashioned variety act, featuring jokes, tap dancing, storytelling, and much singing, evoked a feeling of vaudeville entertainment; yet Brown did not shy away from discussing the racism he has encountered throughout his life, nor the double standards of the music industry in rewarding black and white artists. Finally, Aotearoa, performed by Irene Astle with masks designed and created by Terri Diane, presented a series of Maori stories that explain the creation of New Zealand, or Aotearoa, “Land of the Long White Cloud” (Program).

But if I were to generalize, I might suggest that Asian–Canadians are the identifiable ethnic minority community with the strongest presence at Edmonton Fringes, past and present. The most notable example is Edmontonian Marty Chan, who has had a series of plays at the Fringe over the years. Interestingly, Chan has written that none of the scripts he produced at the Fringe “had anything to do with my Asian background, because I wanted to avoid being stereotyped as the Chinese-hyphen-Canadian writer” (Chan 14). For Chan, the Fringe has been an opportunity to develop as a writer and to attract attention from artistic directors, critics, and the public, rather than a venue to talk about his own experiences growing up Chinese–Canadian in rural Alberta. But Chan’s best-known works, in fact, have been the ones that directly address his ethnicity: Mom, Dad, I’m Living with a White Girl went on to be produced across Canada and published three times, and the television pilot The Orange Seed Myth and Other Lies Mothers Tell won two media awards (Nothof 7).
More recently, theatre-makers of Asian origin have been using the Edmonton Fringe in a manner which incorporates their ethnicity much more explicitly. Yung Luu, who was born in Vietnam, wrote, directed, and acted in a trilogy of plays at the Edmonton Fringe and received Sterling Award nominations for these works. Chinese Food and Model Minority were followed by I Chink in 1999, a play that has since been published in Canadian Theatre Review.

For these artists, theatre became a place to come to terms with and celebrate their heritage.

In the 2003 Edmonton Fringe, Nancy Ng and Byron Yee each produced plays that took on very similar issues, Ng’s from a Chinese–Canadian and Yee’s from a Chinese–American perspective. Ng wrote and produced a short piece entitled The Yellow Peril, directed by Kevin Cheung and featuring Cheung and Kightzeareau Anora Logrono. The play depicts the struggles of early Chinese immigrants in British Columbia in the 1880s. By interspersing the 1955 stories of a grandfather, Yim, and his grandson with scenes of Yim and his best friend Fu Qua in 1887, Nancy Ng managed to convey not only historical information but also a sense of the heartbreaking suffering of early immigrants. Exploited through the poorly paid and dangerous work of building the railway, the characters of Yim and Fu Qua represent the aspirations and bravery of these early immigrants, as well as their sense of helplessness and betrayal by the Canadian government. The play ends with an impassioned speech by the character of Yim’s grandson, demanding an apology for what his grandfather’s generation endured. Interestingly, The Yellow Peril was the only one of the plays listed in the Fringe Program to cite “education” as one of its aims.
Paper Son, written and performed by Byron Yee and directed by Glen Chin, also tackled the experiences of early Chinese immigrants. His own father was a mystery to Yee, and his one-man autobiographical show recounts how it was only as an adult, struggling to make a living as an actor and stand-up comic in San Francisco and Los Angeles, that he began investigating his own sense of what it means to be Chinese. That search led him to a discovery: the Chinese people of his father’s generation had been imprisoned for periods ranging from a week to two years on Angel Island, the Chinese equivalent of Ellis Island. Yee’s considerable skills as a performer made this ninety-minute show both educational and highly entertaining, a combination which accounts both for its success back in the 1998 Fringe when it first premiered and for its subsequent American runs. Paper Son will be produced in Los Angeles in September 2003, and Yee’s hopes for its success are made more urgent by his depiction of the alternative: failure in his own show will mean a return to playing degrading stereotypes of Asians in Hollywood movies. Both Ng and Yee made use of poetry written by the early Chinese immigrants, and these short, poignant recitations also brought a deeper level to both of their plays.
I found it significant that in both The Yellow Peril and Paper Son a young man complains that he does not want to be Chinese, yet later goes on to take pride in his heritage once he learns more about it. This was also the theme of another one-man show at the 2003 Fringe, Jason Neufeld’s Confessions of a Repressed Mennonite, although here the cry was, “I didn’t want to be Mennonite!” In Neufeld’s case, he found himself investigating how growing up as a Mennonite in southern Manitoba affected his development and identity. Instead of poetry, Neufeld employed rock song lyrics and video footage on an onstage television set, alluding to the role of popular media in regulating “normality” for young viewers.
A common thread throughout the Fringe shows I saw, especially these last three, is the painful phenomenon of young people across racial and religious lines rejecting their place in a perceived “minority” and wishing to be part of some imagined Canadian cultural mainstream. For these artists, theatre became a place to come to terms with and celebrate their heritage. It is encouraging that theatre artists are making use of popular theatre events like the Edmonton Fringe to explore their own identity and share it with a wide audience.

Works Cited
Chan, Marty. “The Ethnic Playwright’s Dilemma.” Canadian Theatre Review
110 (2002): 12-15
.

Luu, Yung. “I Chink.” Canadian Theatre Review 110 (2002): 83-87.
Matwychuk, Paul. “The Future of the Fringe.” Vue Weekly No. 408 (Aug. 14- Aug. 20, 2003): 12-14.

Nothof, Anne, Ed. “Introduction: Fragmenting the Mosaic.” Ethnicities: Plays from the New West. Edmonton: New West Press, 1999. 1-9.

Shelley Scott is an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dramatic Arts at the University of Lethbridge. She is also a member of the editorial board of alt.theatre.