For a long time, I thought that stand-up comedy wasn’t for people like me. Growing up in a sea of Jerry Seinfeld rip-offs, along with the raunchy bro-comedies that dominated the early 2000’s, the idea of seeing my identities or life experiences as an Filipino-American wasn’t something I thought I was entitled to; it was something that I could barely imagine existing. My opinion started to change when I watched Ali Wong’s stand-up set “Baby Cobra” in 2016. Suddenly an Asian woman, who looked remarkably like my own Tita, was taking the stage in an incredible leopard-print dress and a pregnant belly. Standing up against a stark blue wall, she pointedly and gracefully addressed her familial, gendered, and racial identities all in one fell swoop, with rapturous applause following.
“It’s so sexist when people say, ‘well if you’re here, then who’s taking care of the baby?’” she says in the show, squinting into the distance and pausing for dramatic effect to show her bewilderment. “Who the fuck do you think is taking care of the baby? The TV is taking care of the baby, okay!”
It was in this moment that I realized the radical possibilities within the stand-up genre form, and the way in which performers could refract societal expectations and shame through the prism of their bodies. The power of stand-up has already been explored by the Black student community on Wesleyan University’s campus, and now the Asian international community is having its own confrontation with the genre through the new meta-theatrical play “The Unwanted Siblings.” The show was written by Scarlett (Chenchen) Long ’23 and a production directed by Annabella Machnizh ’23 premiered virtually last Saturday, April 8, streaming live from Wesleyan’s film department studios. Long’s play stirringly captures the specific anxieties faced by stand-up performers, and the arduous process of staging memory through multiple languages.
“The Unwanted Siblings” follows Jie (Ashley Tuen ’23), a successful marketing officer who sneaks off to bars at night to perform stand-up sets about her family. This all gets thrown into disarray when her young brother Ming (Aldrean Alogon ’23) suddenly appears, revealing that he was abandoned by their parents—who are both dysfunctional and deeply in debt.
In one important scene, a flashback to the past, Jie and Ming are watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the TV taking care of them, as Wong might say) when their parents stumble in drunk, and start kicking down pieces of furniture in the living room. The audience witnesses all of this in silhouette (with ensemble member Flora Yao ’23 playing the younger Jie), before the lighting shifts and we see the modern-day Jie (Tuen) delivering her stand-up about the memory to a receptive audience.
“So that’s my first experience trying to perform on ‘stage,’ [and it] had almost elicited a family war,” she says with a sly wink to her own satire. “A star was born and got kicked down from the dinner table…You guys know I had a hella interesting upbringing…Yeah, a lot of fun. But it gave me lots of materials to write about as a stand-up comedian.”
In her stand-up, the audience of “The Unwanted Siblings” watches Jie struggle with transforming her trauma into laughter. Even if comedy is just tragedy plus time (as television personality Steve Allen once said), Jie’s childhood wounds still feel fresh. As Jie molds her struggles into humor in front of a crowded room, we get to witness her cathartically confront the violence of her past. It’s the same strange process that Long underwent by writing the show in Professor Edwin Sanchez’s “Introduction to Playwriting” course, collecting the broken pieces of her own life and news stories she heard from China to create something new.
“In Prof. Sanchez’s class…I remember one week we were asked to write something about news,” Long said in an interview with The Argus. “So I remember I saw news about Chinese parents, they sued their daughter for not raising her younger brother. Because her parents were in debt, they were irresponsible, and ironically, the parents win the lawsuit. So I thought, what kind of absurd thing it is.”
The absurdity and stakes of that news article offered an opportunity for Long to explore the complex period of transitioning into adulthood, as well as the unspoken rules within a Chinese family. She combined these themes with the growing popularity of stand-up in China in order to tease out these ideas.
These were the elements that stuck out to Kai Magee ’21, a senior who returned to the University this year after taking three years off of school to pursue professional theatrical work. Returning to finish his studies because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was committed to combining his theatrical experience with the new film department facilities which he became familiar with while working on three student film theses. For Magee, who is an international student from Japan himself, Long’s play provided the perfect match to synthesize these interests.
“Scarlett came to me with [“The Unwanted Siblings,”] and I mean, as a fellow international student, we don’t see plays that happen outside of America on this campus,” Magee said.
He was also particularly impressed by the theatricality of the piece, which includes detailed stage directions as well as monologues, flashbacks, and scenes that use sound to show various characters’ perspectives. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated that many shows not have live audiences, Magee realized this style of show combined with a livestream would still offer audiences a compelling night of live performance. This was also a unique experience that drew director Machnizh into the production.
“I have a deep fascination with ‘SNL’ [Saturday Night Live] and have considered working in that kind of production, the combination of theater acting and prep work into something that uses film as a way of capturing,” Machnizh said. “So it was really interesting where we started the process with an acting theater background, where pretty much I worked exclusively with the actors…And pretty much in one week, we got all the tech together.”
The theatrical approach to dramaturgical analysis and character development was important to building the relationship between Tuen and Alagon. This was especially important for the show to work, since Long considers Jie and Ming’s strained but loving relationship as the central impetus for writing the play.
“We did a whole week of table reading where we basically were in an English literature class, we analyze each character, analyze every single movement they do,” Tuen said. “If I were to describe the sibling dynamic at first, I think Ming is literally a burden to Jie, he just got dumped onto her busy schedule…But I feel like then throughout the whole process [of taking care of him,] it really activated her maternal instincts…it became a mutual symbiotic [relationship.]”
Since Tuen and Alagon are both first-time actors who are new to the world of both film and theater, they stressed the importance of building up a rapport between each other to properly convey the intimacy and hardships that occur between brothers and sisters. Alagon shared that rehearsing during the pandemic added some challenges, but they pushed through the awkwardness together, harnessing the discomfort to propel their ability to be vulnerable.
“There are some scenes I personally [interpret] differently,” Alagon said. “But [Tuen] gives me a ‘you know we can do this!’ Both of us can tackle it in this way so that it will give us this [ability to] feel more.”
Similar to how the rehearsal room dove into differences of interpretation, the play’s narrative itself thrives on tensions between being completely honest to family members and playing up a performance for laughs. Long was clear about her desire to dive into the themes of alcoholism and abuse, even though the show functions as a comedy.
“I like this contract, this idea of talking about some not-so-pleasant thing, but making it become something funny, too,” Long said. “It’s kind of a healing process. Some stand-up comedians will say, ‘Don’t put those sorrow things in your act because the audience don’t know how to react.’”
Maybe there’s a cultural shift in how comedians approach their work, evidenced by Long’s play as well as a growing number of comedians willing to put sorrow in their act without apology or fear. I’m reminded of Dave Chappelle’s 2020 set “8:46” which merges comedy with reflections on Chappelle’s family’s roots in slavery along with a discussion of George Floyd’s death. This reckoning arguably started in 2018 with Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” which starts out as a traditional comedy set but slowly deconstructs itself and the audience’s laughter over time. The paranoia of stand-up is even explored in writer Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Stand Up,” a dizzying account of how Richard Pryor’s comedy helped shake her out of a year-long depression.
“Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have identities,” Hong writes. “They’re up there, onstage, with their bodies against a brick wall like they’re facing a firing squad. There’s nowhere to hide, so they have no choice but to acknowledge their identities…before they move on or drill down.”
Chappelle, Gadsby, and Hong all encapsulate the tightrope balancing act that is stand-up comedy: putting your body on display, feeding an audience morsels of humiliation and self-deprecation, addressing the elephant in the room that is your gender, or your race, or “where your family is from.” Long puts these meta-questions about the stand-up form directly into the text of “The Unwanted Siblings,” when Jie questions the responsibility of a comedian to either entertain or instigate a crowd.
“My way of loving [my mother] is telling a room full of strangers that I love her, but feel ashamed to admit or say it to her,” Jie says in her final stand-up set of the show. After a chance encounter, Jie’s mother (Ransho Ueno ‘23) has come to watch her daughter, even though Jie doesn’t know it. “[My mother] uses alcohol, and I go to comedy. Yea, there are no punchlines waiting. I was worried about talking about my true feelings without a punchline. But I still did.”
Both Jie and Long are comfortable with allowing silence in the audience instead of just non-stop laughter. In fact, the natural silences of a stand-up set was surreally compounded by the fact that there were no audience members in the studios in which “The Unwanted Siblings” was filmed. But for the production team, this potential challenge still had lots of upsides.
“Whether it be the monologue or the conversation with the mom, not having a live audience [made it feel] like I was actually in the bar talking to my mom, and I feel like if there were a live audience, I would be a lot more dramatic,” Tuen expressed.
“I’ll say the set design really helped [balance the tone,]” Machnizh said. “[We had] different rooms for different things and different moments, and it was a really interesting way to divide up the script to feel the tone evolve into different scenes.”
Magee, serving as both the production and lighting designer for the play, was instrumental in adding cinematic and theatrical flourishes throughout the show. The team didn’t have a large budget: they were supported by the Film Workshop after Second Stage denied their application for funding, instead supporting production of “Waiting for Godot” (which has an all-male cast, a requirement of the Samuel Beckett estate). In fact, “The Unwanted Siblings” is the first show with an exclusively Asian cast on campus since “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” was produced by Second Stage in the fall of 2018.
The “Siblings” production team still used the resources available in the film studios to create an authentic depiction of China. The fact that the entire cast and much of the production team was composed of all international students certainly helped when adding to the realism and camaraderie of the production.
“We had a lot of Asian friends bring in things from their dorm rooms…[New Year’s materials], Chinese calendars, posters,” Tuen said. “Just sitting in that room on set made me feel at home.”
Although, unlike the rest of the team, Machnizh is not Asian, she still found working alongside fellow international students to be an affirming experience.
“I mean, I’m Latina, so my conversation about family was completely different,” Machnizh said. “Which added a take into [the production process] that allowed me to ask more questions, that I think I wouldn’t have been able to ask if we weren’t in a multicultural room. And I think it’s also a really big testimony to the fact that we can do other forms of theatre, and students that are international can also partake in theatre.”
Long’s international student identity also added some layers into the writing process of the show as well. She expressed her desire to not force herself into writing an American immigrant narrative, and also shared her mixed feelings about if writing a specifically Chinese story in the English language was even possible.
“As a writer, at first I’m kind of worried if I can write a story in English, because English is not my native language,” Long said. “So I kind of have this struggle with language and everything, and also if I want to tell my story, would it be weird in English or Chinese? I have a lot of those kind of struggles. But now, I kind of think that language is not the most important thing, the most important thing is the story you want to tell. There will be a lot of people helping you with language and other things, but the most important thing is that you keep writing, you keep spreading your voice, and you keep digging into the story you wanted to tell. Story is the most important thing. I want to encourage those writers whose native language is not English.”
Long’s questions surrounding how to best express her story seem particularly relevant to this production of “The Unwanted Siblings,” which itself vacillates between multiple languages: comedic and tragic, cinematic and theatrical, Chinese and English. At the end of the day, each member of the production team remained confident that the choice to tell this story at all, regardless of language, was the best decision. Magee in particular was thrilled to get to provide both levity and a sense of community for the international Asian community.
“I really wanted this to be about bringing a bit of joy to campus, it always has been [about that,]” he said. “We started this project around February, and it sucks that we need that joy so much more now, but I hope it was good for everyone to see not only Asian people but fellow international students really flourishing on the Wesleyan campus.”
By the end of the show, Jie and Ming have not solved all of their problems. Their family’s instability stubbornly persists, and the constant fear of rejection haunts the entire play. But Ming’s steadfast support of his sister, his own transformation of turning Hong’s “firing squad” of the stand-up audience into a new kind of family, has made Jie’s performance on stage into an act of familial witnessing. Though Jie, Ming, and other Asian stand-up comics may still face the threats of fear and violence in their life, they might find some sense of relief in the uncontrollable urge to laugh.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanpugh_3.