By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
On June 24 at 6 p.m., the doors will open at the Theatre Off Jackson for a show that promises to unite attendees and performers of the past and present in an extravaganza of music, dancing, acrobatics, magic, and theatre — A Night at the Forbidden City. The show is based on the variety shows that had their heyday in the United States between the late 1930s and the early 1960s. It is a joint production of Theatre Off Jackson and The Shanghai Pearl Presents, and for the latter, represented by Jenny Ku (aka The Shanghai Pearl), it is a tribute of love, respect, and hope.
During the Golden Age of the supper club — the age of Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers — Asian American performers found some of their first U.S. showbiz gigs in the world of these clubs. The clubs were segregated (think, The Cotton Club), and a brisk business cropped up in places such as San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the original Forbidden City nightclub flourished. In the style of a variety show or cabaret, Asian American performers of diverse talents entertained a largely white audience.
Due to San Francisco having the largest Chinatown in the United States, and for other social, economic, and political reasons, themes and costuming were Chinese in style. For better or for worse, these venues gave Asian American performers a chance to show their stuff, and many who participated look back upon the era with nostalgia. Yet today, most of the public does not recall this fragment of Asian American history. Where did everyone go?
Ku took it upon herself to find out. What she found was the Grant Avenue Follies, a group of Asian American women performers from the original Forbidden City nightclub, who today continue to perform around the country. These women, some in their 80s, signify a strong thread of Asian American showbiz history in the United States, a history that has long been, as Ku describes, “whitewashed.” For that reason, as well as the sheer enjoyment of their performance, Ku endeavored to bring them together on June 24 with a younger generation of talented Asian American performers in the same vein — magicians, acrobats, actors, musicians, and dancers — to create an intergenerational experience both on and off the stage.
As Ku describes, A Night at the Forbidden City will be “an evening that showcases a few of the many facets of Asian American entertainers … With this show, we get to see our showbiz history, the legacy of those who came before us, the (awesome) present, and a glimpse of our future.” The show is a tribute to the blossoming of Asian American presence on the stage in the United States, as well as a connection to a younger generation of Asian American men and women who are following similar pathways. Ku finds it important to feature a range of ages in the evening’s entertainment, as a way to highlight how, in a youth-obsessed culture, our attention often wanes once a performer grows older. A Night at the Forbidden City reintroduces the public to what we should have already known was there — an incredible history of enormous talent — and reminds the public of young people who are today making their mark in the footsteps of an existent tradition, and then some, by adding contemporary styles and issues into their work.
In addition to the Grant City Follies, several entertainers from various parts are on the show bill.
Seattle represents with Sara Porkolab, activist and performance artist, who will be showing portions of her upcoming play, “Dragon Mama.” She will also be co-emceeing with Ku; Nash Fung, magician, who will wow the audience with sleights of hand interspersed with stories of his heritage; Vivian Tam, aerialista, who will thrill theatre-goers with graceful feats of daring-do; and Moonyeka, activist and contemporary dancer, who will heighten awareness of our multiculturalism. Many of the entertainers are stopping in Seattle in the midst of busy international schedules. “This is a unique constellation of performers who have come together for this one night only,” Ku emphasizes.
A burlesque element will also be a part of the evening. Portland-based artists Satira Sin, Hyacinth Lee, and Patricia Charms will entertain with their well-crafted, tantalizing maneuvers. Ku, The Shanghai Pearl, will perform a version of the fan dance made famous by Golden Era performer, Noel Toy.
Burlesque, from the Italian word “burla,” was originally a vehicle of parody and protest, and only later became the type of evocative dancing we associate with 1800s costume and Las Vegas. For those concerned the genre might be a bit untoward, Ku offers, “This is such a unique and accessible art form — and there’s legitimacy and longevity in it. It’s not some scandalous, shameful thing to secret away.
It’s wonderful and magical.” Moves are meant to be enticing, but not to show everything. However, the audience should keep in mind there is an 18+ age restriction to attend the event.
The show will be accompanied by Seattle jazz ensemble The Owen Yen Trio. Ku explains that live music would have been part of the original shows, so it is especially fortunate to be able to include live music on this occasion. The Trio will play their own sets in addition to accompanying the other talents with era-appropriate jazz pieces from the 1940s and 1950s.
A Night at the Forbidden City is sure to be a night of both misty-eyed nostalgia and wide-eyed delight for everyone involved. The production is scheduled to run approximately 90 minutes, with an intermission. In the style of a variety show, it will be composed of multiple types of performances, not exactly “one story.” Yet Ku says, “You might say that the only ‘one story’ is that there is no ‘one story.’
There is no monolithic Asian American story. Our lives and experiences are multifaceted and multitudinous.” At the Forbidden City nightclub, while many performers were Chinese, there was not one ethnicity of Asians on stage, but an array of individuals placed under one umbrella for practical and dubious reasons. Fast forward to A Night at the Forbidden City, where everyone is privileged to share multiple stories and talents of multiple origins in an exciting whole. This is the past and present coming together on June 24.
Who should go to the show? “The show has something for everyone,” says Ku. “Do you like dance? Do you like beautiful costumes? Do you like magic? Do you like the circus? Then this show is for you. But I suppose it might be particularly special for Asian American (and/or immigrant) mothers and daughters, mothers and grandmothers.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.