It didn’t take a mass shooting on the other side of the country to make East West Players intimately familiar with Asian Pacific Islander hatred and the fiery rhetoric of the past year.
The nation’s premier Asian American theater and one of the oldest professional theaters for people of color has always explored this.
“What we do best is that we are storytellers,” Artistic Director Snehal Desai said. “We can put a face or a name to an issue or a cause instead of it staying as statistics. We can tell you our stories and our experiences and hope that those help further compassion and understanding.”
On Saturday, April 10, and Sunday, April 11, the theater is presenting the second offering of its virtual 55th anniversary season “Between Worlds.” Partnering with API Rise, it is looking to shed a light on a topic that is often swept under the rug — API incarceration, shattering the model minority myth, and calling out the shame imposed on those who are trying to start a new life.
The world premiere, “From Number to Name,” was devised and is directed by Kristina Wong, an artist, activist, actor and elected political representative. She has brought together 10 people, many of them formerly incarcerated Asian Americans, others who have been affected by mass incarceration, to tell their stories.
“These are members of our community who have made bad mistakes, and it has led to them being outcast from our communities oftentimes or made invisible even more,” Desai said. “We don’t want to talk about those folks or hear their stories. Part of our mission is to always make sure we are giving a stage to those who have not been heard or who have been marginalized.”
Making these voices heard
This is not the first time Wong has worked with a prison population. Six years ago, she was invited to do a workshop and performance for inmates at San Quentin. She said she was terrified going in, but by the end of the two hours she forgot she was in a prison and described them as the best audience she’d ever had.
“Some were my age, some went to high schools in San Francisco, some had learned English inside,” Wong said. “It was a very intense experience. There are some amazing leaders — some better than some of the CEOs that get paid six-figure salaries. I was really stunned by how impressive they were.”
She became fascinated by prison culture and the Asian population in prison, which is the smallest but is rapidly growing, with a lot of them facing deportation because their families came here as refugees.
Then she met someone whose brother was coming home from prison after 20 years. He invited her to a support group for recently released prisoners and families who have relatives or friends on the inside — API Rise. She started to attend their monthly meetings and to hear stories that she had never heard before.
That’s when the idea of “From Number to Name” was born. The original plan was to meet in person for 10 weeks, but the pandemic killed those plans. Instead, they began their rehearsals on Zoom to devise the program.
“The stories they have are so jaw dropping,” Wong said. “I see myself on Zoom, and my eyebrows are knitted together.”
The stories are mostly told by men, though there is one woman, who just started a job after being incarcerated for 20 years and is now facing deportation.
“This is a whole other side of Asian American identity that a lot of us don’t think about,” Wong said. “So much is the culture of shame. When folks have a relative who goes to jail, that person doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t talk about them.”
Two of the people participating in the performance are those she cited as having incredible stories, some of which they’ll share during the Zoom play: Irving Relova and Kirn Kim.
Relova released after 36 years in prison
Relova was born in the Philippines during martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. As a young child, he was warned not to go with police who showed up at the house, because they were likely a part of a kidnapping plot. When he was 13, he saw his father killed in front of him during a boating accident. Three months later, his mother revealed to him that neither she nor his father were his biological parents, and she didn’t want him anymore.
He was sent to the United States, where he met the rest of his family for the first time. He lived with his dad’s family, eventually graduating and going to night school while working full time. After getting burnt out, he decided to join the Marines. That was when his life would irrevocably change.
“I was just short of signing my paperwork to go to boot camp, and I get a phone call,” Relova said. “I found out from my best friend that his girlfriend got raped. His girlfriend was friends with my girlfriend at the time. I saw her like a sister. I ended up killing the man who raped her.”
In March 1994, on his 19th birthday, he was arrested. In the beginning he was looking at the death penalty. He ended up being tried, convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
He made his peace with that and said he expected to die in prison. While he was raised Catholic, in prison he converted to Buddhism and started meditation. He met a woman who taught meditation to prisoners, and they eventually married. He devoted himself to Buddhism as a way of life, and while he was convinced he would never leave prison, he wanted to help those who were so they wouldn’t return.
In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown began commuting sentences, and Relova was encouraged to apply — to “put in a packet.” He procrastinated.
“I never really thought about putting a commutation packet request, because for me, I felt like I deserved to be here,” Relova said. “I took a man’s life, so I deserve to be in prison. What gives me the right to ask for a commutation or a pardon, knowing full well I did it?”
Finally, his wife and his best friend — the one who had been a co-defendant in the trial and had served 20 years in jail, getting out in 2014 — persuaded him to do it. He turned it in, not expecting to get an interview. When he did, he was asked why he thought he deserved a commutation.
“I told him straight out, ‘I don’t think I do deserve it. Me taking someone’s life, I can’t say if I deserve it or not.’”
Four months later, in August 2018, he was told his sentence was commuted. On June 21, 2019, he was released from prison. For six months, he lived in transitional housing before being able to move home with his wife. He started attending API Rise right before the pandemic hit. He met Kristina and decided to join the “From Number to Name” production.
It didn’t take him long to settle on the topic of shame.
“He tells a story about how when he went to his grandmother’s funeral, all his relatives had this look of guilt and shame in their eyes,” Wong said. “He’s had to contend with that.”
Relova said many in the Asian community, especially those who are first- or second-generation Americans, have it instilled in them that if they ever do anything wrong, it will bring shame to the whole family and to the whole culture. It isn’t uncommon, he said, for someone who has gotten into trouble to be disowned by their entire family.
Life is challenging
When Kim was released from prison after serving 20 years, he found it nearly impossible to get a job even though he had earned a degree and had excellent computer and programming skills. Too many people remembered why he’d gone to jail.
Kim was the lookout for a notorious murder called “The Honor Roll Murder” because the victim and his killers were all honor roll students, came from wealthy families and participated in service projects. Some were accepted into prestigious colleges. Almost all of them were Asian, something that also made the crime unusual.
Arrested at age 16, Kim was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. He said the law at the time allowed him to be charged with murder, though by today’s law someone with his level of involvement would not be. In 2012, after spending 20 years in prison, he was paroled.
He returned to Orange County and tried to find work.
“No one wanted to hire me,” Kim said. “‘You’re a convicted murderer, no way we’re going to hire you.’ Those who were doing the hiring all remembered my case. I had one hiring manager say, ‘It’s not a matter of your record, it’s that I refuse to hire you.’”
He had a job for a brief time with a start-up company, but it was told if it wanted to go public, Kim couldn’t be on its team.
He moved to LA and began to get involved in criminal justice reform, including being a part of API Rise’s earliest days.
When asked to be a part of “From Number to Name,” he decided to let others talk about shame because he already had. Instead, he would focus on food.
“I’m going to talk about food identity in prison and my attempts to try to replicate ethnic cooking with ingredients you can get on the inside,” Kim said, including relating stories about how he was able to create kimchi by fermenting lettuce in a plastic garbage bag in his cell.
Digital expands reach of production
Desai said that while this production wasn’t originally planned as a digital one, it has allowed them to have a national and even international audience for it. They plan to invite people from API Rise and other groups that work with incarcerated people of color to participate in a talk-back after the show so audiences can engage more deeply with the stories they hear.
“What I hope is that audiences have an experience so that we move beyond statistics,” Desai said. “That we move into a deeper understanding of how every community is affected by a host of factors. There are a number of issues all intersecting at once. I want there to hopefully be some healing on the part of the people involved, the artists and storytellers who have been so severely impacted — that they are seen and heard for who they are and that they have an opportunity to control the narrative around them, and hopefully that is empowering.”