Lodestone Theatre's first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
Spring is festival season here in Los Angeles, especially for fans of Asian and Asian American cinema. But rare is the new festival that combines innovative programming with a love for contemporary world cinema.
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Under the leadership of Charles Kim and Ewan Chung, OPM (Opening People's Minds) comedy troupe comes to this year's Los Angeles Comedy Festival with their latest show "America's Top Model Minority."
"John Belushi was my idol growing up," says Charles Kim, one of the producers of OPM comedy troupe. OPM stands for Opening People's Minds. "You remember how kids in high school would display whatever they liked on their backpacks or clothes? Whether it was Pink Floyd or Nine Inch Nails... I made my own button with John Belushi's face on it."
Kim also cites Woody Allen, Martin Lawrence, and Richard Pryor as comedians that he admires. "I've written about 15-20 sketches over the years, and if you line them up, it seems like the common denominator is that they're often inspired by black urban expression," he says. "I'm not sure if that's disturbing or interesting."
Ewan Chung, the other half of OPM's core producing team, points to the Monty Python films as his comedy influences. "I tend to lean towards drier humor," he says.
While OPM started as an Asian American sketch comedy troupe in Seattle in 1996, Kim and Chung have been keeping OPM alive in Los Angeles since 2002. Both of them started performing with OPM in Seattle, although never together. As timing would have it, they just missed each other. But in 2001, one of the original founders, Leroy Chin, tentatively started the group up again in Los Angeles, and after he left, Kim and Chung, who had both relocated to Los Angeles by that time, decided to take over the reins.
"It was a matter of necessity," says Chung. "Producing a comedy show takes a lot of work, and we needed manpower."
Since then, the group -- whose other members are often rotating -- has been writing, producing, and performing several OPM sketch comedy shows per year. While based in Los Angeles, they have traveled to Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and New York City. Their show titles range from "Asians for Dummies," "Thank You Come Again," "12 Dolla Make U Holla," " to "Exotic Messages."
"Since we originated as an Asian American group, our writing will always touch on Asian American themes," explains Chung. "However, since we've become more multi-cultural/ethnic, we like to try on different topics and viewpoints."
"To be the best Asian American storyteller, you can't be telling stories in a vacuum," says Kim. "If you just have white on white, black on black, or yellow on yellow, you won't see one part or the other. You need the foreground and the background."
OPM has been performing at the Los Angeles Comedy Festival since it's inception, back when it was called L.A. Fest of Sketch Comedy. This year's group is made up of nine performers. In addition to Chung and Kim, there is Vivian Bang, Deborah S. Craig (Broadway's Spelling Bee), Janina Gavankar (The L Word), Caroline Pho, Chase Sprague, Dave Wilder, and Nika Williams. Their show is called "America's Top Model Minority," and it's directed by David J. Lee.
The title came about because the theme of competition is prevalent in their half-hour set. Parodying the current state of reality television, OPM will be taking on Tila Tequila (played by Caroline Pho) and poking fun at the Celebrity Rehab show on VH1. Dr. Drew will be played by Chung, and audiences can expect "appearances" from Owen Wilson, Tyra Banks, Paula Abdul, and Lindsay Lohan.
However, OPM is quick to point out that not all of their comedy is based on potshots at mainstream fare. "There's a type of put-down humor that depends on snarkiness," says Kim. "But that is boring. If a character is snarky, there has to be stakes involved. There needs to be a reason. Otherwise the writing isn't funny."
The OPM producers also pride themselves on delivering things that we won't see on TV.
"That's the curse and the blessing of being people of color," says Kim. "Our visions don't get expressed, but the angles and the takes that we have are unique. It's a rare commodity."
For example, one of the more political sketches that Kim wrote for this year's show centers on the Clinton and Obama campaigns, but it's shown through the lens of Mr. Lee, a Korean liquor store owner who is trying to decide who he wants to vote for. Kim has written sketches revolving around this Korean liquor store owner character before, previously exploring what would happen if Mr. Lee decided to buy a bankrupt airplane. ("This was before Soul Plane," he says.) Kim decided that Mr. Lee would probably have his Mexican worker piloting the plane. It's these rarely-seen perspectives that OPM likes to explore through their comedy sketches.
Other reoccurring OPM characters include: Hung and Yang, a couple of wannabe rappers (the Asian American equivalent of Wayne's World); Kim Jong-Il and President Bush; and Tyra Banks, played by Nika Williams. Also, Kim and Chung frequently play what Chung calls, "various permutations of a bickering, married, first generation couple." Chung plays the wife, and often they are Chinese immigrant parents who are trying to marry off their son.
As a testament to the talent of the group, many of them are often booking television gigs, which inevitably affect their schedules. Their "team" often depends on who is available at the moment.
However, despite their professional acting lives, there is always an appreciation for the cutting-edge comedy that can come with live theater. "In television, there are tons of people to please," says Kim. "But with poverty, comes freedom. When we don't have a budget or sponsors, we can do whatever we want."
Chung and Kim chuckle as they recall a previous sketch OPM did, involving a Japanese invention that they endearingly call "pussy in a can." The sketch was about two friends, who are trying to help out another friend who has been struggling in the dating scene. Night after night, they would pop out the rubber latex replica of a woman's genitalia to a delighted but conflicted audience.
"Half the audience would be gasping, while the other half was giggling," laughs Kim. "But I mean, try to do that for a network!"
Film and television depend on realism, but the stage also provides the opportunity for heightened creativity, experimentation and abstract-thinking. Chung remembers a particular sketch starring Kim and Williams, where there was a minimal set and it was just two people talking to each other. At first, we think that the two characters are working in a store, and one is being rude to the other. Gradually, as the sketch evolves, the audience realizes that they are actually an interracial couple in a kitchen of their home.
"What I feel really sets OPM apart from the usual sketch group is that we like to back up our material with a lot of brains," says Chung. "It's not just humor for humor's sake. We try to say something or let you walk away from a different viewpoint."
"I'd like to think our writing room is very warm, cuddly, and fun," says Kim. "In Hollywood, you have to have a thick skin. You could be working on something for weeks, and then an executive comes in, throws some curse words at you and cuts it. Here, there's a circle of trust. Sometimes people's feelings still might still get hurt, but in the end, we're a pretty easy-going gang."
OPM is performing at that Los Angeles Comedy festival:
May 4th, 2008 8:30 PM
May 5th, 2008 9:30 PM
May 8th, 2008 8:00 PM
May 18th, 2008 8:30 PM
For more information, click here.
Date Posted: 5/2/2008