To Matthew Ozawa, director of the University production “A Beautiful Country,” the COVID-19 pandemic has felt like “having the rug ripped from under you.” The intended opening night of “A Beautiful Country” was April 2, but, like so many other productions, the show has been canceled. “It’s been a crushing blow to see so many artists out of work and so many companies on the brink of closing,” Ozawa said.
“A Beautiful Country,” by playwright Chay Yew, would have been the fifth production that Ozawa, also a professional opera director, has directed at the University. He currently serves as a voice professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. When the cast learned that University instruction would be shifted online, the show was already one month into intensive rehearsals six days a week, costumes were in progress and the production was almost completely staged. Ozawa is hopeful that the show can premier in Fall 2020, but nothing is set in stone.
“A Beautiful Country” follows 150 years of Asian American history in vignettes, told through the eyes of Miss Visa Denied, an Asian male drag queen. Miss Visa Denied is a Malaysian Chinese immigrant, aptly named when his visa is denied by U.S. immigration authorities. The play explores this country’s history of xenophobia toward Asian Americans, assimilation and the intersecting identities of immigrants. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, these hot-button issues seem all the more pressing.
“COVID-19 was detrimental to what we were trying to show,” Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Morgan Bo, an acting major cast as the body of Miss Visa Denied, said. The show details xenophobia against Asian Americans, and clear parallels are seen in the COVID-19 pandemic today. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been on the rise over the past month. Bo pointed out that racial homogenization between Asian Americans and Asian immigrants has increased as well, as is often the case when a particular minority group becomes a target of racism. “I’ve only heard stories like this in history books,” Bo said. “It says something about how we, as a world, haven’t grown to love each other.”
“A Beautiful Country” is deeply personal for Ozawa, whose father was raised in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. For him, the COVID-19 pandemic feels like a repeat of history. He’s scared about what the U.S. will look like after the pandemic blows over, and fears for his safety and that of other Asian Americans. “I’m sometimes shocked by how little our country has evolved and how we continue to make the same mistakes,” Ozawa said. “This pandemic is only heightening feelings that have existed for a quite a while.
Immigrants are largely characterized by their racial identity, often because it’s the most visible. But “A Beautiful Country” recognizes that there’s so much more to any immigrant. Miss Visa Denied has a racial identity as East Asian, a cultural identity as Malaysian and a gender identity as a male drag queen, among others. “(Immigrants) are caught between two continents, two cultures, two languages, two homes,” Ozawa said. Ozawa chose to split up Miss Visa Denied into three parts — the body, the voice and the soul — to show that immigrants can’t be homogenized into black-and-white groups. Yet, immigrants aren’t writing the history of our nation, and their stories aren’t taught in K-12 schools. “Who are we listening to, and what’s being left out?” Ozawa said.
Bo, like Ozawa, identifies as Asian American, and feels strongly that this show deserves to be shown, especially in light of current circumstances. In assuming the role of Miss Visa Denied’s body, Bo focused on learning how to dress hyper-feminine and dance in vogue. “I learned a ridiculous amount about myself and my identity through playing this character,” Bo said. “Things were clicking, but I was definitely still learning as I was going.”
The messages of “A Beautiful Country” were special for everyone involved in the production, and the cast is devastated that their production is canceled for the foreseeable future. “We were creating something that was not only important, but was created with care,” Ozawa said, who made extra efforts to ensure rehearsal spaces were safe, comfortable and afforded a sense of agency for the cast.
Yet, in the midst of this chaos, there’s still optimism and hope. “When things start to restore, we as a society need the arts,” Ozawa said. “The arts will have a huge responsibility to restore our sense of being.”
The pandemic may be keeping us at home, but this idle time is ripe for creativity and creation. “People have such creative minds right now,” Bo said. “People are going to want to do something where they don’t feel like they’re locked in. I do believe theatre will have that rejuvenation and renaissance period.”
Can the performing arts recover from the blows of this pandemic? Bo remains optimistic. “The theatre industry is shifting toward a new light,” Bo said. “A better light, hopefully.”