Slanty Eyed Mama, the Juilliard-trained Asian American electric hip-hop punk rock spoken word comedy duo Kate Rigg and Lyris Hung, are fearless in their efforts to take on stereotypes of Asian Americans. Their latest work, “Zombie Asian Moms,” is their “most personal show,” said Rigg, and it deals with universal themes like family dynamics, motherhood and the crazy mom that everyone has. In advance of the show’s Nov. 29 premiere at La MaMa, Rigg spoke with ALL ARTS about the production, why she and Hung chose such a provocative name for their act and how they use comedy and music to address issues like discrimination, disenfranchisement and common myths about Asian Americans.
ALL ARTS: What is the story behind Slanty Eyed Mama and how did you conceive of this project?
KATE RIGG: Slanty Eyed Mama started when Lyris Hung and I both graduated from Juilliard, and we looked at the world and we saw that there wasn’t a whole lot of representation of Asian American stories in popular culture, like comedy and rock and roll and hip-hop — popular culture for younger people. There wasn’t a ton of Asian American stories in movies or television. There was a lot of sort of ancestor stories about fishermen and pearl fishing and mahjong tournaments and stuff like that, but there wasn’t a lot of contemporary Asian stories and we wanted to do that because we’re both Asian North Americans, we were born here and we were raised here. Our experience is very much an American experience.
And the reason we chose such a provocative name is because, you know, Asian Americans are not really included proactively in conversations about race and representation in America — they’re just not. When people say people of color they assume you mean a black person or a Latino person and now sometimes a Middle Eastern person. Because there is this sort of perception that Asian Americans are still foreigners in their own country, which was very upsetting to both of us. And to be disenfranchised like that — it has real repercussions, such as depression, such as a lack of engagement, which we’re seeing in the polls right now.
So we were like, we as artists — this is our side project, this is our passion project — we’re going to go around and we’re going to write. First we wrote about stereotypes. So we wrote a song called “Me Love You Long Time.” In my previous project I had a song called “Rice Rice Baby,” which we then adapted for the two of us. And we addressed stereotypes, just calling them out. Secondly we started addressing real human stories. We did a play called “Americasiana,” which toured and was commissioned at Dixon Place and that was really like more a history-based play, like this one is now. And then, our last show was “Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show” about sort of constructing and deconstructing images of Asians and the west. Not so much stereotypes but things that people think about when they think of Asians in the west — nail salons, bowl cuts, whatever —and then showing a couple layers underneath it.
And all of this stuff sounds very political and cultural and earnest, and it is, but this is where the artistry comes in. Lyris and I are a lot of fun. Lyris kicks ass on the electric violin. She plays for artists like Bono and Jay-Z, and now she tours with the Indigo Girls and she had a metal band. She’s not your conventional electric violin player by any stretch of the imagination. And I graduated in classical drama at Juilliard but I’ve made forays into standup comedy and sketch comedy. I created a couple reality shows for TV. I was a panelist on “The Dr. Phil Show” for two years. I’ve done really freaky things, too. And so we bring a lot of fun into the mix. Slanty Eyed Mama is all about starting conversations and making people laugh, and making people feel inspired when they see us.
AA: Can you talk a bit about “Zombie Asian Moms”?
KR: “Zombie Asian Moms” is our newest show and it’s our most personal show. This show is about family. And it’s about telling American stories through an Asian lens. So, in other words, we’re talking about motherhood, we’re talking about how moms are and how they’re not so different from their own moms. But it’s all Asian moms, who people don’t typically think of as American moms, but they are. So the reason it’s called “Zombie Asian Moms” is because we’re talking about the cultural patterns and influence and the impact of moms that goes on for generations. So, you know, even when your mom dies, you act like her. In fact, you probably turn into her. [laughs] Or you’re haunted by her.
Both my mom and Lyris’s mom have passed into the next realm, so it’s also representative of how they are very much alive onstage with us. My mom is one of the central narrators of the show, and then we do a really strong musical nod to Lyris’s mom, who died when she was 11. And then we interviewed living Asian moms — lots of them — about their lives in America and what their moms were like. All of that is going into it. But it’s actually extremely humorous. It’s not a heavy play. Based on our interviews and our own recollections, we’re telling funny stories. This was not about exploring people’s what I like to call PTAMD, post-traumatic Asian mom disorder. We are not fully exploring that. We sort of hint at it, but that’s not what this play is about. It’s not about exercising the demons; it’s about making fun of the demons.
AA: Does it ever feel awkward or uncomfortable when you’re performing this material that takes on stereotypes so directly?
KR: I’m going to tell you something — I’m going to drop some truth on you. Every single time we do a Slanty Eyed Mama show, whether it’s at a college or a festival or whatever, if there’s a talk back session, people always ask us: “Hey, are people, like, offended by what you do? Are people offended by the name Slanty Eyed Mama? Are people offended by you talking about stereotypes?” And I always say to them, “Are you offended?” And they go, “No, but maybe other people are offended.” And I’m like, “Which people?” And it’s really interesting that there’s this step-removed fear that other people will be offended, but when I actually interview my actual audience in the actual space, nobody’s ever offended. And that speaks to me more of a fear on the other side — that there’s a real fear of language and a real fear of perception, which I think distances people from actually just sitting in the room and being present in the room with what’s going on. And most of the time we are working to create a more compassionate, kinder and understanding world by exploring the experiences of some Asians in the context of race and representation. So, no, it doesn’t feel awkward or embarrassing or weird because we are very clear about what we’re doing. We’re not only clear in our own minds but we’re pretty clear in our dramaturgy too.
AA: Why is this show important now, given the current political and cultural climate that we’re finding ourselves in?
KR: Oh gosh. It’s so important now for us to see other human beings as human beings. We’re in a world where everybody’s getting a little suspicious of people who don’t look/sound/feel like them. And I think the place of art — certainly comedy and music — the real responsibility of comedy and music is to create a more compassionate, a kinder and a more communal kind of world. Meaning that people see each other in the stories and they see themselves in the stories no matter what culture is on stage.
So, “Zombie Asian Moms” is super important now for two reasons. One, it’s important for Asian people. Asian people do not have a lot of representation out in the world and in the media. And in America, guess what — we get all our information about ourselves, about what success looks like and about how to be from pop culture and the media. That’s where we get it — from the news and TV and movies and books. And if you don’t see a lot of pictures of yourself to guide you along the way, you can be completely disenfranchised. And that is probably why we only have 30 percent of Asian Americans engaged in politics.
And the second reason it’s really important is for everybody else who’s not Asian to realize that American Asians are in fact American and to create a more harmonious society that we can all exist in without everybody parceling off into groups and being suspicious of each other. We as Asian Americans and American Asians, truly, we are like underdogs in the racial conversation and we want to enter it. And that’s why we’re doing it.
“Zombie Asian Moms” will play at The Downstairs at La MaMa (66 East 4th St. between 2nd Ave. and the Bowery) Nov. 29-Dec. 9. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Top Image: Lyris Hung (left) and Kate Rigg, the duo behind Slanty Eyed Mama. Photo by Helen Tansey.