“Masters of the Currents: A Conversation with the Creators and Cast” brought together webinar attendees across the country and around the world April 7 to celebrate the first nationally touring play about Micronesians in the United States.
The event, brought to Zoom by Visions and Voices and Asian Pacific American Student Assembly, foregrounded an often overlooked community: Micronesians. Micronesia is a subregion of Oceania comprised of hundreds of islands across the Pacific Ocean. Speakers included the creators and cast of “Masters of the Currents,” many of whom hail from these islands in Micronesia.
To start off the discussion, moderator Marie-Reine Velez, Visions and Voices production and marketing specialist and co-founder of the Asian American theatre collective Artists at Play, introduced the co-creators of “Masters of the Currents:” award-winning performance artist, actor, playwright, director and cultural worker Leilani Chan and USC alum, actor and writer Ova Saopeng, who also starred in the play.
The co-creators began by introducing TeAda Productions, where Chan works as artistic director and Saopeng works as associate producer and teaching artist. TeAda Productions, the home of “Masters of the Currents,” is a nomadic theatre of color based in Los Angeles.
Chan described their focus as “working with communities to stage their stories.” She continued by highlighting their commitment to “working with underserved communities or communities that are not appearing in the mainstream or on the main stage of American theatre.”
“Masters of the Currents,” which chronicles the experiences of three Micronesian youth trying to understand their identities after seeking refuge in Hawai’i due to environmental and economic factors, allowed Hawai’i-raised Chan and Saopeng to return home and give back to their community. Saopeng cited their encounters with the new wave of immigrants and refugees as inspiration for the production.
The co-creators maintained authenticity by centering Micronesians in their research and their ultimate portrayal of their experience. Four of the five cast members are from the islands of Micronesia, and Innocenta Sound-Kikku, a cast member who Saopeng fondly refers to as their “cultural navigator,” ensured that the elders were okay with Chan and Saopeng collecting stories from the community for the play.
Attendees were able to catch a short eight minute recording of “Masters of the Currents.” Chana and Saopeng have held off holding virtual performances of their play due to Zoom constraints that prevent audience interaction integral to the production.
Following the showing of the play excerpt, the remaining four cast members entered the discussion. Two shared similar anecdotes about joining the cast almost accidentally through the workshops Chan and Saopeng hosted with TeAda Productions.
Cast member Emeraldrose Hadik explained that she thought the workshop would just be listening to other people tell stories until Chan and Saopeng pulled a one-eighty on her and told the group that they would be the ones performing the stories instead.
Jayceleen Ifenuk, another cast member, describes a nearly identical experience. After receiving an invitation to a workshop from Sound-Kikku, she thought she would be listening to others tell stories and was wholly surprised when they expected her to perform. As someone who avoided drama club in her high school years, Sound-Kikku said being up on stage was particularly jarring and awkward for her. In spite of her initial hesitancy when it came to stage performance, she found the experience to be healing.
The cast shared their own difficulties with their Micronesian identity during the webinar and how the play helped the cast members and young viewers of the play embrace their heritage and culture.
“As a Micronesian growing up in Hawai’i, I went through a lot. So sharing about personal experiences and what our community goes through in a creative way takes away the negativities of it,” said Ifenuk of the play.
Jermine Kaipat expressed his own evolution, describing his initial hesitancy to embrace his Micronesian identity prior to his involvement with “Masters of the Currents.” That evolved into a pride in his heritage after meeting everyone involved in the production.
Ifenuk provided an anecdote about the aftermath of the play where the children who attended the youth center she worked at would proudly wear their cultural skirts combs which had often been a point of shame, teasing and embarrassment for Micronesian youth in Hawai’i.
Sound-Kikku emphasized how amazing it was for viewers of the play to see themselves represented and how the play mobilized youth to stand up for Micronesians.
“Now they advocate for us and stand up and say that’s not right,” Sound-Kikku said.
Hadik also recounted a performance where several young children came up to her after the fact, grateful she was representing them.
“Even before then, I believed in representation. But since then, since that interaction I’ve had with those kids, representation is all I ever do,” Hadik said.
Chan brought attention to real-world issues facing Micronesians during the webinar, making the conversation particularly poignant by addressing the unjust murder of Micronesian teen Iremamber Sykap in Hawai’i by the police on April 6.
Chan continued on to thank the audience and cast for participating in the webinar, “I am so appreciative of [you all] being here because we are so excited to have this platform to talk about [this work] because it definitely relates to how Micronesians are portrayed in the media and what they are facing in regards to racial profiling and other discrimination in Hawai’i.”