In 2010, Ova Saopeng was at Ala Moana Beach Park when he came across an unfamiliar group of people. “Even after growing up here and being around so many different types of people, I saw people whose features I didn’t recognize, and an older guy speaking a language I didn’t recognize,” Saopeng says. “I learned that these people were from Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, the Federated State of Micronesia, and more.”
Now, this population is sharing its experiences with the Honolulu’s general public with “Masters of the Currents,” led by TeAda Productions, founded by Saopeng and his wife, Leilani Chan. This performance is an initial series of vignettes, presented four primary performers from the local Micronesian community, and 10 supporting cast members from the local theater scene depicting the local Micronesian experience. After further refinement, the vignettes will complete a larger body of work; most likely in the form of a play; that TeAda and the performers hope will tour Hawaiʻi and the continental United States.
The migrant experience is one familiar to Saopeng. In 1979, Saopeng’s family left Laos and moved to the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu. He began attending Farrington High School, where he got involved with T-Shirt Theater, the flagship program of The Alliance for Drama Education. He moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California and pursue a career in the performing arts, and it was here that he met and later married Chan, a Kaimuki High School grad who was pursuing her own career as a stage actor. The couple formed TeAda Productions with a mission “to expand the awareness of issues affecting underserved communities through the development and presentation of performances by people of color.” Previous performances situated the couple’s respective experiences: Laotian refugees in America, the Native Hawaiian community in Southern California, and taxi drivers around the world.
Like those groups, the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i has faced blatant, old-fashioned American-style discrimination, the likes of which have been on display during the present political cycle. “These people are the newest migrants to Hawai‘i, and they’re receiving a backlash from existing migrant groups. What we’re seeing, really, is a repetition of oppression,” Saopeng says. “Theater allows for people to hear stories before judging.”
In the summer of 2013, TeAda was part of a conference of the National Ensemble Theaters (NET) that was held on O‘ahu. They began making connections with community organizers at Kokua Kalihi Valley, which addresses a variety of health issues the Micronesian community faces. A loose concept for an ensemble production was seeded, and TeAda began a collaboration with Kokua Kalihi Valley, the Alliance for Drama Education and Honolulu Theatre for Youth, and the directors of T-Shirt Theater. Together with the Micronesian community, they have created “Masters of the Currents.”
“As we got into this project, I’ve been thinking, ‘That was us, that was my family, that was me,’” Saopeng reflects. For Saopeng, the personal is the political. It is also the performative. For this performance, TeAda is supporting the stories of others.
“Masters of the Currents” will be performed on Saturday, July 30 at 6 p.m. at Tenney Theatre, located on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, 229 Queen Emma Square. Admission is free, but tickets required: Get them HERE.