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Making Theatre Out of Slam Poetry

Poet, playwright, screenwriter, performer, lyricist. Queer, trans, Yellow American. Kit Yan is busy, and his roles and identities are myriad. After enjoying success as a slam poet and performer for over a decade, Yan is currently a 2018 Fellow at the Trans Lab play group supported by the WP Theater and the Public Theater.

This February, I saw Kit’s award-winning solo slam poetry show Queer Heartache at Oberon, the second stage of American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), where the show was making a return engagement after a sold-out run in 2017 at the A.R.T.’s I.D. Festival Series celebrating trans artists and their diverse experiences. Floored by the rawness, honesty, humor, poignancy, and charm of Kit’s performance, I sat down with him after the show to talk about working across diverse genres, exploring one’s multiple identities, and audience and community engagement in his work.

Yan Chen: You were primarily a slam poet up until about five years ago, when you started writing and performing for the theatre. Has your poetry always been tied to performance?

Kit Yan: Poetry is not necessarily always theatre, but it's very theatrical, especially performance poetry. I've loved poetry since I was a kid, and the first time I tried performing was in a talent show when I was nine. I didn't know it at the time, but that was the first glimpse of what my life would look like at thirty-three. I had been raised in the Kingdom of Hawai'i, and I'd never been to the continental US before I moved to Boston to attend Babson College. There was a huge culture shock, but I had the opportunity to figure out what pieces of my queer and trans identity were important to me. I started going to all the slams and open mics in Boston when I was an undergrad, and when I think about Boston, I think about Gender Crash, this open mic run by my friend Gunner Scott for over ten years, where folx found a home for a multiplicity and intersection of voices. People would rant, do poetry, monologues, or scenes, or just talk about their day, and the Lesbian Avengers were always selling baked goods. It was a place where I found a lot of comfort, joy, and voice.

The first time I really had experience in a theatre was when Michael Brown, one of the original people on the scene when slam poetry as an art form became an American competition, wanted to make this poetry theatre troupe called Doc Brown's Traveling Poetry Show. I was in that for a couple of years. Then I did solo poetry for a long time until about five years ago, when I started working on the musical Interstate with Melissa Li, a singer-songwriter and my collaborative partner. Melissa and I used to perform at Jacques, a queer cabaret in Boston. Then we quit our jobs and we went on the road as a spoken-word poetry band called Good Asian Drivers. Now we’re co-writers of a semi-autobiographical musical about a queer Asian band that travels the country and inspires a young South Asian teenager whose family, community, and church hate him.

Kit performing at Oberon
Kit Yan performing Queer Heartache at Oberon in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Katrina Sistare.

Yan: Your solo show Queer Heartache combines slam poetry and theatre by way of you performing a series of autobiographical poems that tracks a journey of growth. How do you view the relationship between poetry and theatre?

Kit: There was a moment when I didn't think poetry was theatre. But I’ll always remember when Regie Cabico, a really amazing queer Filipinx American poet, said to me that slam poetry is a three-minute play. Queer Heartache and Interstate director Jessi Hill and I have had a lot of conversations about what is slam poetry and what is theatre. The rules of slam poetry include a microphone, a time limit, no props...all these things you can't do. Putting slam poetry into a theatre and just taking some of those rules out frees up the story in so many ways. 

Slam poetry highly relies on the personal, the personal as political, and the confessional. There aren't always clear breaks between whether I’m talking to myself, talking to you, talking to the world at large, or to whoever’s in this room. Playing with that is really fun, and understanding that voice for the character and myself is really a beautiful experience.

Slam poetry often gets really deep, really raw, really fast, and sustaining that vulnerability is something that we're always trying to tap into. There are sixteen pieces in Queer Heartache. As Regie Cabico would say, that's sixteen short plays, sixteen emotional journeys, sixteen emotional arcs. Where the connective tissue is to link those together, and how I emotionally get from piece to piece, connect with the audience, and bring them on that journey has been a really large conversation.

Slam poetry is an art form that is often very accessible. My favorite thing to do is to go to youth slam poetry, to see what young folx are writing about and what's important to them. A lot of the time, older folx, the elders in our community, are doing slam poetry as well. It's an art form that says, Come here, there's a microphone for you for three minutes, have at it. That being said, it's not always accessible to everyone. Sometimes the venue is run by entirely cisgender, straight, white men, and you wonder, Do I want to tell you this story? Is this space where I want to find home in? There are two sides to it, but the beautiful thing is that it's an art form where a lot of folx can figure out their voices. 

Yan: Who are your influences and inspirations in slam poetry or theatre?

Kit: All the performers at Gender Crash and my collaborative partner, Melissa Li. There’s an actor and poet named D’Lo, a trans, South Asian artist who’s really important to me too. I primarily write plays and musicals these days, and I’ve been so inspired by playwrights in my circles as well. Mashuq Mushtaq Deen has a show called Draw the Circle, which is beautiful. I really look towards trans folks of color.

Self-identification for me is a slow process of trying things, rearranging, and swapping some things out as my identities grow and change.

Yan: You describe yourself as a self-taught writer.

Kit: Yeah, I didn't learn poetry or playwriting from a focused degree, though I did take some poetry classes at Babson. I feel it’s important to pay respect to the lineage of my work, which is elders, storytellers, people writing poetry at open mics and on the street. My most formative experiences of performance art, poetry, and writing are from that. I think it was really enriching for me to experience a multiplicity of voices, and to understand and know that power and writing and stories can come from everyday people. I never want to forget that as a writer: who am I doing this for and why. I also read and watch a lot of things, and I constantly learn from my collaborations.

Yan: Is there something about playwriting that makes collaboration feel so necessary?

Kit: Playwriting can be so isolating, and I don't really desire to work in isolation. Part of it is that I'm a trans person, and the feeling of being isolated in my identity and community is not that great of a feeling for me personally. When I'm writing about these topics, I'm desiring to feel community as I write.

Also, I really believe in collective power and knowledge, and I find that another writer really holds me accountable to the material. I come from a transparent, accountability-based way of creating art, and having another perspective as an accountability partner is so important to my writing. I like to have someone to see the identities and experiences of the characters from another angle, and to ask the tough questions of the characters: Why are they doing this? Is there an opportunity to present this person or this story in a more nuanced way, or a way that I'm not thinking about, which might be coming from a different trans experience?

For the trans stuff that I write, I especially want a trans person of a different lived experience to be with me. Trans and gender non-conforming folx have a multiplicity and multitude of voices, identities, and beautiful stories to tell, and I alone definitely cannot do that. For instance, I just finished co-writing a play called (T)estosterone with Simone Wolff based on interviews with trans folx who take testosterone. Simone and I are two trans people with really different gender, class, and race experiences. I'm a Yellow American immigrant trans person, and they're a non-binary, way-younger Jewish person. We have different places on the spectrum of femininity or masculinity, and it's really great to have that perspective as well. 

Yan: It seems like today, there’s a lot of conversation around the fact that people inhabit multiple identities. What has it been like for you to explore and claim all the facets of your identity in the trajectory of your growth? Have you ever felt the need to have one identity take precedence over another?

Kit: Self-identification for me is a slow process of trying things, rearranging, and swapping some things out as my identities grow and change. It’s taken me some time to arrive at every identity that I'm using. Recently, I took out of my bio “Asian American” and switched it to “Yellow American” to reclaim that phrase and to acknowledge the history of being Asian in America.

I used to play to different audiences. I used to think that if I’m at an Asian thing, I’ll do Asian material, but I don't do that anymore. Now, I just write a show. People want to go to that show or not, or want to bring that show to their place or not.

Yan: Can you talk more about how you engage with community through your work?

Kit: I built my entire career off of community engagement, community organizing, community art, and self-producing, and I still think that that’s at the heart of it. Historically, American theatre is largely a white, cisgender, very male-centric artform, and so when I think, What’s theatre?, I'm thinking, Who am I making the art for? Who’s watching, making, buying theatre? Is it the folx I'm in community with? Is it me? If those people don’t go to theatre, then how am I going to change that? I want my shows to reach folx who usually don't even go to theatre, folx who are afraid of theatre, folx who don't think the theatre includes them. Either I make my shows in theatres with a more welcoming environment, or take theatre to the streets, which is why I'm interested in screenwriting, because I think stories can travel wider and farther onscreen. 

I do a lot of community shows and public works. (T)estosterone was a research and documentary-based play. We interviewed so many people, we did surveys online to get more perspectives, we interviewed each other...It's super important for me to get critical feedback from the folx who are experiencing my work, and not just feedback from the folx who control the institution that is producing the work. Having talkbacks is also really important to me, and I like to have community days.

What’s also really important to me is to cast correctly as authentically as possible. Sometimes in the past we weren’t able to always do that. I'm learning how increasingly important that is, because recently, for (T)estosterone, we did two readings that have all-trans casts, and the kind of feedback that we got from the actors and seeing our actors working is just so valuable to the development of the piece. The kinds of conversations that are happening when we're in the room together? Those are the kind of conversations we need to be having in order to make art. 

Yan: Could you talk about your relationship to the audiences at your shows?

Kit: With a show like Queer Heartache, which tells stories of very personal experiences from my life, I hope that those stories go out into the world and are in conversation and community with folx. Hopefully, they can inspire folx to do that same thing: to tell their stories as well, to love themselves, to find queer healing, and to understand who they are, the same way that the character in the show also goes on a self-discovery journey.

The feeling of looking out into the crowd and seeing folx who are queer and trans, folx of color, young folx, people who bring their kids just makes me think that this is the world I want to live in, and this is the reason my art exists—to create the world we want to live in. Sometimes I think, Am I preaching to the choir all the time? But my friend Kelly Tsai, who's also a spoken-word artist, has said to me something I’ll always remember about audiences: “Sometimes the choir needs preaching to.” I really feel that in my own life and in the kind of art that I seek out. I want to be in a world of risk-taking, queer art that reflects the kind of world I want to build, and the kind of experiences that I have a connection with.

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I've seen Kit Yan's work a couple of times, both in Good Asian Drivers and in solo performance at the SF Fringe. It's great to hear his perspectives. Thank you for a great article. (And, as a language fan, interesting to see the proliferation of the x suffix and potential infix.)