Playwright Zhu Yi Brings Attention to the Plight of International Artists in America

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I’ve lived in New York City for some time and have known it to be an impermanent place for the under-30 crowd.  Yet, it had not occurred to me until recently — when they started leaving — that the people from China and Taiwan I’ve met at events during past two years of running Beyond Chinatown may be part of this transient population.  The majority of them came to the United States on student visas in pursuit of undergraduate or graduate degrees and are permitted to stay in the country for twelve months after graduation for what’s known as the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period.  Those wishing to remain in the U.S. beyond this may apply for a visa in the appropriate category that suits their eligibility.  If they are unable to get a new visa, they must leave the U.S. by the expiration of the OPT period.

For those in their OPT period, it’s a time of uncertainty — both hopeful and stressful.  For artists especially, the application process and result can be unpredictable.  They often apply for the O-1 visa which is designed for the “individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements”.  Despite their talent and qualifications, whether a visa is granted is wholly in the hands of an officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

In the past several months, those in creative fields not willing to be passive about the process have brought attention to their situation through events that not only exhibit their work but also demonstrate their determination, work ethic, and support for the community.  Last December, twenty designers from China and Taiwan banded together in an exhibition entitled Pending to show through artwork their personal experiences with and thoughts during the immigration process.

More recently, on May 31, playwright Zhu Yi and curator Gu Qianfan organized and hosted Welcome to the Republic of Extraordinary Ability at Dixon Place in the Lower East Side.  The evening celebrated the release of Yi’s collection of short plays, Alien of Extraordinary Ability, and paid “tribute to [their] fellow international artists in America” to raise awareness of their “vulnerable position”.   Friends and colleagues of Yi’s entertained a packed house with scenes from her plays We Saw Your Boobs, Crash, and Wedding and songs from Holy Crab! a musical by Yi (bookwriter), Gaby Gold (lyrics), and Yoonmi Lee (music).   Additionally, Romanian poet and playwright Saviana Satanescu read her poem “Google Me”, fellow Romanian and actor Cristian Balint followed with a personal story, James Ryan Caldwell performed from his play Juliet Lives, and Luis Mercado provided an elegant cello performance before the show and during intermission.   Artist Li Shuang amused the audience with her project, a tote bag emblazoned with the invitation “Marry Me for Chinese Citizenship”, and Ma Bin performed a selection from a Peking opera.

“Will He Say Yes?”, from the musical Holy Crab. Book by Zhu Yi. Lyrics by Gaby Gold.  Music by Yoonmi Lee

From the stage and the audience, there was a great show of solidarity for international artists.  If a USCIS officer were there that evening, he would have recognized how much the artists can contribute to the arts in America and would have issued O-1 visas on the spot

Audience at the Entrance

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James Ryan Caldwell performing Juliet Lives

Keloa Simpson sings "Bad Guys". Photo by Afra Lu

Ma Bing sings Peking Opera. Photo by Afra Llu

The Program

Slideshow featuring international artists in America

Alex Grubbs and Mariah MacCarthy perform CRUSH. Photo by Afra Lu

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Aside from the lively program, Yi and Qianfan cleverly engaged attendees with theatrics.  Imagining the event as a sovereign state with immigration policies, the RSVP was likened to a visa application.  An actual visa was granted (if you’re attendance was approved, of course).  At the door, guests were greeted by Customs and Border Protection officers who requested travel documents, asked the purpose of their visit, and like their real counterparts at JFK International Airport, caused the guests anxiety over whether they would actually be admitted.  Once admitted, guests could order a cocktail called “The Undocumented”.

My visa to the Republic of Extraordinary Ability

My visa to the Republic of Extraordinary Ability

Beneath the humor, of course, lie the concern and support for international artists.  Yi talked to us about the event, shared her experiences as a bilingual playwright, and impassionately helped us understand how burdensome the immigration process can be for international artists.

Tell us about your background, your plays, and the book.

I’m a playwright based in New York, born and raised in Shanghai. The book Alien of Extraordinary Ability is a collection of my short plays that have been performed in New York between 2008-2015. Subjects range from charming strangers to brutal brotherhood, to the reincarnation of the first emperor in China, to a fatal marriage proposal in a plague, to the confession from a pair of boobs, to the euthanasia of a giraffe in Copenhagen.

Has being Chinese, being bilingual, or in New York influenced your writing?

Yes. Being a Chinese-Chinese definitely shapes my values, my aesthetics, my behaviors… almost everything about me. However, as a playwright, I never aimed at introducing “Chinese culture” to the American audience, or highlighted elements like Buddhism, traditional opera, factory girls, Qi Pao, panda, Kungfu, Silk Road, etc. in my plays, because I believe that whatever I write about, even without any “Chinese elements” mentioned, that Chinese part of me will always be reflected in the work. Our works are who we are.

Writing in two languages is an interesting experience. I’d been speaking/writing/dreaming in Chinese through my life until seven years ago when I first came to the US to as an MFA playwright candidate at Columbia University. I write much more smoothly in Chinese. However, the most fun part of being a playwright in America is writing in a second language. When I write in Chinese, I’m too conscious about every single word. But while writing in English, through the language barrier I focus more on the structure, the narrative, the image and the theme. And I found the great power in the simplest words. Surprisingly, my writing became more honest in an unfamiliar language. How interesting.

The theme of the release party and the RSVP process is quite cheeky. Tell us why you chose this theme for the night. What is the plight of “aliens of extraordinary ability” in the United States? What can be done to help artists?

The title of the book and the theme of the event “Alien of extraordinary ability” is an alien classification used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The United States may grant a non-immigrant visa to an alien who is able to demonstrate “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.”

I put together the book while I was endlessly collecting supporting materials and waiting in the limbo for this visa, called O-1. I was so lucky to have support from numerous peers, mentors, patrons, and friends in all kinds of ways. And I’m forever grateful.

But during that process, I also realized that even though O-1 is a mountain that almost every international artist in America has to climb over and over, it’s rarely heard of or understood in the wider community, as if the O-1 visa is a secret (and expensive) religion among the international artists, too boring, complicated and irrelevant to bring up in a conversation with any American. And that makes our visa applications and careers even harder. And gradually, the burden becomes a stigma, especially when an artist’s talent is not approved by the immigration office through their mechanical evaluation system.

I, myself, believe that an artist must stand up to the scrutiny of the audience, the critics, the market, and time, but not the immigration office. However, the immigration office does have the power to rate you and remove you from the American art and entertainment industries if they don’t find you extraordinary.

And that’s why art curator Gu Qianfan and I created this event. We wanted to make the book releasing party a tribute to our fellow international artists in America. In addition to the performances of immersive theater, short plays, music, interviews, and poems by me and other international artists, we also collected 40 photos of different international artists at work, and presented them at the event as a slideshow. We hoped to raise awareness about how common it is to apply for such a visa, what a vulnerable position that the current visa policy has put international artists in, and how important it is to support people who have to deal with this visa, because we are not strangers but part of the community.

The plight of “aliens of extraordinary ability” in the United States:

  1. The O-1 visa application and renewal procedures are extremely expensive, time-consuming, bureaucratic and mechanical.
  2. Most people don’t know what O-1 is. The O-1 application requires a huge amount of supporting materials, including a lot of letters of recommendations, deal memos, contracts, box office sale records, programs, reviews, press clips, translations, etc. And we have to acquire most of them through our co-workers, collaborators, employers, mentors, patrons, clients, friends, and even people we’ve never met. And sometimes people refuse to help simply because they have no idea what O-1 is and become too cautious once hear the words like “visa”, “immigration office”, or “lawyer”.
  3. Even once artists have been awarded visas, the law sets further obstacles to their careers by imposing limits on their incomes. Holders of artist visas are forbidden from working outside of the purview of their visas: for example, a writer can only receive income from writing. Whoever passed that law clearly never worked a day in theater in America. I don’t know how many theater artists you know who entirely live on their theater gigs, but I haven’t met many. I know a Broadway playwright who bartends, a Drama Desk Award nominee who waits tables, a Playwrights of New York Fellowship winner who tutors mathematics… It’s not that they are not extraordinary enough, but that the theater industry in America is just not that profitable compared to other industries, and theater artists are rarely paid on a long-term, steady basis. A law like this puts international artists in a very vulnerable position, forcing them to choose between living in poverty and working illegally, neither of which benefits anyone.
  4. O-1 holders have difficulty finding jobs because employers don’t want to deal with extra paper work. I know many director and actor friends lost golden career opportunities in the final rounds after the production companies or agents inquired about their immigration statuses. This is a discrimination that has been ignored by the laws and the public.

When I looked up Alien of Extraordinary Ability on Amazon, the page informed me that customers that viewed your book also viewed Kim Kardashian’s selfie photobook.  What do you make of this?

LOL. I have no idea. I’m surprised and flattered.

Kim Kardashian could certainly help bring attention to the immigration situation of international artists

Photos courtesy of Zhu Yi.