A Playwright Has a Message: Anti-Asian Hate Isn’t New

On Sunday afternoon, a pigeon flew through a performance of “Covid Crime,” a one-act play taking place at a Manhattan intersection, where yellow taxis whizzed by against the backdrop of a halal food cart.

The show, written by Lionelle Hamanaka and directed by Howard Pflanzer, was unfolding in Richard Tucker Park, a tiny cobblestone triangle on the Upper West Side. It was more of a reading than a staging — its seven actors sat in metal folding chairs, as did the audience of about 50 people.

“I saw this TV coverage of a woman being assaulted on a bus with an umbrella. She was an older woman, an older Asian American,” Hamanaka said last week, before the play. “I thought it would be interesting to see how the community’s affected by it. Because we see the outside story, but we don’t necessarily see every case.”

At the start of the pandemic, the coalition Stop AAPI Hate — AAPI stands for Asian American Pacific Islander — formed and began its own tally of such attacks. From March 19, 2020 to June 30, 2021, the group received 9,081 reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans across the United States. That number was not just a mere statistic to Hamanaka, who is Japanese American.

“My parents were in the concentration camps, and of course that caused a great deal of hardship for our family,” she said, referring to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “My grandparents both had businesses, and they had to sell them in one week. They had to pack up all their things and leave. And that leaves a scar in your mind.”

So Hamanaka, a playwright and onetime jazz singer who describes herself as a senior, funneled her frustration into art. She’s written a series of plays about Covid-19, including “Covid 10,366,” about the April 2020 spike in Covid-19 deaths, and “The Spitter,” about a supermarket dispute over mask wearing. But this is the first time she has addressed the recent rise in anti-Asian American hate crimes in her work.

Hamanaka noticed that much of the organizing surrounding the #StopAsianHate movement in New York was taking place in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where about 33 percent of the population identified as Asian in 2019, according to the N.Y.U. Furman Center, which studies housing and urban policy.

She wanted to bring the movement to her neighborhood, the Upper West Side, where about 10 percent of the population identified as Asian. “Then the people who are there have to look around and look at Asian Americans in a slightly different way,” Hamanaka said. “‘Like, ‘Have I excluded them? Do I treat them as a foreigner?’”

“Covid Crime” was presented by Crossways Theater, a group formed in 2018 by Hamanaka and Pflanzer. It aims to develop playwrights that reflect the diversity of their neighborhood.

“The idea is to bring the audience closer to these issues,” said Pflanzer, 77. “Get them to engage and participate in understanding and being aware of this very important issue of anti-Asian hate in our communities.”

In the play, the character Dr. Leo Chan (John Bernos) arrives home from a shift at Bellevue Hospital. He lives with his mother, Chunhua (Hamanaka), who is asleep on the couch in the living room.

“It’s just me, Ma,” Leo says. Chunhua grunts, and he notices a bandage on her head.

“What’s that?” he asks. “What happened?”

“Woman hit me with umbrella,” Chunhua says.

“Where?” Leo asks.

“On a bus,” Chunhua replies. “She say I bring Chinese virus to New York. Now everybody dying.”

Bernos, a Filipino American actor from Ann Arbor, Mich., drove nine hours to New York for “Covid Crime.” After the performance, an audience member asked him about the hardest part of the role.

“I’ve had my share of having a person tell me to go back to China,” Bernos said. “It wasn’t cool. So I think the hardest part is having to dig back into that memory and face that again. It’s always tough.”

Though the play revolves around Chunhua’s assault, it also features Dylan Omori McCombs as Corky Lee, the only character in the play based explicitly on a real person. Lee was a Chinese American photographer, journalist and activist from Queens. (He died in January at age 73 after Covid-19 complications.)

“The sad part is that, the more I researched him as much as I could, the more I really wished that he was someone that I had learned about in my history textbooks,” said McCombs, wearing a hoodie that read “Not Your Model Minority.” “He obviously is of the caliber of someone that would be very much worthy of that.”

“Covid Crime” ends on a rally set in Chinatown’s Columbus Park.

“We’re here today because of the attacks against Asian Americans,” Lee says. “That’s been news in the pandemic, and the news is my business. My photos are proof that we exist — that we do a lot of things.”

The performance was followed by a community forum. Shirley Ng, a community organizer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Jacqueline Wang, the head of marketing and communications at Welcome to Chinatown, both spoke to the small crowd.

“Just like the play, many seniors will come home and not know what to do,” Ng said. “They could’ve gone to the police precinct or called 911, but there’s always this fear that they may get turned away, because they don’t have someone who speaks their language, or there’s just this fear of stepping in and not knowing — what is the process?”

The fund, a 47-year-old national organization based in New York, works to protect and promote the civil rights of Asian Americans — including encouraging seniors to report any hate crimes that may occur. Welcome to Chinatown, founded last year, is a grass roots initiative that supports Chinatown’s businesses and amplifies its voices.

“Another thing covered by this play is that, when you don’t know someone — you don’t look like them, you don’t speak their language, you don’t know their culture, you don’t eat the same things — it’s really easy to just label them as ‘other,’” Wang said. “That’s something not new to the pandemic, but something that was exacerbated and highlighted.”

In the last act of “Covid Crime,” Dr. Leo Chan speaks a common Chinese phrase. “We have a saying, ‘Swallow bitterness.’ Leave that behind. Won’t work these days!”

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