What do Diversity, an Ancient Chinese Folktale and Feminism Have in Common? "The Monkey King"

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Alex Chester

There’s a new king (or queen) of the jungle, and it’s a Monkey. Wife and Husband duo Kimbirdlee and Jonathan Fadner are bringing an ancient tale to life with a beautiful diverse cast. 

Directed by Steven Eng of NAAP (National Asian Artist Project), The Monkey King will be playing on Roosevelt Island this coming weekend and then for one day only at Queens Theatre. 

 (Kimbirdlee & Jonathan Fader)

(Kimbirdlee & Jonathan Fader)

Kimbirdlee is a woman of many talents and she not only co-wrote this show, but she is also starring in it as well. She’s a busy boss lady and was awesome enough to take some time and answer a few of my questions about this new work. 

What is the myth of The Monkey King? Where does it find its origins?

The myth of The Monkey King comes from a Chinese epic novel from the 1600s entitled Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en.  Journey to the West has 100 chapters that can be divided into four unequal parts. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, appears in the first part.  Monkey King is born from a stone with a mischievous, irrepressible drive to master all things earthly and heavenly.  He helps liberate his tribe from the Demon of Havoc by fighting the demon, the deities, and even the powerful Jade Emperor.  Monkey King eventually gets himself imprisoned by Buddha himself, under a rock for a long long time (some say 500 yrs, some say 10,000).  There are many mythical and beloved characters in Journey to the West, but The Monkey King has become a favorite for generations and across cultures and has appeared in literature, film, comics, and movies… but never before has he appeared as a GIRL!!! 

How have you reinvented this classic tale and made it accessible to today's audiences, meanwhile maintaining the integrity of the story?

First, a little background on how we came about picking this story: My husband and I used to read this book to our first son, Jack when he was a baby.  We both thought this story was fascinating and would make a good musical, even before we thought of our modern take on the main character being a girl.  When we were commissioned to write a new show for the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance Children’s Theatre program for 2017-18 we thought it would be a good opportunity to write about current issues. We wanted to write something to make the kids ask real questions about society today and still be fun. We also wanted to make a strong Asian female role in musical theatre.  Also, we wanted to ask the question: “How do we see it as a society when a woman fights her way to the top as opposed to a man?” As for maintaining the integrity of the original tale, Monkey King still faces the Demon of Havoc, the Immortal Teacher, Dragon King of the Sea and Jade Emperor, meets Guan Yin, and visits familiar places such as Flower Fruit Mountain, the School for Immortals, the Dragon of the Sea’s palace, and the Heavenly Peach Orchard.  Our Monkey King follows a very similar journey as the original Sun Wukong, but each step of the way has to deal with the backlash of being a woman instead of a man. 

What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing this production?

Our Monkey King looks at current issues of gender equality, social conditioning, and oppression in the eye with humor and music.  Musical theatre is such a great mode of expression that can speak to young and old alike in a language that is fun and spirited.  It can really get to the heart of a matter in a way that an audience can easily absorb and hopefully fall in love with.  I want folks to remember our message while singing the songs throughout their day.  I want them to quote our Monkey King characters when moments arise and to laugh A LOT.  But most importantly, to reflect on their own position in life and ask themselves if they are ready to fight for what they want this world to be — not violently fight, but stand up for themselves and stick up for others.  This musical is directed toward girls and women, minorities and oppressed populations, and really anyone who doubts that they can be just as powerful and strong as the men that have historically held up our society, while also having compassion and love for humanity.   

As a woman of color, specifically mixed-Asian, how has this influenced your writing and how has it shaped the development of characters for you as an actor?

This show addresses several societal issues of today’s world, two of which stand out in importance to me as an Asian woman and a female actor.  

It’s no secret that there is a lack of good roles for Asian actors, not to mention women in general. The Monkey King addresses this problem through the show’s message and also the amazing fact that the leading role is a strong ASIAN FEMALE! YAY!!!

I grew up with very supportive parents.  When I saw other girls and women playing roles that I dreamed up playing, my dad (an American-born German retired doctor and musician from Wisconsin) would always tell me that I’m just as good and just as beautiful as them.  My mom (an American born Chinese artist from San Francisco) often questioned why I didn’t get the opportunities that others had. Of course, I wondered this too, with that inner voice telling me that I just wasn’t good enough. It’s taken me years to figure out that stereotypes are REAL and LIMITING!  That I’ve been barking up the wrong tree and knocking on the wrong doors.  Even though I am half-Chinese, I grew up in white suburbia (Wisconsin) and my identity has reflected that upbringing.  So, when I entered the professional theatre world, I was faced with an identity crisis even though I felt confident of who I was and what I wanted to do in life!  The team I have around me for The Monkey King is a dream come true and I am SO grateful to them all!  It’s just the beginning to know that you are awesome.  Girls and women will only be able to rise above and be their best selves if they have relationships and community that support this.  

I’ve been inspired by the social climate, the #metoo movement, and the courage that many women have had to speak out against mistreatment. The putting of women in their place happens on so many levels, from the subtle to the criminal. We must stop this and redirect its cultural acceptance. In the past 2 years, I have been given opportunities that I never thought possible - I am now the artistic director of Common Man Musicals (a musical theatre company), the Assistant Executive Director of a non-profit performing arts company (MST&DA), and a leader in my community.  I had the amazing chance to play John Adams in 1776 when director Jacqueline Lucid offered me this role and saw it as a way to speak up about gender equality issues which was incredibly empowering.  

I also work with children of all ages as a musical theatre educator and director.  Through conversations and classes with the kids, I learned that these important current issues are in the minds of our youth just as much as the grown-ups.  Who is “stronger” male vs. female, is ingrained in kids’ brains at a very young age. Getting the kids to talk about this was very rewarding.  It is crucial to create empowerment through the arts for our children and our future women leaders. The Monkey King presents answers to these problems in a super fun way.  I directed the Youth Version with the MST&DA kids, and we had a BLAST!!!

Tell me about your theatre company, Common Man Musicals, how did it start? What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?  

 Kimbirdlee Photo by Irina Hage

Kimbirdlee Photo by Irina Hage

Jonathan and I launched Common Man Musicals in June of 2016, in cahoots with Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance.  Specifically, MST&DA Executive Director, Kristi Towey, agreed to donate a rehearsal and performance space to us through her non-profit performing arts company.  We wanted to offer high quality new musical theatre works in a welcoming and easy-going environment.  It is truly a grassroots operation and we count on our close friends and family, as well as our extremely talented cohorts who have helped us produce several successful shows in the last two years!  We have had great audiences and so much support from the Roosevelt Island community and beyond.  We have continued to grow since we started and are very excited about this!  Many positive things have developed because of this initial generous gesture by Kristi to support our dream to create new musical theatre for “common folk”.  We have produced two full-length musicals and three cabarets of new music by Jonathan and many of our musical theatre colleagues.  The Monkey King is definitely my favorite project to date.  It is very dear to my heart for many reasons, including the fact that we wrote it together, it comes from my Chinese background, and it stars a FEMALE ASIAN actress!!!  We have also established a strong bond with National Asian Artist Project, of which I and Jonathan are both members, and work consistently with Steven Eng (NAAP co-founder, Director and Actor).  Since Common Man Musicals began, I also became the Assistant Executive Director of MST&DA. This shows what a strong partnership and a sense of community CMM strives for!

What’s next for The Monkey King?

Following our one weekend run on Roosevelt Island at the Howe Theatre, we will be performing at Queens Theatre. We were very fortunate to receive a 2018 New Works Grant from the Queens Council on the Arts, which gave us the opportunity to produce our show in Queens.  We are excited to offer our show as a free community event at Queens Theatre on August 12th at 2 pm.  We will be recording demos later this summer as well.  

Beyond these scheduled performances, who knows?  

I would love to see this show on Broadway someday, of course!  I also envision it as a fully produced show for schools groups to come see.  I go on many of the school field trips now that my son is in 1st grade and think that this show would totally work as a field trip kind of a show.  Maybe we can do this at Queens Theatre in the future!  

I hope that people who see our show can imagine a life for this show on larger stages for a wide audience and want to follow us on the journey of The Monkey King.  Creating original musicals takes lots of time, energy, a little money, and a community who supports us along the way!  We could never do this without the help of our supportive community.

We humbly accept tax-free donations and thank you all for supporting our brave little theatre company!!   FRACTURED ATLAS: THE MONKEY KING

TICKETS FOR ROOSEVELT ISLAND ARE AVAILABLE HERE: EVENTBRITE: THE MONKEY KING

INFO FOR QUEENS THEATRE HERE: QUEENS THEATRE: THE MONKEY KING

Thank you so much Kimbirdlee. I can’t wait to see your show! Special shoutout to the amazing Rebecca Lee Lerman for making this interview possible.