Ghost-busting Thai-American brothers take the stage

The cast rehearsing "The Brothers Paranormal." From left to right, Manual Cawaling, Kevin Lin, Selena Whitaker-Paquiet, Bob Williams and Mariko Kita. Not shown: Anna Saephan. Photo courtesy of Pork Filled Productions.
The cast rehearsing “The Brothers Paranormal.” From left to right, Manual Cawaling, Kevin Lin, Selena Whitaker-Paquiet, Bob Williams and Mariko Kita. Not shown: Anna Saephan. Photo courtesy of Pork Filled Productions.

About 25 people filled the aptly named Pocket Theater in Greenwood last Tuesday to watch a staged reading of “The Brothers Paranormal” by Thai-American playwright Prince Gomolvilas. Pork Filled Productions (PFP) brought Seattle this one-off reading directed by David Gassner just in time for the Halloween and Day of the Dead season.

In this play, based somewhere in the Midwestern U.S., there’s been an uptick in sightings of Asian-looking ghosts. Some believe it’s because more people are watching Asian horror movies, while others think it’s simply an issue of more Asian people dying in the U.S. A pair of Thai-American brothers, Max and Visarut, set out to investigate through their ghost-busting business. Soon, the audience learns that the brothers have the whole market for debunking Asian ghosts to themselves — and no clients, except one middle-aged African-American woman, Delia, and her husband, Felix, who have migrated from post-Katrina New Orleans.

The year is 2007, and Delia believes there is a ghost haunting her home, while her husband, Felix, wants to believe, but can’t see it. The Brothers Paranormal come to rescue with their ghost detection equipment. But after awhile, one begins to question who is alive, and who is a ghost. There’s a sleigh of hand in this play because the audience is tricked into thinking only the characters are struggling to see ghosts.

Roger Tang — PFP’s executive director, evangelist, and head cheerleader — watched attentively. Theater production companies such as PFP use stage readings to see how a live audience reacts and as a gauge for whether to mount a full production. He feels this play could be important for Seattle audiences.

“Seattle, like many other towns, too often have casts that are heavily white male; that’s not what Seattle is nowadays,” Tang writes in an email. “[This play] features Black people and Asian people in non-stereotyped roles (but where their background is essential for their story), and that’s just not seen that often.”

Still awaiting its first production, Tang said that this is Los Angeles-based playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ most recent play.  An eclectic artist, Gomolvilas is a playwright and screenwriter of all genres and the recipient of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Drama and the Julie Harris and Janet and Maxwell Salter playwright awards, among others. 

Screenshot of Prince Gomolvilas' Tedx talk, "Mind the Gap" at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif.
Screenshot of Prince Gomolvilas’ Tedx talk, “Mind the Gap” at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif.

Gomolvilas styles himself as the world’s only Thai-American playwright. This identity is evident in “The Brothers Paranormal,” as the only rich description of ghost lore is from Thai culture. We hear several Thai ghost stories and a long monologue that opens the second act describing the culture around gambling at Thai funerals, for example, as a way to help grieving families pay for expenses. With the African-American couple from New Orleans, there’s much that can be added from the many rich cultural influences intermixed in that city. That New Orleans is known for being America’s most haunted city signals there’s a rich heritage of ghost lore there to be mined, but the playwright missed this opportunity.

Because the featured ghost in this play acted with malice, it felt a bit Hollywood, which makes sense. Thai culture has a variety of vengeful ghosts, including Chao Kam Nai Wen, a ghost paying back a person’s wrongful deeds in life with ill will. A reference to this would have helped add cultural realism to the play.

Making a decision about whether to produce “The Brothers Paranormal is just one thing on Tang’s overfull plate. Tang and the Pork Filled Players,  a troupe known for its sketch comedy, was founded as a  counterweight to “Asian-American drama dominated by serious work on identity, generation clash and class struggle,” according to Tang.

“There was very little comedy or satirical work,” he remembers. “PFP was started to express the full range of the Asian-American creative voice. Now, with more and more writers coming on to the scene who are comfortable (and eager!) to present humor on stage, the group has grown and adjusted.”

But Tang’s influence is much larger than running a local company and sharing the humor of the Asian-American experience. He is also an important leader in the Asian-American theater community nationwide. A. Magazine called him the “godfather of Asian-American theater.” No surprise, then, that he is currently hard at work planning the fifth National Asian American Theater Festival and Conference (ConFest), which will run as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland next fall.

This will be the largest conference yet, and the first in partnership with a major institution like the OSF.

After all, “Asian-American theater shouldn’t be relegated to the ethnic slot in a theater’s developmental program,” said Tang. “Asian-American theatre should be part and parcel of a theatrical season.”

Case in point: “[A play] like ‘The Brothers Paranormal’ can be a ghost story just like any other ghost story out there.”

Catch PFP’s next staged reading of Kirk Shimano’s “Online Dating Tales of Old Japan,” directed by Brad Walker, on Thursday, Dec. 3. The reading begins at 6 p.m. at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. 

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