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Asian-American Artists Come Together to Sing Their Stories

Curtain call from the 2013 debut performance featuring writers and singers of the Asian American Composers & Lyricists Pro

Curtain call from the 2013 debut performance featuring writers and singers of the Asian American Composers & Lyricists Project. Eric Bondoc

A fixture in New York’s Asian-American theater scene, actress Christine Toy Johnson says she is often taken aback when people don’t seem to realize that there is a vibrant community of artists out there -- if they know where to look.

“As I’ve done advocacy across the country, I’ve had people ask ‘Where are the Asian-American writers and actors?’” says Johnson. “As I’ve been doing this my entire adult life, it baffles me. We are all over the country and we are telling our stories with authenticity.”

Ann Harada during the inaugural 2013 performance.
Ann Harada during the inaugural 2013 performance. Eric Bondoc

These conversations got Johnson thinking about how she can help make her fellow Asian-American artists more visible. A founder of the the Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project, Johnson is currently hard at work putting together "Arriving In Asian America," a new song cycle debuting this week at Symphony Space in New York City. The lyrics and music were composed by more than a dozen members of the project, including Johnson herself.

Johnson says she deliberately gave her collaborators a broad theme to work with.

“Here’s what I said to them,” Johnson recalls. “‘I want you to write about what arriving in Asian America means to you.’” The result was an eclectic display of wide-ranging stories.

“I go to these auditions and I see that there are so many artists and not enough roles being created for them."

This week's performance is emceed by Ann Harada, who is currently performing on Broadway as one of the stepsisters in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Part of the reason she wanted to be involved in the project, says Harada, is because of the nature of working in theater.

“There was something about having the community doing this project together that was really appealing,” she explains. “Lots of times, if you are in a show, you feel kind of isolated. It’s really good to know that there is a community out there.”

One of the strengths of knows and participating in a community of artists, those involved say, is that it’s important for young artists and composers to have mentors and others to brainstorm and share ideas.

“I go to these auditions and I see that there are so many artists and not enough roles being created for them,” says actor Raymond Lee, who will be singing three songs during the show. Lee is currently in rehearsals for the upcoming show “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which will star Tony Danza.

“The older I get, the more I want to pay it forward,” Lee continues. “I never want people to have to figure out everything on their own and learn the hard way.”

Left to Right: Raymond J. Lee, Ann Sanders, Telly Leung, Christine Toy Johnson
Left to Right: Raymond J. Lee, Ann Sanders, Telly Leung, Christine Toy Johnson Eric Bondoc