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New pop-rock poetry musical shines a spotlight on queer Asian-Americans

"Interstate" is one of 12 productions taking part in the 2018 New York Musical Festival.
Image: Kit Yan and Melissa Li
Kit Yan and Melissa Li.Grace Naw

Melissa Li and Kit Yan became friends more than 10 years ago. They met while performing together at a queer Asian-American cabaret in Boston, where Li performed as a singer-songwriter and Yan as a spoken word performer.

It was during these early performances that Yan, who is transgender, got the idea of performing together on the road, and bringing their queer Asian-American perspectives to other communities across the country.

“Backstage one day I was saying to [Li], ‘What do you think about quitting our jobs and getting in a little compact car and going on the road, and bringing what we’re doing in the [cabaret] out to wherever we’re going,” Yan told NBC News.

Kit YanGrace Naw

Li thought it was a good idea, and the two formed the band Good Asian Drivers. They then set off on a cross-country tour in 2008 and performed together in cafes and small venues across the United States, seeking out other queer communities.

It was this cross-country tour that inspired the story for their new musical, “Interstate,” which is one of 12 productions taking part in the 2018 New York Musical Festival.

Described as an Asian-American, pop-rock poetry musical, “Interstate” tells the story of two transgender people at different stages of their journey, as they navigate love, family and masculinity while finding community in the age of social media.

“It’s definitely a queer, Asian, trans story which is one that is rarely seen,” Yan said, noting that the musical is written about and by queer and transgender people.

Li and Yan have been developing “Interstate” together since 2012, with the book and lyrics being written by both Li and Yan, and Li credited with writing the music. Jessi D. Hill is directing the production, with choreography by Jessica Chan and musical direction by Karen Dryer.

The cast and crew of "Interstate"Shani Hadjian

The story follows the character of Dash, a transgender spoken word performer, as he goes on a cross-country tour with his best friend, Adrian, a lesbian singer-songwriter, for their internet-famous activist band.

Modeled after their own cross-country tour with “Good Asian Drivers,” both Li and Yan said it has been interesting to watch the story develop from something that was once more autobiographical into something that is now more creative.

“I think the most fascinating thing about doing a story that’s kind of autobiographical is that the further it is from us is actually the more interesting it is,” Li said.

Important to the story of “Interstate” is the character of Henry, described as a transgender teenage boy living in a small town in Middle America who finds solace in the art and performances of the characters of Dash and Adrian.

“Henry is a creation, but it’s a creation based out of people we met on the road,” Li said. “I think what was eye opening for us was meeting people who were saying, ‘Oh, I have not seen another queer Asian like me. I didn’t know you guys were out there.’”

In fact, one of the central themes of “Interstate” is the internet’s ability to help form communities — especially queer communities — which Yan said was part of the catalyst for going on tour with “Good Asian Drivers” in the first place back in 2008.

“We were primarily concerned with being in communities with other queer Asians at that time,” Yan said. “It was way harder to find each other. Just the difference between now if you want to find community, maybe you could be on Tumblr, but back then you had to be on a secret forum.”

Melissa LiGrace Naw

As creators and artists, Li and Yan see “Interstate” as a way to ensure queer Asian-American stories are told in an authentic way.

“We think that art is a great way to reflect our lives and tell our stories and that visibility is essentially a vehicle for change,” Li said.

Yan agrees, and said in developing “Interstate” not only have they created a story, but also a community.

“The actors in the room, the crew, different folks that we work with. Now that we’re working on something that has a larger community, there are just more folks at the table, and we can be in conversation and community and more accountable to ourselves, our artwork and each other,” Yan said.

Both Li and Yan credit the community support they have received over the years for the development of “Interstate,” and they are dedicating their summer run of the musical to Asian-American poet Fay Chiang, who passed away last year at 65. Li and Yan said Chiang was a tireless supporter of their work.

Li and Yan, who are now based in New York City, hope that one day “Interstate” will make its way to Broadway. For the time being, however, they said they'll will be content if people simply leave the show humming the songs they hear while watching the production.

“If [the audience] walks away and remembers the lyrics to the songs or a line from the show, those lines are really important,” Yan said. “The [lyrics and lines] are really reflective of the things we’re trying to create in this world, which is what the characters are singing about — their freedom, their love, their relationships and their families.”

"Interstate" will be performed at the New York Musical Festival from July 9 through July 15.