Our life stories make great stage plays and Rebecca Chan ’22 has a chance to share her story with us all. Her self-written coming-of-age story, Unzipped, is a part of the Festival Playhouse of Kalamazoo College’s Senior Performance Series.
The production, complete with monologues and Chan’s own music, explores the perception of East Asians in the United States and her experiences as a queer Chinese American. Unzipped takes aim at a common racial slur used against Asian Americans and refers to Chan’s life of unpacking and discovering her identity.
“I’d say in the past few years there has been a lot more representation of Asian Americans, and like myself, mixed Asian Americans,” Chan said. “But I find a lot of media has characters who maybe have one white parent and one Asian parent like myself, and the racial experience of that existence is brushed over. A lot of my life has been me questioning my racial identity, trying to understand it and what it means, so I wanted to write a show very specifically about that experience.”
Chan, a theatre major, has participated in Festival Playhouse productions and events since her first year on campus. In 2019, she was selected for the week-long Kennedy Center American College Theatre National Festival in Washington, D.C., where she was one of four students from around the country to participate in its Institute for Theatre Journalism Advocacy (ITJA) events; another one of her self-written plays, Record, was featured at Theatre Kalamazoo’s 10th annual New PlayFest in February 2020; and she earned the Theatre Arts First-Year Student Award at Honors Convocation in 2019.
Unzipped, however, represents her senior integrated project. She had a chance to write the play as an independent study during the spring term of her junior year while taking an advanced playwriting class taught by then-Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts “C” Heaps. Since, Chan has been calculating the details of the acting process.
“It’s been tricky because I want to be emotionally invested in the show, but I don’t want to carry so much of the emotions that it weighs me down,” Chan said. “It’s a very careful balance of being in the moment of the show and knowing I’m telling the story how I need to tell it.”
The production’s storytelling process includes projected pictures of Chan’s own childhood and picks up with her in high school.
“I talk about different high school relationships and how I understood myself, and as I get into college, how those experiences changed my perception of who I am,” she said. “There are two big plot points: my relationship with my family, like with my grandmother and my dad and how those evolved over the course of my life, and my relationships in college. There’s a lot of weaving and intersecting of how my perception of my family influences how I interact with my friends, and then how things I realized for my friends influenced how I think about my family.”
Chan wrote the music for Unzipped over two years and has added new songs to fill in the gaps.
“I started writing the music before I even knew I wanted to make the show,” Chan said. “I was always interested in it, but in high school, I felt very nervous about it. I didn’t think I had a good enough voice to sing on my own or had enough knowledge of music to produce something people would want to listen to. But starting my sophomore year, I got back in touch with the piano and started picking up the ukulele. I would just write little songs as I was going through life. It was a coping mechanism that helped me process what I was going through in the big events of my life. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time recording demos of the songs so I could share them with whoever would be playing in my band. Luckily, I was able to find five musicians who were available for the show. Four of which are current students and one a recent alumna.”
Milan Levy ’23 is the director and Angela Mammel ’22 designed the set and projections for their senior integrated projects. Attendees should be aware the play contains racial violence and language. Tickets for the in-person performance of Unzipped, at 129 Thompson St. in the Nelda K. Balch Theatre, and the virtual show are available online. In-person presentations start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. The virtual broadcast is at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to be unapologetic in who I am,” Chan said. “I think I spent a lot of time trying to make my focus educating other people or changing the world around me. While those are important things to strive for and do, I think the core of my existence should be living for myself and not living to change others who might not be willing to change.”