Swiffers and firebending take center stage in ‘The Ember Island Players’

Courtesy of Michelle Kang ’21.

Fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” will remember “The Ember Island Players,” an episode where Aang and his friends are forced to sit through a play reenactment of the series’ main events. The episode is loaded with meta-humor, jabbing references to past episodes, production issues and fan reactions—all with comically horrid acting and character designs that repulse even the Gaang itself. Now enter an upcoming production of “The Ember Island Players,” a tribute to the iconic television series but with a Vassar student twist. In this play, Aang runs around with a Swiffer and benders throw red and blue dodgeballs at each other from across the stage. It’s “gloriously low quality,” as show manager Michelle Kang ’21 explained, but also gives Asian and indigenous students a chance to have a spotlight on campus.

The script of Vassar’s “The Ember Island Players” is the brainchild of director Maddie Louie ’22, who thought of the idea back in her freshman year after getting inspiration from “The Nightman Cometh” from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and the Philaletheis Society’s production of “Wicker,” a parody of the Broadway musical “Wicked.” Louie shared the idea with Kang, and the two of them began brainstorming ideas on a Google Doc. “And then we left it,” Kang said. “For a full year. We didn’t think about actually going through with putting it on, but after the recent resurgence of Avatar during quarantine, one of the other members of the Phil board suggested it, perhaps half-jokingly, and we thought it would be a great idea to finally actualize our plans.”

Writing the script was a multi-week endeavor, according to Louie. “I took what little content of [the Ember Island Players] that was shown, looked at a synopsis of the [episode], decided what I could cut, and went from there,” she explained. “And then [I] built the show to the best of my ability around that play. I didn’t get to keep everything that I wanted to keep, and it’s not going to be nearly as intricate as the original TV series, but I do think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and that was my main goal.”

Once the script was finished, Louie and Kang began looking for actors. Actors with no prior theater experience or who hadn’t seen Avatar were all welcomed to audition, though Louie and Kang specifically requested actors of Asian and/or indigenous descent. During the auditions, they asked a few questions about the actors’ theater background and Avatar familiarity, then read through a few lines with the actors for specific characters. “Going into auditions, we were stressed out of our minds,” Louie recalled. “But after the first audition, we realized we were going to be okay. Especially since we ended most of the auditions with them yelling ‘My cabbages!’”

Jay Chiu ’23, who plays Zuko, auditioned for the play after missing his own experience in high school theater. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in a theater production at Vassar but never really had the time in my schedule. This was the perfect opportunity for me to try theater again in a fun and low-stress environment,” he said. As Chiu hadn’t seen Avatar episodes aside from “The Ember Island Players,” he did not have a specific role he wanted going into auditions. But he described the audition process as very welcoming. “I was very open to trying things out,” Chiu stated. “I read lines for Zuko, Iroh (Zuko’s uncle), and the cabbage man. I would talk with the director and producer of the show before each scene to try to understand each character before reading the lines. Both [Louie and Kang] were very supportive throughout the process.”  

Currently, Louie and Kang are running rehearsals with the actors before the play’s one-night performance on April 30. Rather than a typical session [of rehearsal], we have a typical week set up,” Louie explained. “The week starts by blocking an entire book. In the middle of the week, we get the necessary cast members with our fight choreographer, Sam Fujikawa ’22, and teach them all of the fight choreography that we skipped in the previous blocking. At the end of the week, we bring it all together.”

Although a lot of hard work is put into the rehearsals, Kiran Rudra ’24, who plays Aang, described the atmosphere as fun and light-hearted. In particular, Rudra enjoys learning the fight choreography for each rehearsal. “I like how into it everyone gets. Everyone does really well in their roles and we had a lot of fun learning the moves,” they said, adding, “[There is] also a lot of our ad-libbing in rehearsal [that] is always fun. Sometimes, [Weipeng Xie ’21, who plays Iroh] ad-libs [some] proverbs that are always bound to get the whole room laughing.”

The play will also feature many props, including a three-dimensional rock for actors to hide under, a fire nation ship and a cabbage cart built around one of the shopping carts in the Philaletheis Society’s closet. Almost all the props are made of cardboard, but to keep up with the silliness of the play, certain props are intentionally quite ridiculous, such as the aforementioned Swiffer Aang uses in place of his staff.

As for the costumes, Kang explained that she wanted to take a different approach to the play’s imperfective nature. “We still wanted to honor that the original TV series was heavily influenced by Asian and Indigenous cultures,” Kang emphasized. “[So] we asked our cast members if they were interested in having their own culture reflected in their characters’ clothing, even if it isn’t accurate to the show.”

For Louie and Kang, producing the play meant tackling certain questions about representation posed by Avatar. Kang said, “As people of Asian descent, we wanted to honor the Asian and Indigenous influences of the original show. With the recent popularity of Avatar, my Asian friends and I have seen it undergo a lot of cultural erasure from its fans, such as fan art of the characters depicting them as non-Asian. This is hurtful, even if they aren’t depicted as white because Asian representation in media is minimal enough as it is … Maddie and I were also cautious about casting this show because theater is very white, especially at Vassar.”

Chiu also made note of the representation of theater, stating: “Asian and Indigenous actors are heavily underrepresented in theater. There are not many roles that fit us in conventional theater productions and if there are roles written for Asian characters, they are usually presented as sidekicks and used for comedic relief.”

He continued,  “[The characters in Avatar] are based on Asian and Indigenous cultures, which makes it even more crucial that we present these characters in an appropriate way.”

Yet Avatar’s representation of Asian and Indigenous characters still carries some flaws. “I think ATLA and LoK succeeded at helping a lot of young kids of color see themselves on screen,” said Rudra. “However, it’s frustrating to me that despite the fact that many ideas from Avatar come from Hinduism, there is only one South Asian character, Guru Pathik, who is a stereotype of a Hindu guru and speaks with a comedic Indian accent. And he’s voiced by someone who isn’t even Indian. [The concept of] Avatar comes from Sanskrit, and it’s a concept from Hinduism relating to the human incarnations of deities. I feel as though [Avatar] fell short in terms of South Asian representation.”

In regards to representation, Kang expressed: “I will say that given how large Asia is and how many rich Asian cultures exist, it would be difficult for any one show to be perfectly representative. I think this is also a statement of how little Asian representation exists in the media that people of various Asian backgrounds are looking towards this one non-encapsulating show for representation.”

Rudra believes, however, that Vassar’s production of “The Ember Island Players” is heading in the right direction in terms of representation. “I feel like, as a Hindu playing the Avatar, it’s a good step,” they remarked. “I also feel [that because I am] frequently around other Asian students, this play has become a safe haven for me. Not only is it a group of people who are fun to be around, but there is a kind of collective effervescence that comes with a group of POC being together at a predominantly white institution. It’s just the kind of thing where we all know we’re laughing with each other, not at each other.”

“The Ember Island Players” will take the stage April 30 at 6 p.m. Louie and Kang are currently examining if an in-person audience will be possible, but have said that a recording will be available for those interested. “We’ve had people reach out to us expressing their excitement that we’re putting on this show,” both of them said, “so thank you for your support and we hope that you will watch and enjoy it!” 

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