For Asian-American actors like Edu. Bernardino and Stan Kang, roles can sometimes be hard to come by.
Few area theaters feature works about Asian Americans, and those that do often recruit actors from New York or elsewhere to fill the big parts, they say. Both have found work with companies that cast across traditional ethnic lines, but they wanted broader opportunities.
"We decided it was time for us to tell our own stories," said Kang, a Korean American resident of Arlington.
So Asian Stories in America (ASIA), Northern Virginia's first pan-Asian company, was born.
Since the fledgling theater company was founded late last year, it has grown to 15 members, staged two readings of plays featuring Asian American actors and won a $3,500 grant from Arlington County.
ASIA will cross an even bigger threshold Tuesday, when its first full production opens at the Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City. "Big Hunk O' Burning Love," a comedy about a Thai man who must marry before age 30 to avoid a family curse, will run through Jan. 8.
The show will be the East Coast premiere for "Big Hunk," which was written by Thai American playwright Prince Gomolvilas and examines interracial relationships and cultural pressures.
"It's a huge undertaking for a small company," said Kang, 33, who is the group's managing director and director of "Big Hunk."
ASIA is a natural outgrowth of the Washington area's soaring population of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, company members say. More young Asian Americans are interested in drama, and the potential audience is growing as well. In the District, another pan-Asian company, Tsunami, had its first season last year. The Washington area is also home to a Filipino American company, QBd Ink.
In addition to staging readings and shows, ASIA also sponsors bimonthly dinners for Asian American theater artists. The brainchild of ASIA member Al Twanmo, of Cabin John, the dinner group has grown over the past six months to more than 30 members. They network, share gripes and learn from each other.
"There was a community of Asian actors, most of whom I did not know very well, and I realized that we might have some common issues both good and bad," said Twanmo, who is Chinese American and acts full time. "We've tried to expand it beyond a social gathering so that the more-experienced actors might help the less experienced in terms of contacts, who you need to talk to, whom not to bother talking to."
Bernardino, 36, added, "It would have been nice to have something like this when I started out." Bernardino also does costume design and has been acting off and on for most of his adult life. He and Kang are both members of Washington Shakespeare Company.
ASIA's founders say they are trying to stay realistic about the company's future.
"Our goal is to do two shows and not lose any money," said Kang, who also works as a defense contractor. "It's not entirely clear that there's going to be an audience for what we do."
Even if ASIA doesn't draw a huge audience, its members say, the company still can play an important role in developing the pool of Asian American artists. "We're trying to get people the chance to develop . . . so that the next time they go to an audition, they've been in a show somewhere and they have that experience to draw on," Kang said.
But company members hope to find a firm base of support in the Asian American community. Bernardino, the company's Filipino American artistic director, has sent e-mail about the upcoming show to Asian community groups and to Thai student groups as far away as Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Radford University in Radford, Va.
Eventually, he said, the group hopes to find plays that would attract Northern Virginia's large Vietnamese community.
"The Vietnamese community is one we want to come see our shows but we have yet to find the right piece," said Bernardino, who has been the driving force behind ASIA since its inception.
Meanwhile, putting on "Big Hunk" has already forced group members to think seriously about their efforts to be ethnically authentic. Five of the characters are Thai, but the cast is pan-Asian.
"When Edu. called, I asked, 'Is it okay for me to play a Thai woman? I don't really look the part,' " said cast member Miyuki Williams, a District resident who is half Japanese and half African American. "We're doing this sincerely from the heart and we don't want to insult anybody."
CAPTION: Michelle T. Hall rehearses for the first performance of "Big Hunk O' Burning Love."
CAPTION: Richard Dorton, left, Sam Kearney and Edu. Bernardino rehearse "Big Hunk O' Burning Love," a production of Asian Stories in America.
CAPTION: Cast members rehearse for "Big Hunk O' Burning Love," the inaugural production of ASIA, Northern Virginia's pan-Asian theater company.