Pop-rock poetry musical brings queer Asian-American perspectives to the Mixed Blood stage

(l-r) Kai Alexander Judd, Zeniba Now, and Rose Van Dyne in rehearsal for “Interstate” // Photo by Tony Saunders

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, with Li performing as a singer-songwriter and Yan as a spoken word poet.

In the dressing room, Kit said to Melissa, “What do you think about quitting your job and going on tour with me?” Melissa responded, “I don’t really know you that well, but let’s do it!” Their cross-country tour planted the seeds for Interstate, a semi-autobiographical musical, that premieres on March 6 as the opener of Mixed Blood Theatre’s 44th season. 

Existing in some form since 2012, Interstate is billed as an Asian-American pop-rock poetry musical. The show follows two trans people at different stages of their journeys, navigating love, family, masculinity, and finding community in the era of social media. 

Two best friends, Dash, a transgender spoken work performer, and Adrian, a lesbian singer-songwriter, tour the country as an activist band called Queer Malady. They encounter Henry, a young South Asian boy figuring out his own identities. The show is about a parallel track between Henry and Dash—and the ways they intersect with and learn from each other.

Kit and Melissa were kind enough to talk with Twin Cities Pride Magazine about life on the road as told through their queer Asian-American lenses.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interstate is based on your experiences together as a band. What was touring around the country like?

Kit: Our first tour was three months long and it went really well. We sort of naively had the mission to go out and change the world and meet more people like us—more queers, more Asians, more trans people—so then we went out and did that for three straight months. It went so long that we did it for another year and a half full-time and we just kept driving around the country touring.

After about two years, your touring act broke up for a while and you stopped touring together. Why was that?

Melissa: I think it was being the representation for people like us. There weren’t a lot at the time, to be honest, of queer Asians who were out there and being activists and being out and all of that. So I think we felt a lot of pressure to have to keep going even when we didn’t want to.

Kit: We would talk to people or media and they would be like “you are the only ones we know” and just because we are the only once they know doesn’t mean that you are the only ones, but being made to feel like you are the only ones make you feel lonely at times.

“Interstate” Director Jesca Prudencio at Mixed Blood Theatre // Photo by Tony Saunders

As you traveled, how was it connecting with all the queer communities across the country?

Kit: We would go somewhere where you wouldn’t ever think that there was a thriving community of queer folks or folks of color just organizing and making art and doing their own thing. I always remember I went to this trans pool party in Nebraska outside of Lincoln and they had all of these trans folks just being themselves. I felt so inspired by that. I just could not imagine just swimming with a bunch of people feeling free in my body at that time.

How does fighting racism, patriarchy, and systematic oppression show up in the band’s music in Interstate?

Kit: They are an activist band, so they will go out an perform a song that is called something like “Not My Gay Pride,” which is a critique on capitalism and the commercialization of pride—they will call it out. They will go out and do a song called “White Eyes” and talk about racism. They lead with that in their art and it gets a lot of pushback in person and online.

Interstate takes place right around 2008 when social media was taking off. What role does social media play in the piece?

Melissa: It’s the voice of the fans who want them to be a certain way we expect. It’s also the voice of trolls of people who are just the ugliest people out there that are saying things that hit on your deepest insecurities as queer people and people of color. And then there is also real people, and I think that this is the third piece of social media in our show—there are genuine, real, multi-dimensional people that exist behind the screens.

Kit: For Henry, our trans character in Kentucky, social media is the lifeline for him. It’s his way of connecting with other people, of seeing art, of traveling when he can’t physically.

Some conceptions of fame promote being your authentic self in spite of oppressive forces. Other versions of fame look more like people conforming to the masses in efforts to commodify their output. How are these differing conceptions of authentic self-expression and conforming to others handled by the band in Interstate?

Melissa: There are two characters in the band: Dash and Adrian. There is a fundamental disagreement with Dash saying, “I don’t care about anyone else. This is our message, and this is for our fans and you either get it or you don’t.” Adrian is saying, “Let’s try to go mainstream because then we can have a bigger effect for more people.” There is that friction that we explore.

Kit: Exploring toxic masculinity is a huge part of the show and seeing that perpetuated by a trans person is a really powerful lesson. When Henry finds out about the band, he’s not meeting the real-life Dash. He’s seeing the celebrity version of Dash. Behind the scenes, Dash is a highly flawed trans person and he makes so many mistakes. Just because he has transitioned from being a trans person to a trans masculine person in this world doesn’t mean that he needs to perpetuate the oppression of men.

(l-r) Kai Alexander Judd and Zeniba Now // Photo by Tony Saunders

Interstate runs March 6 through 29 at Mixed Blood Theatre.