Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wannapa P. Eubanks: actor in The Small, Dark Room

Thai native Wannapa P. Eubanks first arrived in the States in 1998. Back home, she had a career in commercial production as an assistant director, but found that she needed a change in pace. So she followed her friends to Chicago and has been here ever since.

“I thought I would just come here, learn, study and then go back to help my career. But look where I am!”

Since Eubanks’ arrival in Chicago, she has become quite the performance artist. In addition to theater and acting, she is skilled in the Japanese dance butoh. She said the post-modern dance style appealed to her because it was similar to theater. Choreographer and movement coach can also be added to her list of accomplishments.

Eubanks initially became involved with Erasing the Distance (ETD) as a storyteller. Eubanks shared her own personal experience anonymously for a show called Falling Petals that touched on suicide in Asian communities back in 2011. ETD executive artistic director, Brighid O’Shaughnessy, discovered that Eubanks in fact had experience in acting. So Eubanks agreed to perform her own story, and deepened her involvement with ETD when she was later named an artistic associate for the company.

“I love the work of ETD, because I can relate to mental health issues on a personal level... I am honored to be a part of this journey, and now [The Small, Dark Room] is my second show.”

In ETD’s current production, The Small, Dark Room, which touches on mental health in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, Eubanks portrays Ha-Tai-Cha-Nok, a Thai woman struggling with depression and physical disability.

Last week, she sat down to briefly discuss her experience with the show and how she relates through her own journey.

What does The Small, Dark Room mean to you on a big picture scale?

“This piece is about life experiences, about a journey into a dark place that I'm sure that everyone has experienced. Each of the stories appeals to me and I can more or less relate to them, especially because we’re talking about the Asian community where [mental health] is taboo. We don't talk about it. Our parents, that generation, they don't even know what depression is. I don't even think there is a word in Thai for ‘depression.’

So it's basically if you are stressed or worried, move on because some time you are going to snap out of it. You don't really go to a psychiatrist until you've gone mad and then you go to an institution.
Culture is a big deal, so I'm excited about this piece. We've all been through darkness in our lives, and as it goes, who would have thought I would get to this point to be able to talk about it. I think it's important to talk about it. In life, you don't have to stay in that darkness. Life goes on. You move on. And for the audience, I think it's important to think, 'Look, we've gone through this dark place, but look at where we are now.' It gives more hope in life and encourages people to get up and talk about it. There is a line where my character says, ‘You shouldn't feel like you’re betraying your ancestors or you’re letting down your family.’ We want to get rid of the stigmas of mental health.”

How would you describe your character, Hai-Chi-Ti-Nook?

“In Thai the name means ‘heart of the daddy.’ Her name is ironic, because her relationship with her father is not that good and more complicated because of her disability. Actually, the whole family holds this burden, which I understand because I have a special needs kid. I talked to the person who shared this story, and when we talked I told her that it was kind of like full circle for me. As I portray her story, the character is like my kid. And I know my kid is going to go somewhere, someday. It’s just that now it's hard.

She talked about family and how she feels like she needs support. When we talked about it we were very teary eyed and wowed at the shared experiences.

My character has a physical disability and she also has depression, but she's at the point where she is ready to tell her story. She is moving on and she is successful.”

Did you find any challenges in preparing for your role?

“First of all, the physical [characteristics] I have to do as close to real as possible. She has a full spectrum of psoriasis and arthritis. [One reason why] I went and met her was because I didn't want to come out as fake. I talked to Reshmi [Hazra], the director, and Brighid [O’Shaughnessy] first and we talked about doing a wheelchair. Sometimes she uses a wheelchair and sometimes a cane.

I wanted to do the wheelchair because I didn’t want to take anything away from the story I had trouble. And then I remembered the point where we wanted her character to come out as a strong woman in the play.

[The cane won out in the end and Wannapa uses her butoh training and technique to incorporate how she moves with the cane.] Butoh is kind of grotesque, so I use that grotesque posture and bent knees to capture the character’s use of the cane.

The second challenge is my English. I'm coming along and everyone is so nice and supportive. I'm open to corrections because we want the right message to go out to the audience so that they understand.”

Are there one or two takeaways for the audience that they can get from the play or your character’s journey?

“The courage to share the story or to just talk about it. No matter what, in your own time, when you are ready. This show can spark that idea and give hope that you don't have to be on the dark side.You can just pick yourself up and not worry about your family or ancestors, because you are doing the right thing. Otherwise we just keep it deep down until we explode. I'm just hoping that this show will give people, not just Asians, [the strength] to pick themselves up.

Break the silence and have hope.”

What are some of your general thoughts on the mental health issues in society?

“It takes a lot for people to break the barrier and to share. I feel like mental health issues should become the new norm... I actually hope people realize that maybe it might be much easier to share or to talk about it if you feel you are not alone.”

In your opinion, what role does theater play in the conversation of social and political issues, such as mental health?

“I think theater plays an important medium with purpose that allows the story to be presented in an expressive way. In a way, the meaning behind each performance is that these are all true stories from real people who are ready to come out to share to the community. It's like the healing process in a way to them, and in the meantime, it is also an example to the audience. Once the audience experiences it, the barrier can be broken. It's chain reaction!

I have shared and told my story through theater with ETD. Oddly at that time, when I portrayed myself, I didn't feel like I was being myself. It felt like an out of body experience. It felt like I was slowly being healed and the issues became easier every time I performed or talked about it.”

The Small, Dark Room has two more performances - Monday, April 15th and Tuesday, April 16th at 7:30pm. Don't miss this powerful show! Click here for more details.


  1. A very interesting read! Thanks for sharing, Wannapa. - Meredith S.

  2. Thank you !!! Meredith also Shout out to Amanda doing such a wonderful work.