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August 25, 2011

Pawn, a musical starring Stanford students

Pawn: The Musical is completing its international summer tour Aug. 28 with a performance in New York City. Written, produced and performed by a group of Stanford students, Pawn is a folk-rock tale about Abraham Niu, a young Chinese Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

By Stephanie Liou

Pawn is a folk-rock musical written, produced and performed entirely by Stanford students. It tells the gripping story of Abraham Niu, a young Chinese Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan. (Photo by Joshua Haller)

Go on any tour of Stanford, and you'll hear about the multitalented and diverse student body. There are the athlete-engineers, the premed-musicians, international students from war-torn countries, and all the quirky double majors who speak four languages and have founded two startups.

And there's Karmia Chan Cao. While a full-time student at Stanford, Cao has managed to write, compose and direct an entire musical play.

Debuting in May 2010 as Abraham Niu and the Friendly Fires, Cao's early script was well received at a spring reading on campus, and she was inspired to complete the musical during the summer.

The final product, Pawn, is a deeply emotional folk-rock musical that follows the story of Abraham Niu, a young Chinese Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

A tale for the times

"Five days before he is slated to return home to his tiny town of Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada, on his last-night patrol mission, Abraham is caught in the middle of a bombing raid and must make the biggest decision of his life, whether to save the life of Afghan children or save his own," says Cao. The play "addresses and dresses the wounds of 9/11, reexamining terrorism and the last decade at war through the keyhole of one immigrant family."

Since selling out several shows to rave reviews on the Stanford campus, Cao and the all-student cast and crew of Pawn have spent the summer on a whirlwind international tour, performing for over 10,000 audience members in South Korea, China and Canada. Along the way, Pawn won the award for best original musical at the Daegu International Musical Festival in South Korea and garnered a great deal of positive press.

Now, after wrapping up performances in Vancouver, Canada – Cao's hometown – Pawn is making its last stop in New York City, its source of inspiration. Part of the New York International Fringe Festival, Pawn's last show of the summer will be at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa on Aug. 28 at 3 p.m.

A personal journey

"As a young artist, a woman of color and faith, an immigrant who had a very international and economically diverse upbringing, there was a long walk through the woods to even begin to discover who I really was, to find a voice among my many voices," said Cao. "In the middle of the personal struggle for meaning, I grew exceedingly sensitive to stories and to the contemporary wars on our consciousness waged all around me."

From a young age Cao loved creative writing and music. Prior to creating Pawn, she had published a book of bilingual poetry and written another play, Forgetting Tiburon. But like every artist, she yearned to do more.

Support from her friends, academic advisers, the China Niandai Group, the Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project and the Asian American Theater Project at Stanford provided motivation.

"I wanted to write about a form of love that is not often touched in musical theater – a love that celebrates humanity and not just a marriage or revenge plot," she said. Feedback and discussions with fellow students about Pawn has led to revisions that have strengthened the quality of her work.

"Even as we have gotten a real advertising budget, gone from one working light to 200 stage lights, and gone from as few as 20 audience members on folding chairs to sold-out houses of 1,700 people, the heart of this story attained performing for audiences at Stanford does not change," said Cao. "It is forever an experience of sharing back and forth."

The big picture

This summer, a 29-member group of Stanford students has toured with Cao. They range from freshmen to new grads, majoring in fields from computer science to religious studies.

"Touring opens Pawn to audiences of all backgrounds and perspectives," said producer Alex Holtzman, a political science major. "Many audiences are particularly affected by the discussion of the loss around September 11, others put greater attention into the effects of discrimination, the immigrant experience, the importance of family or the centrality of duty."

While going on tour may initially sound glamorous, Holtzman has spent the summer dealing with all the complications that inevitably arise from trying to organize large numbers of people, traveling and adapting to local conditions, and keeping track of sets, costumes and other integral bits and pieces.

There have been storms, power outages, equipment malfunctions and endless logistical nightmares – but also incredible bonding, laughter and life lessons learned, he said.

"Figuring out the best way to check in 29 people for a flight may seem mundane," Holtzman said, "but our flight check-in time now is less than a quarter of what it was when we began."

Pawn has made an impression on its cast.

"In the past five years I've participated in over 20 productions and have seen quite a few more, but for me, Pawn presents something different from all those," said actor and physics major Graham Roth. "It delivers a powerful message, yet refrains from being preachy. It evokes a strong emotional response, but also makes you think."

After all, more than being a work of art to be enjoyed and appreciated, Pawn was designed to ask important questions and demand critical thinking from its audience.

"It is rare and refreshing to see a show featuring Asian Americans who are people rather than caricatures," said actress and recent graduate Karen Young. "My hope is that Pawn, even in a small way, could help break the stereotypes that have been ingrained in Western society, because little Asian American girls should have more role models other than Jackie Chan."

Moving forward

Once the tour draws to a close, Cao and company will be returning to Stanford. "While I have ideas brewing, I think I need to force myself to drop the pen," said Cao, who hopes to take a break from Pawn and focus on enjoying her last year as an undergraduate at Stanford. But for now, all her energies are channeled toward the final performance of Pawn in New York.

Stephanie Liou is an intern at the Stanford News Service.



Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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