It’s mostly dark on Front Street in St. Paul, but an old storefront is lit up, almost buzzing with energy.
“Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of ‘The Woke Olympics,’” Kazua Melissa Vang said with a booming voice. “The goal is simple: You tell us why you’re the ‘wokest’ person in the room and we’ll reward you for your labor.”
Vang and 10 other women then take turns trying to best one another. “I’m so woke I drive a Prius.” “I’m so woke I put a solar panel on my Prius.”
The women, who call themselves the Funny Asian Women Kollective, or FAWK, are rehearsing for a comedy skit they’ll perform Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. But they’re hoping to do more than make their audience laugh this weekend.
“Audiences expect us to be this model minority,” said Naomi Ko, the group’s co-founder. “That assumption of us being submissive and quiet, and that we’re not political, that’s all really damaging for the way that female Asian comedic talent can perform.”
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It began with a series of comedy shows, then morphed into a series of workshops designed to empower Asian-American women. Saturday’s show will feature some of the women who went to those workshops and then joined the group as performers.
One of them is Monika Hetzler. She said working with the collective has been an affirming experience.
“Because I don’t necessarily — there are air quotes here — look Indian, it feels like there’s more that I need to do to prove [my ethnicity],” Hetzler said. “And so I do that through my comedy, but it also is really nice to go into a space and not have people assume what my identity is. They already knew that I’m Asian just by being in that space.”
Hetzler said she hopes Asian-American women in the audience Saturday find similar affirmation, and that everyone encounters new perspectives.
“I hope that they come away with the idea that there isn’t just one Asian experience. I think one thing that makes FAWK so important is that there are 11 of us and we’re all so different,” she said. “We have different experiences. We’re all different types of Asian. We find different things funny.
“So just for the average person walking into the Ordway on Saturday, I hope they leave it with expectations being broken.”
Correction (Oct. 24, 2019): In an earlier version of this story, Tsaub Yang was misidentified in a photograph.