The world might be a better place if we stopped and listened to each other’s stories, starting with our own community. South Bethlehem’s Touchstone Theatre puts the wheels in motion beginning tonight with a ‘Journey’ that focuses on the history of Chinese immigration in the Lehigh Valley and the community’s continuing reaction to ‘the other.’

East meets West on the Touchstone stage through April 13, with “Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion,” the first of two original theatrical productions to evolve from a two-year “Journey from the East” project. Based on the first year’s worth of research and stories from the local community, “Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion” focuses on the stories of an American with Chinese heritage, a young American girl adopted from China, and two Chinese women who studied here and wound up staying in America. It is these varied voices that create the kind of community-based, community-transforming theater for which Touchstone has become known.

Artists Deng Dafei and He Hai of the Utopia Group, a multidisciplinary arts company based in Beijing, China, are in residence with Touchstone for the first week of performances. The group will serve as artistic international partners with Touchstone as the “Journey from the East” project progresses into its second year.

Though the play-making process has been largely collaborative, Touchstone ensemble associate and Lehigh Valley master storyteller Mary Wright is writer and director of the piece. She led the charge on the story, uncovering a common theme from the more than 100 hours of interviews that were recorded and transcribed.

“With the arrival of the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, there has been an influx of Chinese tourists,” Wright said. “But the Chinese have been here for a long time. We’re telling the story of the Chinese who have immigrated here.”

Wright said she didn’t know what to expect in the early stages of the project. She was impressed with “the incredible generosity” of people sharing stories and a willingness to answer questions.

“I am always amazed at what you can learn about people when you take the time to ask,” she said.

Wright explained how “Journey” plays with themes of how we encounter ‘the other.’ She added that the play has “some serious and some light-hearted moments.” She also described it as “a strong women’s play.”

“How do we as a community integrate ‘the other’ into the community?” she asked. “…Given Bethlehem’s rich heritage as a center of immigration, it is especially important to take a look at the ways in which we embrace or reject difference and otherness.”

The reaction of Bethlehem, she said, is embodied through Touchstone Ensemble actors in dance and tai chi. The cast also includes Dong-Ning Wang, adjunct professor of Asian studies at Lehigh University, who spent several years researching the 150-year history of China’s technical development in relation to its partnership with Lehigh.

“Nowadays, with globalization, it’s really important to be part of this project, really bringing people together – bridging cultures, bridging people,” Wang said. “I think this is part of the reason I first came to Lehigh.”

Other cast members are Qiyi Zhu-Stoffey and Liana Irvine, community members who were interviewed as part of the story-gathering process and who were interested in continuing to share their stories onstage.

“I think that it’s very important to be proud of, share, and represent my heritage whenever I can,” Zhu-Stoffey said.

Touchstone co-founder Bill George and Touchstone ensemble affiliate Christopher Shorr of Moravian College will co-write the project’s second play for the 2014-15 season. Wright described it as another epic community undertaking, a large-scale, outdoor production much like Touchstone’s past productions of “Steelbound,” “Don Quixote of Bethlehem” and “A Resting Place.” It will merge the stories of the Chinese journey to Bethlehem with traditional Chinese folklore. The performance is planned to take place at Lehigh’s newly constructed Chinese Harmony Pavilion on the South Side Greenway.

Touchstone Theatre is located at 321 E. 4th St., Bethlehem.

For further info: touchstone.org

 

ARTS ROUNDUP

The Banana Factory, 25 W. Third St., Bethlehem is the site of a current exhibit that focuses on a global view of the city from four different continents. It’s “4 Bethlehems,” the odyssey of Welsh documentary photographer and filmmaker Haydn Denman, who was inspired to document four different communities named ‘Bethlehem’ because of his familiarity with Bethlehem, Wales and an urge to discover what life is like in other ‘Bethlehems’ around the world.

During the six months of filming, Denman, of South Wales, said he found “a common humanity” linking all four places. No matter what life’s difficulties presented to residents, Denman said he always found ‘a hand of welcome.’ His travels included Bethlehem, Wales; Bethlehem, South Africa, and Bethlehem, Palestine.

The exhibit runs through May 18.

Another exhibit to take in at the venue is the eighth annual “Red Show,” through June 14. It features two- and three-dimensional works created by resident artists Nessa Grainger, Jacqueline Cornette and David Sommers, Trisha Mae Samuel, Khalil Allaik, Lara Bly Allaik, Virginia Abbott and Octavio Pena. Also participating are Valerie Breaux, Kevin Herbst Haaf, Kim Hogan and Bruce J. Ward.

Grainger, one of the founders of the show, will be moving to Florida in May. She was honored by her fellow resident artists at the exhibit’s opening reception last month.

For further info: bananafactory.org

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