The elementary schoolers don't know it, but they're helping break open stereotypes and tackling deep-rooted diversity and inclusion issues — with a little help from "Frozen" and Broadway trailblazer Baayork Lee.
Or maybe they do. As filmmaker and journalist Kelly Ng points out, kids sometimes have insights a lot wider than they get credit for.
"I was quite surprised that they give a lot of thought to issues that have to do with representation and diversity. When we asked them questions about 'what do you feel about Asians in theater, in the arts scene,' they actually gave really well thought out and eloquent responses without being prompted," she said.
"I think it shows us that these are issues that even (for) fourth- and fifth-graders, it's very forefront of their psyche. These are considerations that they are thinking about too."
And they're weighty issues. As the theater world grapples with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, historically lagging Asian-American representation and associated stereotypes, cultural identity and more are part of the discussion.
There's been a rise in anti-Asian attacks. Here's how to be an ally to the community.
It is that issue that caught of eyes of Ng and fellow filmmaker Hui Tong. Their film "Curtain Up!" follows the theater club of PS 124 in Manhattan's Chinatown as they stage an adaptation of "Frozen" — and in addition to learning lines and choreography, the students tackle family expectations, cultural stereotypes and looming choices about middle school.
Broadway re-opening dates: Here's the latest updates on shows' returns
Ng, who spoke with the Press from Singapore, is a multimedia journalist who focuses on minority communities, education and mental health, while Tong, who spoke from Beijing, is a documentary filmmaker and author. This is the first feature-length documentary for each of them.
Through their film we meet spunky, talented William, who challenges his mom's views on Asians and acting, and Charlotte, who while portraying Elsa and exploring her magical powers, shows signs of coming into her own with a budding confidence.
"Curtain Up!" is part of the series America ReFramed and premieres at 8 p.m. May 11 on the WORLD Channel, as part of its Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrations. It will also stream for a year at WorldChannel.org.
The PS 124 troupe is served by the National Asian Artists Project, which was founded by Lee, Steven Eng and Nina Zoie Lam in 2004. Lee ("A Chorus Line") works hands on with the students, often referring to them as "my kids."
Ng said she believes the theater club existing for Asian children is key in chipping away at representation issues.
"Starting them young does make a difference, while they're still very daring to dream, and wouldn't take certain obstacles as seriously. I think that it's the formative time actually, for such dreams to really develop without being reined in," she said.
The theater club was chosen to be one of the first to pilot the "Frozen" adaptation after their performance at the Junior Theater Festival, where they have been the only Asian-American troupe to compete for the past decade.
While students work to prepare the production with creative team members Hannah Balagot and Kyle Garvin and music teacher Ryan Olsen, Ng and Tong also got to know the kids and their families. They saw the issues they grappled with regarding their cultural identities and family dynamics, and the way that all played into their relationship with the arts.
'This is the time': NJ theater community holds equity, anti-racism summit
Not all princes love princesses: LGBT children's book sequel hits shelves
"What touches me the most is the intergenerational relationships," Tong said. "Asian parents, wanting their kids to do theater is something very difficult. But I feel like every parent wants their children to have a better future, a stable future, but also love their children. They want their children to pursue their passion, and they want to support them as best as they can."
He said that can lead to a "bittersweet" relationship between parents supporting their children's dreams, while also wanting the best future for them.
Tong and Ng said they cherish the relationships built with the students, and keep in touch. While the pandemic has halted in-person performances, Tong says he's glad to see the students work with online theater camps and more, sending him videos of their performances.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Curtain Up documentary: 'Frozen' helps NY Asian kids handle big issues