‘Small Island Big Song’ film marks Asian-American awareness month

Heather Longley
July 26, 2021

The Center for the Performing Arts marked Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May by offering a free School-Time Virtual film screening and discussion to schools throughout central Pennsylvania.

Artists and activists from oceanic worlds away took to a digital stream to share their stories in the musical docufilm “Small Island Big Song: An Oceanic Timeline.” The center provided area middle and high schools unlimited viewing access from May 3–14; the students were also invited to submit questions to artists featured in the film. On May 10, the center presented the additional recorded discussion featuring Putad, a native of Taiwan and of Amis heritage, and Anika Ullah, a Bangladeshi-American.

The STEAM- and SEL-themed program fulfilled requirements in subject areas of environment and ecology, live music, English language arts, social-emotional learning, world languages and social studies. The Honey and Bill Jaffe Endowment for Audience Development and the McQuaide Blasko Endowment provided support.

“Small Island Big Song” is part of a multiplatform project founded by Taiwanese producer BaoBao Chen and Australian music producer Tim Cole. They spent three-plus years documenting more than 100 artists in communities at the forefront of the climate crisis, including musicians in Madagascar, Borneo, Tahiti, Bali, Guam, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan.

In addition to raising awareness of environmental issues facing island nations, the project explores a migration theory that seeks to establish musical links between cultures and accentuates similarities in regional instruments, voices and rhythm.

Educator and speaker Nalini Krishnankutty, a member of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, “communicated an urgency for acknowledging Asian American and Pacific Islander Month during this time of increased anti-Asian hate,” said Medora Ebersole, the center’s education and community programs manager.

Krishnankutty, a State College resident, is a former chemical engineer turned speaker and writer helping to introduce diversity and inclusivity to communities statewide. In a May column for the Centre Daily Times, she addressed the need for a specialized celebration.

“Though heritage months would be superfluous in an ideal, inclusive society, this year’s commemoration is especially vital given the uptick of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.”

— Nalini Krishnankutty, speaker

“Those of Asian-Pacific Islander origin are stereotyped and seen as perpetual immigrants, rather than as central actors creating and shaping the American experience,” she said.

Ebersole said Krishnankutty advocated for schools’ use of the School-Time Virtual program, saying if “Small Island Big Song” was shown in even one local school, the presentation will have amplified the voice of Pacific Islanders, who are usually “invisible.”

Bobbi Morris, a sixth-grade general music and choir teacher at State College Area School District’s Park Forest Middle School, said she sees the potential in exposing her students to other cultures through the arts to help them discover similarities, make connections and build bridges. Learning about and from others becomes a way to start an appreciation of other communities.

“They were able to hear a compilation of music that came from somewhere else and how it sounded similar to certain music they might listen to online,” she said.

Morris said this type of school program is important to help young people by “seeing other cultures and how they create, along with recognizing that music is the only universal language. Throughout the world, music connects us and can be our voice when we do not know what to say.”

A live touring production of “Small Island Big Song,” including an artist residency, is scheduled for the center’s spring 2022 season.

Going online

In addition to 2020 being the year of the pandemic, it also was the 20th year of the center’s School-Time Matinee series.

“Instead of putting anniversary stickers on our brochures, we were asking ourselves how to remain relevant to teachers,” Ebersole said. “We wanted to let teachers know that we were thinking of them and to be able to provide them with something simple so that they could focus on essentials and make time for the arts.”

The quarantine-influenced reconfiguration of the school program was a beneficial learning experience, she said, and educators found the virtual format to be one way to be inclusive to more students who were learning from home.

“What started as a response to the pandemic became an examination of how we might provide a more accessible learning experience,” Ebersole said. “School-Time Virtual is one example of the center’s commitment of going beyond the performances on its stage, that critical to its mission in engaging with schools means reaching students where they are.”

Additional programs featured in the School-Time Virtual series included:

  •  Holden & Arts Associates presents “Finding North” on Jan. 25;
  •  Holden & Arts Associates presents Tall Stories theater company’s “The Snail and the Whale” on Feb. 8; and
  •  “Cartography” on Feb. 22.

For more information about the center’s school-time events, email Ebersole at mde13@psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 27, 2021