Project NU 2019 highlights Asian and Asian American students’ experience with mental illness, self-identity


Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

“Blessings in Disguise” cast rehearses to prepare for their upcoming show.

Aaron Wang, Reporter

While transcribing interviews for her first Project NU, the lines “Northwestern is ‘a sack of potatoes’” where “people are so bland but have the potential to be fried or baked or cooked” are among those that stood out to Medill junior Janet Lee. Now the head writer of this year’s show, “Blessings in Disguise,” Lee is excited to continue exploring the play’s potential connecting people through real-life stories.

Project NU is a Spectrum Theatre Company production that strives to represent true student experiences on campus, said Sophia Danielle-Grenier, a Communication sophomore and producer of “Blessings in Disguise.”

This year’s show features five Asian and Asian-American students who grapple with the intersection of mental illness and self-identity at NU. The performance opens next Thursday and runs through May 18 in Shanley Pavilion.

“The show is a theatrical gift for us,” Danielle-Grenier said. “People who are representing Northwestern students talk about our stories, our struggles, out loud on stage, but also not in a fully serious tone.”

Lee came up with the idea of telling a story focusing on Asian and Asian-American community on campus a year ago. Four additional writers of diverse majors joined the team and brought different perspectives to the table.

The team interviewed Asian and Asian-American students in their social circles, compiling their stories into a script. Because they reached out to people they are comfortable with, Lee said, they were able to collect a lot of intimate stories.

“Listening to people talking about their lives can be really vulnerable,” Lee said. “Even though sometimes I have no idea who they are, just hearing it and knowing that it is a student who walks around the campus, I realize our feelings are so connected on a deeper level.”

Communication junior Grace Dolezal-Ng, Spectrum’s artistic director, said the show also aims at increasing the presence of Asian and Asian-American students on campus.

“There aren’t a lot of stories written about us,” Dolezal-Ng said. “The play not only tells the stories of students who identify as Asian and Asian Americans but also provides them with a chance to be cast and play, which is not very common at Northwestern.”

Dolezal-Ng said this year is the first time Project NU focuses on a particular group of the student body. A specific perspective, she added, is the best way to represent a large picture.

Communication junior Allison Zanolli, the show’s director, said although she doesn’t have the experience of being a person of color, it was “humbling and exciting” for her to learn from the characters’ experiences and reflect on her own — a feeling that can connect the larger student body.

“Knowing what is underneath it, I was able to communicate to my actor to act out that beautiful moment,” said Zanolli. “For a lot of Northwestern students, even if they can’t relate to the specificity of the statement, they can still see themselves a little bit in some of the characters.”

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