picSworded2006-09-23_1By Patricia Kaowthumrong | Asian Avenue magazine

Although Maria Cheng planned to at age 52 form a successful career as an actress, choreographer, director and playwright, she could not resist co-founding the Theatre Espirit Asia when she discovered the presence of so much Asian American acting talent in the Denver metropolitan area.

Cheng founded Theatre Espirit Asia, Colorado’s first professional Asian American theater company with Tria Xiong while the two were acting together in Vintage Theater’s production of “The Joy Luck Club.”

Impressed and inspired by the 19 Asian Americans and two Caucasian Americans that came together for the production, Cheng and Xiong decided to respond to the community’s need for an authentic theater that showcased the talent of Asian American actors, playwrights and directors.

“The whole Asian American community needed a voice, which was lacking in Colorado.” Cheng said.

Cheng, who immigrated to the United States at age 10 from the Wuhan Hubei Province in China, said the theater’s first year of productions will focus on Chinese, Japanese and Korean heritages. The tales are modern stories based in contemporary societies and are tested works that have received acclaim in other theaters across the country.

“In the first two years of production, we hope to address all areas of Asia,” Cheng said. “We are confident because the stories are just so wonderful.”

Cheng is a former core member of Theatre Mu, one of the nation’s leading Asian American theaters, where she played numerous leading roles. She is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guthrie, Harkness, Jerome, McKnight and Rockefeller Foundations.

After considering destinations to retire such as Jackson Hole and Kuaui, Cheng decided to retire in the Denver area.

“I was 20 years old when I first came to Colorado, and I thought, ‘I’m going to live here someday,’” Cheng said. “There was no contest; it’s just wonderful.”

When she’s not working in the theater community, Cheng enjoys walking and hiking. She loves nature, reading fine writing and calls herself “a total sucker for classical music.” She also enjoys good food, a love that blossomed during her childhood. Cheng’s father was one of the first food technologists in the United States; he worked for Pillsbury and help created the first boxed angel food cake.

“Every night we had 10 courses for dinner,” she said. “I grew up with a lot of good food.”

Cheng passes on her traditions by cooking for family and appreciates the high-quality Chinese food in Denver. She has a son, grandson, daughter-in-law and several extended family members that live in California. Learn more about Theatre Espirit Asia at www.theatre-espirit-asia.org.