Asian-American Drama

The acknowledged origins of Asian-American drama date to the 1890s and the controversial symbolist plays of Sadakichi Hartmann, including Christ: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (privately printed, 1893), Buddha: A Drama in Twelve Scenes (written, 1891–95; privately printed, 1897), and Confucius: A Drama in Three Acts (written, 1894–1916, 1920–22; privately printed, 1923). In the century that followed, the rich and varied contributions of playwrights to the genre have ensured its lasting imprint on American literature. As both artistic and political expressions, Asian-American plays through the years collectively document the assorted concerns—private, public, old, new, and newly constituted—of Asian-American dramatists and the communities they at once represent, interpret, embrace, and critique.

After Hartmann, whose biraciality and close ties to Europe, both psychic and experiential, arguably set him apart from his immediate playwriting descendants, the first wave of Asian-American dramatists from the 1920s through the 1940s wrote plays that largely reflected an inward-turning, monocultural focus (usually Japanese-American or Chinese-American). Given America’s exclusionary policies toward Asians and Asian Americans during this era, the playwrights’ self-directed, monocultural focus was, perhaps not surprisingly, ambivalently poised against the backdrop of a mainstream America, with whom assimilation was viewed as a mixed blessing—highly desirable yet also a source of cultural disruption, threat, and loss. Thus, the clash of old-world and newworld values, often necessitated by new-world realities, constituted central themes of these early plays. Gladys Li’s The Submission of Rose May (1924) exemplifies this concern with intracultural and intercultural tensions in its treatment of a young Chinese-American woman’s resistance to an arranged marriage. Similarly, Bessie Toishigawa Inouye’s Reunion (1947) examines issues of self-identity and reassimilation into civilian life for Japanese-American soldiers in the wake of World War II.

Oddly enough, during the 1950s and 1960s, when shifting geopolitical currents yielded enormous Broadway and Hollywood interest in representations of Asia and Asians through Western lenses—for example, John Patrick’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (Broadway production, 1953; film, 1956); James Michener’s novel-turned-box-office-hit, Sayonara (novel, 1954; film, 1957); and Paul Osborn’s The World of Suzie Wong (Broadway production, 1958–60; screenplay by John Patrick, 1961)—Asian-American playwriting entered a period of relative dormancy. This period in fact records only a few plays by Asian Americans, including a short play by Japanese-American playwright Carl Kondo titled A Dame Did It to Me (1951), published in Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based newspaper founded by first-generation Japanese Americans in 1903. Reasons for this relative inactivity are multiple, perhaps the most obvious being the need for disenfranchised Japanese Americans to rebuild their disrupted lives and communities after World War II. Moreover, on the heels of World War II and during the decades of acute political turbulence in Korea and Vietnam, many Asian Americans attempted to rewrite their perpetual outsider status through “quiet assimilation” into the mainstream.

This period of sparse activity may also be viewed as a necessary prelude to artistic and political crystallization. In fact, the decades that followed saw an unprecedented flourish of activity. But given the preceding decades’ silences, the plays written in the 1970s not surprisingly mirror the concerns of the very early plays in their treatment of largely intracultural concerns or of one Asian-American group’s negotiations with the dominant Euro-American mainstream. Two notable plays in this period that fit this description are Momoko Iko’s Gold Watch (1972) and Frank Chin’s Chickencoop Chinaman (1973), both first-prize winners of the 1971 playwriting competition sponsored by East West Players, the pioneering Asian American theater company founded in Los Angeles in 1965. Gold Watch (1972), notable for being the first professionally produced Asian-American play, examines the effects of Executive Order 9066 on a Japanese-American farming community in Pasco, Washington. Chin’s Chickencoop Chinaman arguably complicates the notion of cultural binaries (one specific ethnic group versus the Euro-American mainstream) by including a Japanese-American character, Kenji, and an African-American character, Charley Popcorn. Still, these characters function largely as dramatic props in the principal character Tam Lum’s struggles both to forge an integrated and self-directed identity as a Chinese-American man and to find his way as a Chinese-American artist. These related threads are memorably brought together in a fantasy scene involving Tam and his childhood television idol, the Lone Ranger, whom Tam in his youth mistook for the ideal “Chinese American boy.” Similarly, the widely anthologized play, Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance (1974), focuses on Issei (first-generation Japanese-American) distresses in southern California during the Great Depression: cultural isolation in America, generational and gender challenges arising from relocation in America and exacerbated by acute economic hardships, and conflicted attitudes of Japanese Americans toward America as the land of opportunity and the site of exile.

Later Asian-American dramatists (the second wave) continued this tradition of interrogating the intracultural tensions within a single Asian-American group as well as those resulting from intersections with the Euro-American mainstream. For example, David Henry Hwang’s FOB (1979) probes familiar themes of intracultural conflict brought about by cultural displacement—in this case, between an Americanborn Chinese American named Dale, who, in his assimilationist zeal, shuns any connection to his “fresh off the boat” counterpart, Steve. Like the young girl, Masako, in And the Soul Shall Dance, Dale disdains newcomers from the homeland because they remind him of his own tenuous identity in relation to the mainstream Euro-American culture. While the setting of Hwang’s play, Torrance, California, in 1980, differs from the setting of the earlier plays, the source of conflict in FOB and the earlier plays is rooted in cultural displacement and the fractured identity that such displacement necessarily engenders.

David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award–winning M. Butterfly (1988), perhaps the most widely celebrated of all Asian-American dramas, operates within a similarly dichotomous vision of East versus West. Set in late 1960s Beijing and Paris, the play examines fundamental cultural binaries: Eastern versus Western courtship rituals; Communist China’s political and social oppressiveness versus the democratic West’s freedoms; gender expectations of the virile Western male seducer versus the submissive Eastern female; Chinese opera versus Western opera. In his “Afterword” to the published play Hwang writes, “M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings” (100).

Critics of Hwang’s plays, however, accuse the playwright of achieving commercial success by merely reaffirming, not challenging, stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans. According to this perspective, Hwang seeks validation from the largely Euro-American audience by giving it what it wants to see: in FOB, the ridiculous Chinese immigrant with the laughable accent operating in the familiar setting of the Chinese restaurant; in M. Butterfly, the simultaneously abject and perversely empowered Song Liling, whom James Moy has described as finally representing “little more than a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese ‘dragon lady’ prostitute stereotype” (“David Henry” 54). Moy has included Philip Kan Gotanda, another prolific voice among the second wave of Asian-American playwrights, in his criticism of damaged and damaging reappropriations of Asian-American characters and concerns that echo and thus reinforce established mainstream stereotypes. In his celebrated Yankee Dawg You Die (1988), Gotanda draws attention to the ethical dilemma faced by Asian-American actors seeking work in mainstream media: the ethical desire to accept only “real” Asian and AsianAmerican roles versus economic exigencies that require an actor to take on roles demanded by the mainstream, roles that perpetuate degrading stereotypes. Commenting on M. Butterfly and Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die, Moy claims: “[their characters] provide a good evening’s entertainment and then float as exotic Oriental fetishes articulating Anglo-American desire, now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian Americans” (“David Henry” 55). Whether one agrees with Moy’s controversial assessment of these plays, what gives many scholars pause is the fact that (as of 2009) Hwang is the only Asian-American playwright to have had a play produced on Broadway. The thorny question of why certain kinds of representations of Asians and Asian Americans appeal to the mainstream audience while others do not persists.

Despite these serious concerns about artistic complicity and commercial viability, Asian-American playwrights in the last decade of the 20th century continued to struggle for truthful artistic representations and to be more multicultural in their subject material. Elizabeth Wong’s Kimchee and Chitlins (1993) is based on the real-life organized boycott by African Americans of Korean American–owned businesses in Brooklyn in 1990. Despite the highly charged subject of interracial urban conflict, Wong’s play boldly treats the issue with candor, exposing racial misunderstanding and bigotry on both sides. To Wong’s credit, the play’s potentially explosive charge is defused by its underlying humor and compassionate portrayal of characters of both races. Garrett Omata’s S.A.M. I Am (1995) also considers the politics of interracial conflict and desire—John Hamabata, a young JapaneseAmerican man, desires the elegant and unattainable Jackie Shibata, who is half Japanese and half white and who is obsessed with the actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Both characters consciously and unconsciously desire to elevate their status through associations with whiteness: for John, through a romantic link with a woman who is half-white and who, as a rule, dates only white men; for Jackie, through fantasized associations with Shepard, a popular-culture icon of the white masculine ideal.

The emphasis of the plays written in the 1980s and 1990s on multiethnic and multiracial intersections and the formation of hybrid identities that result from them is in great measure a function of changing demographic realities in Asian-American communities in the 1970s and beyond. Fundamental to these changes was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which removed barriers to Asian immigration to the United States. In time, playwrights of various Asian heritages and interracial identity—Filipino, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese, to name a few— joined their Chinese-American and Japanese-American predecessors to expand the scope of Asian-American playwriting. Some of these plays, such as Huynh Quang Nhuong’s Dance of the Wandering Souls (1997), serve to educate America’s mainstream audiences about the myths and histories of a specific Asian or Asian-American culture. Dance of the Wandering Souls frames China’s millennial rule in Vietnam as a story of warring families determined to pass on their long legacy of hostility and aggression to the next generation. The play both informs American audiences about this early phase of Vietnam’s history, though in highly mythologized form, and suggests a remedy for war in the promise of the eventual union of the younger generation.

Other playwrights working to broaden the AsianAmerican dramatic landscape include Jeannine Barroga, Rob Shin, Velina Hasu Houston, and Amy Hill. In Talk-Story (1997), Barroga interweaves stories by and about two generations of a Filipino-American family, a father in 1930s rural California and his daughter in 1990s San Francisco. The poignant montage of intergenerational stories, rife with multiracial intersections, reminds audiences of both the advances made toward achieving a racially just society and the obstacles yet to be addressed. Similarly, Shin’s The Art of Waiting (1991) considers a wide range of multiracial and multiethnic subjects, from white racism to racial animosity between Korean-American and AfricanAmerican communities. Even largely taboo subjects such as racialized masculine identity and the indictment of all Americans for holding race-based preconceptions and antipathies are broached in this play. Other dimensions of multiraciality in Asian-American plays are brought to the fore in the plays of Velina Hasu Houston, described in 1997 as “easily the mostproduced Asian-American woman playwright in the [United States]” (Nelson 73). Derived from her multiracial identity—part Japanese, part African American, and part American Indian—Houston’s vision perhaps exemplifies the future not only of Asian-American drama but also of American society in general. Many of Houston’s plays, including Tokyo Valentine (1992) and As Sometimes in a Dead Man’s Face (1994), dramatize the complexities of the multiracial experience. Similarly, Amy Hill’s humorous Tokyo Bound (1991), the first of a trilogy of one-person plays, derives from her childhood and adolescent experiences in South Dakota and Seattle, juggling her Finnish and Japanese heritages.

At the end of the 20th century, Asian-American dramatists, drama critics and scholars, and theater companies reflected an increasingly Pan-Asian vision. Velina Hasu Houston articulates this Pan-Asian emphasis in explaining her selection of plays for an Asian-American drama anthology she edited: “[The anthology] includes a wide spectrum of subject matter and writing styles, some very American, some very Asian, and some a composite of both origins. One thing I can say about all of them is that they are both individualistic and universal in their views of the human condition. Moreover, it is important to note that these are not ‘ethnic plays,’ but American plays that should not be relegated to the artistic ghetto of Eurocentrism’s manufacture” (But Still, Like Air xxi). This inclusiveness embraces not only diverse ethnicities and multiethnic and multiracial crisscrossings but also gender perspectives, as the several anthologies devoted to plays by Asian-American women published in the 1990s suggest. In the mid- and late-1990s, dramas examining the intersections of race and sexual orientation also made their way onto the AsianAmerican stage. Notable among these are Chay Yew’s A Language of Their Own (1994) and Dwight Okita’s The Rainy Season (1996).

In the first decade of the 21st century, playwrights have largely continued this trend of probing multicultural intersections. Alice Tuan in New Culture for a New Country (1999), for example, examines the history of women’s labor on a street corner in Brooklyn, New York, by presenting snapshots of various characters, including a Jewish-American tour guide, a Chinese-American dim sum vendor, and an AfricanAmerican depression-era “corn girl,” who sold both “hot buttered corn” and sex. Karen Shimakawa summarizes Tuan’s aim in the play: “[to ask] audiences to consider the operations of capitalism, gender, immigration, and racialization as links connecting these various women across decades and cultures” (162). Another play by Tuan, Close Encounters of the Third World (2001), written in response to the anti-immigrant feeling sweeping California at the time, explores the shared and comparative historical subjugation of Asian Americans, Chicanas/os, and Latinas/os. This vision of multicultural solidarity is extended beyond the United States in Gotanda’s play The Wind Cries Mary (2002), which examines the emergence of an Asian-American identity politics on a college campus in San Francisco in the late 1960s amid the swirl of the black Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests. While the play largely focuses on the intergenerational reactions of one ethnic group (Japanese Americans) to the volatile cultural climate, it implies that all ethnic and racial minorities are allied in the struggle for social change and justice and that the struggle reaches beyond the boundaries of the United States to encompass in fact all of the “Third World.”

The wide range of dramatic production within Asian-American drama was bolstered, psychically and tangibly, by the emergence of several AsianAmerican theater companies. With the founding in 1965 of the East West Players in Los Angeles, AsianAmerican drama enjoyed an unprecedented outlet for creative expression—for performers, production crews, and, finally, in the 1970s, for playwrights when the group’s emphasis changed from producing nonAsian plays with all-Asian casts to developing and producing plays written by Asian Americans. Other Asian-American theater companies soon followed suit, most notably the Kumu Kahua, established in 1970 by several University of Hawaii students and Dennis Carroll, a University of Hawaii professor of theater; the Asian American Theater Company (AATC) in San Francisco in 1973; the Northwest Asian American Theatre Company (NWAAT) in Seattle in the mid-1970s; the Pan Asian Repertory in New York City in 1987; and the Ma-Yi (the 14th-century Chinese term for the Philippine Islands) Theater Company in New York City in 1989. The 1990s saw the emergence of smaller theater companies on the West Coast such as Teatro ng Tanan (Theater for the People) and Bindlestiff Studio, both companies founded in the Filipino-American communities in San Francisco. Theater companies committed to the production of Asian-American plays were also formed in the Midwest in the 1990s and 2000s, including Chicago’s Angel Island Theatre Company and the Hmong Theatre Project, Rich Shiomi’s Theatre Mu, and the Playwrights’ Center (all three located in Minneapolis). One of the most recently formed theater companies, the Silk Road Theatre Project, established in Chicago in 2002 in response to the widespread anti-Arab and anti-Arab-American sentiment in the wake of September 11, 2001, expresses the expanded multicultural vision now shared by many of these theater companies: “Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. Through the creation and presentation of outstanding theater, we aim to promote discourse and dialogue among multicultural audiences . . . and [to] heal rifts through the transformative power of theatre” (“About Us”).

The recent interest in Asian-American theater beyond the West Coast promises to offset the charge by some scholars that most anthologies of Asian American literature advance an almost exclusively California-centric vision. Further, the availability of many fixed venues serves to encourage playwrights, performers, and production staff to engage in and hone their craft. In addition, these theaters as Dorinne Kondo explains, maintain a larger cultural function by providing a “highly significant mediating role . . . as sites for the performance and creation of what it means to be ‘Asian American.’” By fostering budding playwrights through competitions, grants, and workshops, and by “training actors and offering them opportunities to perform in plays that would be closed to them in mainstream theatres,” these theater companies make “invaluable contributions to American theatre [and] to the continuing creation and re-creation of Asian-American identities and communities” (Nelson x).

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