5 insightful plays to peek into the AAPI theater scene
Not familiar with AAPI theater?
Not a problem, we have collected some fabulous plays you can get yourself started with. This week, we have gathered the works by Frank Chin, David Henry Hwang, Jay Kuo, and Diana Son.
The Chickencoop Chinaman, Frank Chin
Chinese American filmmaker Tam Lum is working on a documentary project about a Black boxer named Ovaltine.
He travels to Pittsburgh to meet with Ovaltine’s father and stays with childhood friend Kenji. Kenji is a Japanese American who lives in a poor Black neighborhood with his girlfriend Lee and her son.
During Lum’s time with Kenji and Lee in Pittsburg, the three get into arguments on discussions about cultural heritage and Americanized identity. Lee accuses Tam of rejecting his Chinese-ness and also Kenji of being prejudiced against African Americans.
Lum denies Lee’s accusation and explains he and Kenji go to school with African Americans and Mexican Americans. They dress and behave like others so that they wouldn’t be minoritized. Kenji also adds that his participation in Black culture comes from his uncertainty about his Japanese American culture/identity as Lum is of Chinese American culture/identity.
Lee believes that Lum’s marriage to a White American woman is an attempt to erase his Chinese identity. Lum later reveals that he dislikes the description of the “model minority.” While he sees Asians as the passive, hardworking, and highly educated immigrants the U.S wants, he is praised for his Americanness by the White Americans.
The questions are: when will society eventually embrace Lum’s and Kenji’s cultural backgrounds? And when will minorities like Lum and Kenji in America no longer be pressured to forgo their heritage to become someone they are not?
Soft Power, David Henry Hwang
The story begins as Xue Xing, an entertainment producer from Shanghai, travels to America for work and falls in love with Hilary Clinton.
Xing then attempts to recruit a character (who is DHH’s theatrical avatar) to compose a Chinese audience-oriented musical. The development of the plot is intertwined with DHH’s real-life experiences – particularly a sidewalk stabbing in the neck that almost left DDH near death in 2015.
As an intended reverse “The King and I”, David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power is an attempt to confront the musical’s contradictions and rewrite racial politics. In Soft Power, Asia is no longer the exoticized subject, but America.
It’s interesting to note that many details about America in the musical are purposely manipulated as hilariously inexact. ‘White’ roles are played by Asian actors who make up in whitefaces and imitate incorrect accents.
Soft Power examines the natures of democracy, white nationalism, and also Asian-American identity. The musical is an ambitious amalgam; it explores the East/West stereotypes and Asian representations within the increased geographical tensions between China and the U.S.
As DHH reflects, the way America has treated Asian Americans has always been a function of America’s relationship with the Asian countries it was in conflict with.
“But I think the root of Soft Power comes from a very personal and honest investigation of what it means to be Asian American, and therefore, what my relationship is to China.”DHH, Time.
Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang
Another representative work David Henry Hwang, Yellow Face is a semi-autobiographical piece of AAPI theater that features the author as the protagonist. To DHH, the play is a memoir, yet a kind of unreliable memoir.
The story of Yellow Face begins with DHH’s protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white British actor, in an Asian role in Miss Saigon.
The play also features the event of DHH’s father, founder of the Far East National Bank, being investigated. DHH’s father’s bank was suspected of illegal campaign contributions and funds for Chinese espionage.
Yellow Face is part fact and part fantasy; Most of the time, audiences wouldn’t know which part real which part is not until it is pointed out. But even if they do know, what’s the point of being reminded that the story is fake even with some real parts?
It is the same as the question about ‘what is a racial identity?’ If Asian-ness is interchangeable and an Asian identity can be easily transferred to and interpreted by a white actor on stage, what does it mean to be an Asian American in white-dominated spaces?
The questions left unresolved in the play. Additionally, who has the right to claim ownership of a culture? Who is allowed to represent it? And who is representing the Yellow Face?
Allegiance, Jay Kuo
Originally a book by Marc Acito, Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, Allegiance is a story inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei.
The background of the AAPI play is set during the Japanese American internment of WWII. The Kimura family is forced to give up their beautiful farm and relocate to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
The Kimuras are loyal Americans, although not being seen as ones. California born and raised Sammy Kimura is desperate to prove his loyalty to the nation. He is determined to join the army.
While young Sammy intentionally accentuates his Americanness, the vulnerable grandfather (played by the real George Takei), embraces his Japanese-ness by embodying traditional Japanese equanimity in gardening.
Allegiance is a recollection of family history and Japanese Americans incarceration history. It is an unconventional educational musical that acknowledges the relocation of Japanese American as shameful aberration in the U.S history.
America might have won the war, but it failed to offer justice to its citizens of Japanese descent. Targeting the entire ethnic group as a suspect without compassion is nonetheless a painful historical lesson in this version of AAPI theater.
R.A.W. ‘Cause I’m a Woman, Diana Son
R(aunchy). A(sian). W(oman). Diana Son’s short play is an exploration of stereotypes about Asian women. For instance, images like the pampering geisha, the exotic virgin, or the suicidal Miss Saigon.
This is a groundbreaking play that casts only Asian American women. With their dance, music, and spoken words, they visualize their experiences of being Asian women in different forms and identities.
Exotic, submissive, chic, obedient, mysterious, domestic, petite, oriental, Raunchy, Asian, Woman…
“I love your eyes.”
“Where are you from? I mean, what country are you from?”
“I love Oriental woman.”
As the actresses start posing and talking on stage, words appear on the screen over the stage. These words, these comments, and these questions are passive; they eroticize and alienate the Asian female identity and experience. In the meantime, the contents are curiously sarcastic and hilarious.
Son, in a way, is addressing the politics between interracial relationships and mocking Western male’s culturally insensitive fantasy over the Asian female body. Her intention is channeled through the voices of her actresses and their unapologetic conversations about female sexuality.
In these attempts, she challenges the checked stereotypical Asian female roles and intends to reinvent a new Asian female identity.
Son’s new female image comes from a place neither black nor white and it will not allow others to categorize it. As a powerful line in the play resonates, “I will not be your fetish. I will love and be loved.”
AAPI theater as we stand right now
Although representations of Asian/Asian Americans have greatly increased on the silver screen in recent years, they are still woefully missing in AAPI theater. It is largely because theater is generally dominated by Western culture and influence in America. It is a white space, so to speak.
However, contemporary Asian American playwrights have also been making progress little by little. They have been fighting to have their cultures seen and voices heard in this still constricted theatrical domain. Those who never give up’s contributions should be remembered and their names celebrated.