While you may have seen Crazy Rich Asians, Master of None, and Fresh Off the Boat in recent years, you probably haven’t heard of the Asians and Asian Americans making waves in the theatre scene. For most people, theatre is a high school elective that equips you with public speaking skills and maybe lands you a role in the spring musical--but it stays in high school. Not many young people, and even fewer Asian Americans, entertain pursuing the arts after graduation.
Like most underrepresented groups, Asians and Asian Americans have struggled with representation in American theatre and entertainment, typically showing up in movies, tv shows, and scripts as “the other.” But I’m here to tell you that Asians deserve to be represented on (and off) the stage as all of the identities and experiences we live every day!
(Photo from East West Players’ 2019 production of Mama Mia! Photography by Steven Lam.)
Some notable moments in Asian American theatre history:
1965 - One of the first Asian American theatres, East West Players, was founded in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. East West Players continues to produce Asian American scripts as well as mainstream musicals with an Asian American twist.
1972 - The first Asian American playwright to be produced on Broadway was Frank Chin with his play The Chickencoop Chinaman, a story about a Chinese American filmmaker working on a documentary about a famous African American boxer, exploring father-son relationships and the nuances of cultural identity.
1970’s - More East Asian and South Asian actors were admitted to NYU’s graduate acting program.
1988 - M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang won the Tony for Best Play. A classic among Asian American literature, M. Butterfly tells the story of a French diplomat whose affair with a Chinese opera singer sets off a trail of deceit and explores sexuality and identity.
1994 - Asian American Theatre Revue website is developed and links AAPI artists worldwide through the internet.
2006 - The first Asian American Theater Conference was held in Los Angeles, followed by the first national Festival was held in New York City in 2007.
2018 - Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee opens on Broadway, making Lee the first Asian American female playwright to do so.
I can’t help but think that the “model minority myth” contributed to the lack of Asian American representation in theatre and entertainment. The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans are “supposed” to be quiet and be good at math. They're not supposed to be centerstage with a voice that can be heard by the back row. Growing up in Silicon Valley, students are pressured to perform academically in order to impress college admission offices. Many of my Asian American friends studied relentlessly for every AP exam, SAT, and ACT, and then went on to study something “stable” like biology or computer science to eventually land in medicine or engineering as a career.
Performing artists have to research theatre companies, prepare auditions, write scripts, take classes, volunteer, and more just to get a foot in the door. As an underrepresented group, it can be difficult for Asian Americans to access resources or role models in the arts field. Because making a name for yourself in the arts can be challenging (it almost always is), many artists work a day job and pursue their artistic projects in their free time, perhaps as a side hustle. It can take years to start getting big bucks for acting, writing, or directing.
Even if you are trained in your craft and land good gigs, Asian Americans and other minorities continue to be seen by producers a certain way. Sandra Oh said, “Hollywood likes to put actors in boxes, and it likes to put Asian actors in really small boxes.” This is why we usually see Asian actors playing the sidekick, being the butt of the jokes, or even, sometimes, the villain. With so much risk, financial instability, and racial discrimination involved, it is unsurprising that many Asian Americans are deterred from pursuing theatre and the arts after high school.
But, again, I am here to tell you that Asian American theatre artists exist! We may not see ourselves acting or directing as much as we’d like, but we’re here.
You may know Shakespeare and newly popularized Hamilton, but I challenge you to look into the following playwrights and scripts and dig into the wide array of Asian American theatre artists:
The Shipment and Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven by Young Jean Lee
Thunder Above, Deeps Below and House Rules by A. Rey Pamatmat
Durango and The Language Archive by Julia Cho
Orange and The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy by Aditi Brennan Kapil