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
(Photo from Stanford’s Asian American Theatre Production production of Durango by Julia Cho. Photography by Frank Chen.)
In the Bay Area, Bindlestiff Studio celebrates Filipino-American theatre and artists by putting on shows every month with a completely Fil-Am production crew; Contemporary Asian Theatre Scene presents Asian American and Pacific Islander performances in theatre, music, and film; EnActe Arts showcases and empowers South Asian voices in theatre; and emerging community theatre, More Más Marami Arts (whose name means “more” in English, Spanish, and Tagalog), seeks to uplift emerging Asian, Latinx, LGBTQ+ artists right here in the South Bay.
I myself fell in love with theatre when I was 14; I was a stagehand hanging lights and managing sound, an avid supporter of friends who acted in the spotlight, and writer of my first script, and I haven’t stopped since. Whenever I watch live theatre face to face with the stories of our world, I feel what the characters feel; I see the world in their eyes. There’s something powerful in watching a live performance of the human experience in a room full of people, collectively holding breaths and witnessing the same heartened dialogue…
(Photo from Bindlestiff Studio’s The Love Edition 2019 production, Boba Shop Solace by Marissa Martinez.)
While we still have a ways to go for representation in theatre and entertainment, I feel empowered knowing that there are Asian American and BIPOC voices writing, acting, directing, and producing our stories. We need to support these artists; get them into auditions, give them production budgets, read their scripts, make space for them.
There is so much power in seeing someone who looks like you on stage and on screen as a human with real stories and real emotions, not just as a caricature. The more stories about us there are, the more we illustrate our lived experiences and the more we can dispel harmful stereotypes. We can document our histories and bridge understanding to audiences from coast to coast. We can inspire youth and elders and make them feel seen. The theater has always been a place for authentic stories, for humans to bear their souls to the world watching them, and I’m looking forward to seeing the curtains rise on more stories written by and featuring Asian American artists.
A History of Asian American History by Esther Kim Lee