Asian American Drama Summary


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Asian American drama emerged from the identity politics and student radicalism of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The term “Asian American” was coined in the 1960’s as a replacement for “Oriental,” a term that many considered a demeaning colonialist description that exoticized all individuals to whom it was attached. By contrast, the term “Asian American,” implying a coalition or strategic alliance of peoples from widely dispersed geographical regions, became a political identifier, a verbal banner under which immigrants from Asian countries and their descendants could unite in the struggle against racism, ethnic profiling, economic discrimination, and invisibility.

Many Asian American playwrights feel that their work, because of their cultural heritage and their ethnic identities, can be regarded as Asian American drama. Despite the fact that their audiences make certain assumptions about any work thus labeled—that the work must be Asian inflected and must represent the total experience of an ethnic minority—Asian American playwrights emphasize the diversity of theme, the fluidity of genre, and the universality of emotion in their dramatic creations.

Although in form, structure, and focus, Asian American drama varies as widely as does any body of art, plays and performance pieces by artists of Asian descent often share common concerns: the search for identity and self-definition, the complexities of a life lived on cultural borders, the effects of racism, and the excavation of buried cultural histories. Moreover, the plays typically raise similar questions: What constitutes an authentic Asian American experience? Is there an Asian American cultural identity?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Theatrical activity has always been an integral component of Asian American communities. Historically, “Chinatowns” in California cities, in New York, and in Seattle mounted productions of traditional Cantonese operas and dramatized folktales, and Japanese immigrant communities performed their versions of the Kabuki and N dramas of their homeland. These performances were re-creations of cultural traditions imported from immigrants’ native countries, rather than plays that attempted to re-create and re-enact the performers’ current lives and situations.

During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, Asian characters onstage existed primarily as caricatures, as two-dimensional stereotypes: the evil Oriental (Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless); the loyal domesticated Charlie Chan with his agreeable “Ah so”; the geisha; the dragon lady; and the shrinking lotus blossom beauty who walks three paces behind her man. Moreover, these characters were generally played by white actors, and production handbooks of the period gave explicit instructions for makeup that could turn a Caucasian into an exaggerated Oriental. Meanwhile, with rare exception, Asian performers were limited to traditional dramatic forms such as Chinese opera, or they performed on the “Chop Suey” vaudeville circuit. Very occasionally, an actor of Asian descent had the opportunity to perform in main stage productions such as Oscar Hammerstein II and...

(The entire section is 472 words.)