Asian American Drama Analysis

1960’s and 1970’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the United States of the 1960’s, the Asian American community consisted of immigrants from a handful of countries, and the defining label encompassed primarily those whose heritage was Chinese or Japanese (the earliest immigrants), and to a lesser extent, Philippine, Korean, or Indian (the second wave) immigrants. Therefore, the earliest theatrical productions that bore the Asian American stamp examined the viewpoint and experience of those cultures in the majority. With the 1952 reforms in immigration law, immigrants from other Asian and Pacific nations began to make their home in the United States, changing the composition of the Asian American community. In particular, the end of the Vietnam War saw an increase in Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong immigrants, and the Asian American experience onstage expanded to reflect the lives, dreams, and concerns of the newest arrivals.

Asian American drama grew out of the frustration felt by Asian-descent actors who felt marginalized, deprived of all but stereotypical roles on the American stage and screen. In response, the first Asian American theater company, East West Players , was established in Los Angeles in 1965 under the artistic direction of the famed actor Mako. With the help of Ford Foundation funding, East West Players sponsored a playwriting contest for Asian American writers in 1968 and thus launched the careers of the first generation of Asian American dramatists, including Wakako Yamauchi, Frank Chin, and Momoko Iko. In the next decade, other theater companies emerged: LaMama Chinatown in New York; Kumu Kahua, or “Original Stage,” in Honolulu; the San Francisco-based Asian American Theatre Company; the Northwest Asian Theatre Company in Seattle; and New York’s Pan Asian Repertory (which grew out of LaMama Chinatown in 1977). These theaters, along with Joseph Papp and the Public Theatre in New York City, nurtured a second generation of Asian American playwrights: Jeannie Barroga, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jessica Hagedorn, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, Genny Lim, and Elizabeth Wong.

Late Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the 1970’s, most Asian American theatrical activity was confined to the West Coast or New York. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the establishment elsewhere in the United States of a number of significant theater companies, including Theatre Mu in Minneapolis and Angel Island Theatre Company in Chicago. These ethnic theater companies began to produce the work of playwrights from Asian immigrant communities founded after the 1960’s. In New York, the Ma-Yi Theatre focuses mainly on productions by Filipino American playwrights, the National Asian American Theatre Company mounts productions of classic plays—such as works by Eugene O’Neill and Molière—with Asian actors; and the Yangtze Repertory Theatre brings together traditional Chinese theater with Asian American theater. San Francisco’s theater scene is enriched by the Filipino American Teatro Ng Tanan (“the people’s theater”).

Mainstream stages also have noticed Asian American writers and performers. In particular, New York’s Public Theatre—responsible for bringing Hwang and Hagedorn to the notice of New York theater audiences—stages at least one Asian American work each season, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles sponsors the Asian American Theatre Workshop. Two popular Asian American novels—Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) have been adapted for the stage with productions by, respectively, the...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Berman, Misha, ed. Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1990. The first anthology of plays by Asian American dramatists, this collection introduced American readers to an entire body of theatrical writing that stages the Asian American experience. Although most of the selections are short pieces—not necessarily the playwrights’ most significant work—the anthology as a whole represents the range and scope of Asian American drama at the beginning of the 1990’s.

Eng, Alvin, ed. Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage. New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1999. Includes ten plays and performance pieces to provide “a great visceral snapshot of what Asian American theater was like in New York City in the 1990’s.” Also includes a section, “The Verbal Mural,” that identifies New York as a crucial site for the performance of Asian American identity and commentary by using interviews with sixteen noted Asian American theater artists.

Houston, Velina Hasu, ed. But Still Like Air, I’ll Rise: New Asian American Plays. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1997. This collection of eleven plays represents a wide range of Asian-descent American playwrights living and working in the United States. Included are plays by both established and new...

(The entire section is 407 words.)