- A History of Asian American Theatre
Esther Kim Lee’s A History of Asian American Theatre is a concise and utterly readable book that traces the history of Asian American performance from pre-1965 “oriental” theatre through the culture wars of the 1990s. This is a significant and long-overdue contribution to American theatre history, Asian American studies, and any scholarship interested in the politics of representation or art and activism. This book will serve scholars of Asian American performance, as well as teachers of theatre history aiming to think more broadly about multiculturalism, cultural nationalism, and racial representation on the American stage. Her broad scope still leaves her room for many insightful play analyses and discussions of key issues such as yellowface casting practices.
Lee places theatre artists, rather than institutions, at the center of this history, highlighting the ways Asian American artists have fought to create their own niche in American theatre. Based on over seventy interviews and archival research, this book is comprehensive in its inclusion not only of companies and their adherents, but also solo performers, comedy troupes, and Asian Americans whose contributions to avant-garde performance have been largely overlooked. Lee imagines the world of Asian American theatre as a “web of links,” and the frequent cross-referencing among chapters indicates that this was no easy project to organize: “Asian American theatre” is in some ways a small world in which a few people play several roles (from actor to activist to administrator), but it also has tremendous reach and overlap with other aspects of American theatre history, including Asian diasporic performance, African American performance, and regional and Broadway theatre.
In one of the most compelling strands of this history, Lee traces how Asian American artists have had to resurrect familiar tactics and protests again and again in order to fight racist casting practices and Orientalist plots during nearly every decade of the last century. Her first chapter on pre-1965 “oriental” theatre reviews familiar phenomena like the Forbidden City night club in San Francisco and highlights lesser-known Asian American artists like Peter Hyun, who was the original director of the Federal Theatre Project’s The Revolt of the Beavers. Her second chapter details the activism of actors during the 1960s and ’70s that enabled what would later be known as Asian American theatre: under the auspices of the Oriental Actors of America, Asian Americans protested racist casting practices on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, and at the Public Theater. The protest of yellowface casting at the Public Theater in the 1970s, in particular, points to the ways Asian Americans have been excluded even from those institutions that enthusiastically supported multiculturalism and other artists of color. Pushing against these practices and wanting to produce their own images of Asian America, actors and writers were primarily responsible for forming the four original Asian American theatre companies: East West Players in Los Angeles, the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco, Northwest Asian American Theater in Seattle, and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York City.
Lee devotes an entire chapter to the 1990 Miss Saigon casting controversy and the protests led by actors and writers in the Asian American theatre community. Although many scholars have addressed the Miss Saigon incident, Lee’s contextualization within the longer trajectory of Asian American theatre and activism prompts larger questions about the legacy of yellowface casting and why it has persisted in mainstream venues so much longer than blackface minstrelsy. Lee also provides a clear and thorough history of the story’s roots in Madame Butterfly, detailing why the content, and not only the casting choices, were so distressing to the community.
In addition to companies and organizations, Lee’s work recognizes the vast contributions made by individual Asian American theatre artists. Aside from the more obvious successes of David Henry Hwang, Frank Chin, and Philip Kan Gotanda, to whom she devotes due attention, Lee focuses on the careers of individuals like solo performer Nobuko...