Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 386-388
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Educators and scholars of Asian American theatre have traditionally focused their attentions on the contributions of playwrights. Except for occasional newspaper articles, the actors who breathe life into those playwrights' words have been largely overlooked. In Asian American Actors: Oral Histories from Stage, Screen, and Television Joann Faung Jean Lee, a professor of communications at CUNY-Queens College, has collected nineteen Asian American actors' accounts of survival in the American entertainment industry. The result is a welcome, albeit uneven, addition to the growing body of published work devoted to Asian American theatre.
Lee's goal in undertaking her research was twofold: first, to render "more current," in her words, Eugene Franklin Wong's excellent OnVisual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures (1978); second, to shed light on the various approaches Asian American actors take while negotiating the minefield of casting discrimination. Lee's work is more personally focused than Wong's sociological examination, and therein lies its value. Nearly twenty-five years have elapsed since Wong's study, but the performers' voices in Asian American Actors are sober reminders that, for the overwhelming majority of American actors of Asian descent, racism remains a seemingly inescapable fact of their careers.
With an eye toward representing diverse geographic and experiential perspectives, Lee divides her study into two major categories: New York City and the West Coast. These she further subdivides into "Aspiring Actors" (not to be confused with "novices" as a goodly number of them have been paying their theatrical dues for many years indeed) and"Veteran Actors."Two Caucasian talent brokers—an agent and a casting director—round out the volume. The result is a mosaic of acting experiences and personal philosophies: from fledgling thespians, already weary from fighting to stay in a profession that apparently does not want them, to resourceful pragmatists who have called their own shots by seeking to create independent opportunities outside the system.
For an appreciation of the historical dynamics of Asian American acting [End Page 386] experiences, the reader must necessarily rely on "veteran actors" whose breadth of experience enables them to view their profession through long-range lenses. With over sixty years in the entertainment business, the redoubtable performer-turned-manager JadinWong,now in her eighties, is a compendium of facts and attitudes relating to Asian American acting history. Nancy Kwan, most often remembered for playing stereotypical "Oriental" floozies in film versions of The World of Suzy Wong (1961) and Flower Drum Song (1961), considers the shifting attitudes toward those portrayals over the past forty years. Tisa Chang recalls scaling the walls of discrimination to achieve artistic excellence on her own terms by creating her own company, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, and Lane Nishikawa, describing the national tour of his solo performances that deconstruct stereotypes of Asian men, reinforces the theme of artistic self-determination. Peter Kwong, who successfully challenged casting discrimination in the courts, presents an informative account of the impact his activism had on his career.
Asian American Actors should have been a far more meticulous and thoughtful work than it disappointingly is. The book suffers from punctuation, spelling, and stylistic errors throughout and could have benefited from some tough editing and restructuring. Even specialists in Asian American theatre studies are likely to be unaware of some of the contributors; students and newcomers to the field will certainly be making their acquaintance for the first time in this volume. Had the actors been provided with more thoroughly researched introductions, readers would be better able to understand not only the actors' individual stances on the issues, but the significance of those positions in relation to their larger contexts: the history of Asian American theatre and the persistence of casting discrimination in the American entertainment industry.
Engaging in a field of study not one's own can sometimes result in fresh and unbiased observations. Lee's...