Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 112-115
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I have anticipated the publication of Karen Shimakawa's book for quite some time now, hoping it would be available in time to use for my winter-term Asian American theatre course. Unfortunately its publication coincided with the beginning of the subsequent term, and my only true disappointment in reading the book was that I could not share it with my students.
National Abjection joins such texts as Josephine Lee's Performing Asian America, Dorinne Kondo's About Face, and Una Chaudhuri's Staging Place in examining works from the canon of Asian American dramaturgy and reexamining controversial stagings such as Miss Saigon. While Shimakawa's study addresses many of the same plays and playwrights as these previous studies, she offers a fresh perspective under the compelling rubric of abjection, presenting the most effective examination of this well-covered terrain to date. As indicated in her title, Shimakawa also attempts to foreground the Asian American body, an important gesture that is executed with partial success. Her attentiveness to the physical presence of the actor/body is accomplished primarily through textual analysis, and, with the exception of the actor Mako, her interviews were conducted solely with playwrights. Thus the book maintains a highly literary focus in spite of its strenuous efforts to highlight the body onstage. In her analysis, Shimakawa does succeed in consistently returning to the presence of the actor, often relating casting choices to plot, language, meaning, and, most important, historical and cultural context. It is in this latter regard that National Abjection makes its strongest contribution: Shimakawa casts a wide net in order to draw into her analysis artistic and historical antecedents, concurrent sociopolitical events, and a range of other influences that shaped the creation, staging, and reception of the plays represented in her study.
Indicative of this emphasis on context is the inclusion of a brief chapter about the formation of Asian American theatre companies—a particularly valuable addition because it links the emergence of many of the dramaturgical subjects of Shimakawa's analysis to the artistic/institutional movement that established an Asian American political and creative voice through the medium of theatre. Scholarly examinations of Asian American political movements often neglect to consider the proliferation of theatres as a significant force; studies of Asian American drama, by contrast, tend to focus on the plays themselves detached from the institutional environments (and discourses) from which they emerged. As public performance both enacted and received by live bodies, theatre is a crucial component of Asian American political discourse. Thus Shimakawa's decisions to foreground the body onstage and drawher reader's attention to the development of Asian American theatre companies are wise and productive. Furthermore, in the chapter on Asian American theatre companies Shimakawa takes care to delineate regional variations—particularly in terms of Hawaii's cultural ethos as typified by its repertory theatre [End Page 112] Kumu Kahua vis-à-vis mainland U.S. theatre companies such as East West Players, Asian American Theatre Company (AATC), Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT), Theatre Mu, and Pan Asian Rep. Though the source material for this chapter could have been more substantial (Shimakawa seems to rely on a single article, a single founding member's perspective, or a single season's promotional materials for her analysis of each theatre company), the inclusion of such a chapter creates an important institutional context and lends diversity to her discussion of performances of Asian American plays.
Between her introduction and her survey of theatre companies, Shimakawa revisits the Miss Saigon controversy. In subsequent chapters she examines foundational plays such as Wakako Yamauchi's 12-1-A and Frank Chin's pioneering duo Chickencoop Chinaman and Year of the Dragon (Chapter 3); analyzes plays of the early 1990s (Velina Hasu Houston's Tea, Jeannie Baroga's Talk Story, Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die, and David Henry Hwang's M.Butterfly in Chapter...