- The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday by Ju Yon Kim
For scholars of performance and critical race studies, one well-trodden archive is that of the ethnographic showcase, which displayed the extraordinary physiques, costumes, and cultural habits of populations from throughout the globe for the amusement and edification of Anglo-Europeans. In her new book, Ju Yon Kim directs our attention not toward the extraordinary, but to the ordinary—the quotidian activities whereby (late-twentieth-century) peoples eat, nap, study, drive cars, make change, and stuff envelopes—as an illuminating site for examining how racial difference is staged. The Racial Mundane argues that a close look at the “embodied everyday” in relation to “well-documented controversies about race” (19) will prove a productive method by which to reexamine “the supposed paradox of Asian American racial formation” (19). But what is meant by this “supposed paradox”? Is it that Asian Americans are considered exemplary or [End Page 689] “model minorities,” but also are forever consigned in the United States to the category of the alien abject? Is it that Asian American racial formation is entirely heterogeneous along lines of class, gender, and ethno-national specificity, rendering nonsensical the idea of a single mode of racialization for this group? Is it that given the binary schema of white/black still dominant in many sections of the country that Asian Americans can appear either, when quiet and resilient, as too white-washed to ally themselves with people of color, or when outspoken on issues of social justice, as too radical, ungrateful, or simply imitative of blacks?
While Kim leaves open these questions, her astute analyses direct our attention to racialization as a historically changing set of social interactions that performance studies methods, applied to both theatrical and nontheatrical archives, can be particularly adept at accentuating. In chapter 1, for instance, Kim forwards the unique concept of “yellowface viewership” in her analysis of J. Harry Benrimo and George Hazelton’s The Yellow Jacket (1912)—billed as a quintessentially Chinese opera adapted for European and American audiences. Here, racialization inheres in an Anglo-American fetish for experiencing an oriental cultural artifact as if the white audience were both inside the culture—inhabiting the position of the Chinese spectator—while also maintaining a comfortable distance from any actual Chinese audience members or actors (because The Yellow Jacket was enacted solely by white actors in yellowface). By focusing on the ordinary figure of the Prop Man, this majestic chapter further establishes the under-recognized orientalist origins of a novel stage-management technique that would later be adapted and revised in the iconic American drama, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). In a chapter that addresses racialization as that which results in hostility and competition among minority groups, Kim delves into the efficacy of casting tactics, such as the strategy of assigning a single actor to multiple roles and cross-racial casting, as these inform the “docu-theatres” of Elizabeth Wong and Anna Deavere Smith—playwrights concerned with how stage performance might help us understand and heal interracial conflict between blacks and Koreans during the 1990s.
Two of the book’s chapters pair an analysis of a stage play with a work outside of that genre—that is, with a novelistic fiction or a cinematic narrative. Attending to the correspondences between Velina Hasu Houston’s drama Tea (1987) and Joy Kogawa’s novel Itsuka (1992), chapter 2 examines the kinesthetic rituals either staged live before an audience or relayed textually to a reader, with these respective interfaces producing in their audiences distinctive levels of appreciation for the work that these phatic activities perform in repairing the broken ties of the Japanese North American community after World War II. Here, racialization implicitly results from the dispersal and fracturing of culture and community by wartime migration and incarceration—that is, the dispersal of Japanese Americans to internment camps and then to inland resettlements, as well as the journey of Japanese war brides to Kansas, Texas, and other sites of...