- The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday by Ju Yon Kim
Ordinary acts and everyday behaviour have become crucial sites for both establishing and contesting Asian-American racial difference, Ju Yon Kim argues, in The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. In this insightful new contribution to Asian-American cultural studies, American theatre history, and performance studies, Kim makes a compelling case for what she calls "the racial mundane" as a way to understand the paradoxes of Asian-American racial formation. Drawing from an impressive array of historical, theoretical, sociological, and cultural sources, the book meticulously examines the changing shape of Asian-American racial discourse from the nineteenth century to the present to demonstrate that Asian-American racial difference has been consistently imagined through the racially marked Asian-American body's performance of mundane acts, quotidian habits, and embodied routines. With "the racial mundane," Kim develops a sophisticated conceptual paradigm linking the habitual familiarity of the mundane to the spectacularity of racial difference in order to explicate racial perception as that which emerges in the gap between body and behaviour (9). In so doing, The Racial Mundane offers a significant contribution not only for scholars and teachers of Asian-American theatre and performance studies but also for anyone interested in the mutually constitutive processes of embodiment, racialization, and performance.
The principal strength of the book lies in Kim's elaboration of the concept of the racial mundane itself, which "joins the repetition of habitual behaviors with the production of racial difference" (8). Skilfully weaving together paradigms of theatrical performance with philosophical and sociological theories of bodily habitus, everyday practice, and disciplinary training by Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, and Judith Butler, The Racial Mundane pinpoints the embodied everyday as the ground upon which Asian-American racial difference has been both externally imposed and internally constituted. Particularly effective is Kim's discussion of the ambiguous theatricality of the mundane, which, she explains, materializes in the perceptual gap between body and behaviour: "Ambiguity emerges when unfamiliar bodies take up familiar behaviors, when the relationship between body and behavior becomes an open question and consequently takes on a theatrical character" (6; emphasis in original).
Structurally, The Racial Mundane is organized chronologically and thematically, with each chapter joining a pair of dramatic, literary, or filmic texts [End Page 397] that address controversial flashpoints in the Asian-American embodied everyday. The first chapter begins with the unexpected but inspired pairing of two early-twentieth-century popular performances produced during the protracted Chinese exclusion era in US immigration history (1882–1943): George C. Hazelton, Jr. and J. Harry Benrimo's 1912 Broadway production of The Yellow Jacket and Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic, Our Town. Kim's historiographic excavation of The Yellow Jacket is particularly impressive. Taking a reception history approach, Kim focuses on the similarly metatheatrical function of two characters in the plays – the Property Man in The Yellow Jacket and the Stage Manager in Our Town – to show how each play's staging of the everyday customs, habits, routines and objects of theatre-making differently positioned audiences' spectatorial identifications. Fascinatingly, Kim suggests that The Yellow Jacket encouraged a practice of yellowface viewing that offered non-Chinese audience members the possibility of both being like the Chinese "and the certainty of not being like them" (43).
In contrast to the first chapter's focus on the mundane's production of racial difference during the exclusion era, the second and third chapters situate the mundane relative to the pressures of Asian-American cultural assimilation following World War II. Through an examination of everyday rituals (such as pouring tea, repurposing domestic objects, and stuffing redress envelopes) in Velina Hasu Houston's play Tea (1987) and Joy Kogawa's novel Itsuka (1992), Kim identifies "the ritualized mundane" as a significant practice of preserving and remaking cultural identity and historical memory after the violent dislocations of Japanese North American internment in Canada and the United States (76). Chapter three similarly broaches questions...