Out of the Margins: A national theatre conference in Los Angeles galvanizes Asian-American forces / by R. Sheth

October, 2006

What happens when the old guard confronts the new? Such an encounter, as the title of the first national Asian-American theatre conference that was held in Los Angeles this past June suggests, can signify something like an explosion. During “The Next Big Bang,” which took place at East West Players, the phenomenon of pioneers and proven artists meeting up with emergent and upstart troupes, even within a relatively young theatre movement, reveals striking flashes and unexpected fissures—the shock of coming upon a great rabble of new Asian-American artists and theatre professionals who had recently entered the field for reasons vastly different from their predecessors.

Roughly 200 delegates and attendees, representing Asian-American theatres as well as those with a strong international bent, descended upon Los Angeles. (A national Asian- American theatre festival will follow the conference next year in New York City.) And what was immediately evident is that Asian-American theatre has undergone a profound, paradigmatic change that touches upon—then goes beyond—matters of demographics, aesthetics, generational divide, points of view and, most conspicuous of all, reasons for being.

The original three companies that gave birth to this movement—Los Angeles’s 41-year-old East West Players (EWP), San Francisco’s 33-year-old Asian American Theater Company and New York City’s 23-year-old Pan Asian Repertory Theatre—are no longer the only game in town. Their formation was motivated by actors of Asian descent—many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants—wanting to perform meaningful roles in established Western dramas. As late as the 1980s, newer companies, such as New York–based National Asian-American Theatre Company and Ma-Yi Theater Company, initially organized around the same principle.

But while today the expansion of acting opportunities still persists in driving the cultural production of Asian- American theatres, the 1990s and the new century have seen the emergence of younger companies, such as Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project and New York’s Second Generation, with a focus on developing and producing playwrights as well as putting specifically Asian-American stories on stage. Their scope includes Asian-American plays usually crafted by playwrights of Asian descent. Contemporary Asian-American cultural production also extends into theatres with a broader and often transnational focus, such as Long Beach, Calif.’s International City Theatre and Minneapolis’s Pangea World Theater and Mixed Blood Theatre Company. Asian Americans now represent about 4 percent of the U.S. population, and Asian American artists can lay claim to more than 35 active theatre companies nationwide, according to Asian-American theatre critical studies and history scholar Esther Kim Lee.

The ethnic face of Asian America is changing: The 20th century has been marked by the influx of multiracial Asian Americans, Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipino Americans, as well as, in more recent years, of South Asian, Southeast Asian, West Asian and Central Asian immigrants and their offspring. “Demographers are saying that by the year 2050 people of color in aggregate will become the majority of the United States,” stated Ford Foundation program officer Roberta Uno during her keynote address at the conference. “This reality has already happened in many urban centers like Los Angeles where a new term—majority minorities—has emerged to describe the population. A major paradigm shift now confronts the arts and culture field as terms like minority, mainstream, ethnically specific, culturally specific, traditional, dominant culture and underrepresented are being inverted, made obsolete, or being given new meaning by changing demographics. What does it mean when the mainstream is just one of many rivers in our society?”

But the deeper question transcends the question and politics of population characteristics: In what ways—conference participants wanted to know—does this new demographic reality filter down into Asian-American theatre to transform the art?

Asian-American plays pre-date the establishment of Asian-American theatre companies by about 40 to 70 years, depending on how one defines an Asian-American play (the earliest record of a drama written by an Asian American, who was of mixed race, dates back to Sadakichi Hartman’s Christ: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts [1893–1897]; the earliest record of a drama about the Asian-American experience authored by an Asian American is Gladys Ling-Ai Li’s The Submission of Rose Moy [1924], according to Kim Lee). While many hail Asian-American theatre merely as an ethnic subset, this artistically flourishing entity is poised to catapult itself into a new era where it hopes to bolster the vitality of theatre art as a whole, state the field’s leading artistic directors. “Asian-American theatre will be the next significant movement in evolving the art form that is known as American theatre,” says Tim Dang, EWP artistic director. Along with several dramatists, Dang notes that Asian-American theatre, by necessity, has become more ethnically diverse. The term “Asian American” has been continually evolving in terms of forms, styles, countries of origin and ethnic affinities since Asian-American studies pioneer Yuji Ichioka coined the phrase in the 1960s. Dang says the label no longer means simply “the Chinese, Japanese, Korean or East Asian type of experience” but “hapa voices [half Asian or Pacific Islander] or polycultural voices as well as immigrant and multigenerational voices.”

Of equal importance to Dang was aesthetic inclusion—the embrace of varied idioms of expression such as spoken word, hip-hop, sketch comedy, multimedia and solo performance. Still, he emphasizes that diversity in aesthetic practice for Asian-American theatres is nothing new: “Asian-American theatre has been embracing these types of aesthetic practices from the beginning.”

Historian Kim Lee agrees. Author of an upcoming Cambridge University Press book A History of Asian American Theatre— the most comprehensive tome of its kind on the subject— Kim Lee points out that aesthetic diversity is central to all artists, regardless of age, place of birth or origin. “Talented artists can, and should, navigate multiple forms such as poetry, prose, drama, performance, etc.,” she says. Although younger artists refer to nonplay idioms as being new, she adds that “the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ forms is problematic,” because, in a deeper sense, a huge array of modes of expression have been around in various ways for some time.

Kim Lee also attests that, unlike their many younger artists, established Asian- American companies such as EWP and Pan Asian Rep choose “to function as regional theatres, which are by definition play-based venues.” For instance, while Pan Asian Rep’s Tisa Chang values aesthetic diversity, she has a more customary view of what Asian-American theatres should focus on artistically. She maintains that plays remain the thing, and that younger artists immersed in diverse aesthetic practices are frequently “not aware of their history” and the way that it informs their present condition. “New global events inform Asian-American plays today,” Chang said. “But younger artists don’t seem to be interested in these markers of history. Our ancestries have no value to them. This is a big mistake. You have to know where you came from and where you’re going—or what is it that you’re going to say?”

Asian-American theatre—“the pioneering theatres that are part of the mainstream and producing modern classics and contemporary plays, and the newly emerging companies who want to present the new idioms of expression.” While she believes that these emergent idioms “add to the richness of Asian-American arts and expand the notion of what Asian- American theatre is,” she is uncertain about their long-term fit. “Whether these artistic idioms will remain under the rubric of Asian- American theatre is yet to be seen,” Chang says. “I don’t know if they will reshape or dictate the art, or even if they should; the tail should never wag the dog.”

Chang, however, does support new expressions. One case in point is the solo performance artist Lan Tran’s Elevator/Sex, which was produced by Pan Asian and presented as part of the Los Angeles conference’s showcase of performances. “Lan has the courage to deal with the childhood trauma of being molested; and she does it without whining, not as a victim,” Chang says. “She chooses to tell a story, and that’s at the heart of her success. The serious writers will try to continue to probe the difficult issues.”

Jamil Khoury, Silk Road Theatre Project’s artistic director, echoes Chang’s sentiments about the importance of giving legitimacy to plays written by Asian, Asian-American and Amerasian playwrights that center on different dimensions of Asian-American life. From his perspective “The Next Big Bang”—which was attended mostly by younger artists—has placed “more emphasis on spoken word and solo performance” in its showcase of future work. “I almost felt like I had to apologize for being interested in conventional theatre,”

Khoury says. “There was little emphasis on cherishing the artists who were there from the beginning. It was as if all of a sudden all of the things that we have been fighting to get through the door were being cast in this retro light—as if plays were passé.” Khoury says that theatre companies’ mission must be to find and present good plays. “We are in danger of losing our focus,” he continues. “While I don’t dismiss the importance of new forms, I would like to see a greater emphasis on playwrights who are doing the conventional art of skilled dramatic narrative. We’ve all read the obituary on traditional theatre time and time again, but it shouldn’t be coming from a national theatre forum.” Speaking as a producer, Khoury adds, “Frankly, I don’t know if I can sell spoken word as a producer other than as a late-night event.”

Gayle Isa, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative, a 13-year-old communitybased arts center in Philadelphia, also expressed concern about creating standards by which to measure the quality of diverse forms of expression. Isa says she is struggling to understand “how we as a field can integrate new forms and younger artists—and simultaneously cultivate a culture of critique that continues the honing and development of each piece of work.” Regarding solo performance pieces “that are self-directed, if at all, and artists who are not familiar with or receptive to the rigors of ‘traditional’ theatre rehearsals and director’s notes,” Isa suggests that a mechanism for feedback to assist with refinement must be created. “What can we do to ensure that [aesthetically diverse] artists are practicing their craft?” she asks.

While Ralph Peña, Ma-Yi artistic director, is excited about the “new Asian-American writers and performers who are re-jiggering traditional immigrant and post-colonial narratives,” he agrees that artistic quality is a must. “Rigor needs to play a big part in our work, both intellectually and creatively,” he says. “Content and context are certainly important—but so are form and execution. We all need to keep raising the bar.”

dramaturgy versus alternative performance modes, perhaps the most important thing that happened at the “Next Big Bang” conference was the recognition that there is power in unity. As Leilani Chan, TeAda Productions artistic director, says, “Artists knew this, but to be in the room with so many others of like minds was amazing.”

“People must be galvanized,” adds Sean Lim, AATC artistic director, arguing for the need for a national Asian-American theatre network and for companies to become savvier about building infrastructures that could make them more attractive to benefactors. He urges young people to become involved in Asian-American theatre administration because, he says, “leadership is key,” as Asian- American theatre increases its purchase in American theatre.

“In the art form, we are the future, we are the new markets,” Lim says. “In financial markets, you invest in future performance. If American theatre is going to survive, it has to look at theatres of color as emerging markets. The mainstream theatre market is saturated, and, in the world of business, if you’re not investing in future performance and considering new markets, then your business dies. A lot of mainstream theatres don’t think of this risk as a problem. They hear what theatres of color are saying, and they say, ‘Why can’t we just placate them?’ But I believe that American theatre has to support Asian-American theatre and other theatres of color based upon pure investment principles and the changing face of America. Once people are forced to connect to cultures outside of the mainstream, it will only benefit the whole.”

Indeed, Chang, Lim and Dang—all organizers of “The Next Big Bang”—have expressed a desire for Asian and Asian-Americans to focus their investment, both economic and artistic, on Asian-American companies rather than on mainstream companies. Dang says: “There are Asian-American writers who will not submit their work to Asian-American theatres, Asian-American performers who will not work at Asian-American theatres, and Asian-American donors who would rather give their contribution to mainstream institutions.” Chang concurs: Even Asian and Asian-American donors who are passionate about developing or producing new Asian- American plays turn their financial support over to large mainstream theatres rather than Asian-American companies.

Given these sobering realities, Asian- American companies grapple with challenging funding issues—especially the inability to secure support for revisiting neglected masterpieces and giving second-stage productions for classic Asian-American works, such as Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance. A body of noteworthy Asian-American drama has been created, but mainstream theatres rarely revisit such plays (one sole exception: David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly), not giving these plays the opportunity to be re-established in the American canon. “Funders don’t understand the importance of us doing that,” Chang says. “Shakespeare is done over and over again, sometimes in the same seasons in the same cities. Why can’t we reconnect with our plays written in the past or present by established Asian-American writers who are writing from a mature, experienced point of view? We shouldn’t always have to do something emerging just because it’s ‘emerging’.”

Perhaps part of the problem, AATC’s Sean Lim suggests with tongue firmly in cheek, is related to the stereotypical belief that assimilated Asian Americans prefer not to speak up in mainstream society—that they prefer consensus to confrontation. “Maybe we need megaphones,” he quips.

Noting that the money issue never goes away, Ma-Yi’s Peña would rather focus on other challenges such as the “self-marketing of the exotic.” In the past, some Asian- American playwrights have been censured for writing works that Asian-American community critics believed pandered or catered to a mainstream view of what was provocative about Asian and Asian-American culture. Peña suggests that the promotion of such ideas and images is the wrong way to illuminate Asian-American identity to the masses.

“We continue to build cages around ourselves, preferring to give others the privileged gaze—when we should be turning it around,” he contends. “This points to a need for deeper awareness and a vigilant assessment of our own critical lenses. We need to constantly evaluate how we choose to construct ourselves around the political and aesthetic mandate of what is ‘Asian American.’ We need to kick it, blow it up, reassemble it, and disrespect its boundaries—to make it an instrument of liberation as it was originally envisioned and not a limiting straitjacket.”

A greater challenge that Asian-American theatre leaders must meet is the inclusion of Asian-American theatre—both ethnically and aesthetically—within the larger rubric of American theatre. “The legitimization of Asian-American theatre happens,” Chang states, “when the national theatre community as a whole comes to value, appreciate and accept us not as an outsider or minority or peripheral partner, but as a part of the central fabric.” In fact, as TeAda’s Chan observes, only a few mainstream theatre leaders attended “The Next Big Bang” conference. She hopes that more will attend the 2007 festival in New York City.

Kim Lee, on the other hand, urges Asian-American theatres to critically rethink the purpose of Asian-American theatre. “Ethnic minority theatres are always mapped at the margins of American culture [which] has hurt Asian-American theatre,” she says, arguing that Asian-American theatre artists should re-imagine themselves and “dare to venture into the future by taking risks.”

For Dang, the vigor of the conference was proof that “Asian-American theatre is alive and well.” To cultivate that vigor, Dang says, “Asian-American theatres must maintain the visibility of the works being created.” He says that theatres also must create new partnerships to “encourage non–Asian-specific performing organizations to produce/present Asian-American work in order to support diversity, cultural enrichment and enlightenment in a more global community.”

The time for an inclusive, polycultural approach to Asian-American theatre is overdue. “We don’t always think and act globally,” Khoury says, “and now we must. That time is upon us all.”

Velina Hasu Houston is a los Angeles–based, internationally produced playwright who also directs the Master of fine Arts in Dramatic writing program at the school of Theatre, university of southern California.