Perspectives on Asian American Performance Art: Contexts, Memories, and the Making of Meaning on Stage. an Interview with Canyon Sam, Denise Uyehara, and Brenda Wong Aoki
Jew, Kimberly May, MELUS
This interview was inspired by absence. Though performance art has a rich history as a viable and expressive counterpart to traditional text-based theater, performance art's ephemeral and individualistic nature has worked against its inclusion in the mainstream critical discourses of print culture and academia. Performance art embraces the central role of the performer and revels in the imaginative and physical processes of acting before an audience; it has therefore tended to find its place in the undervalued, embodied "repertoire" rather than in the hegemonic, text-based "archive." (1) This interview with three diverse Asian American women investigates how their performances function as embodied practices that carry cultural memories, visions, and ideals. My quest to document the personal experiences of Canyon Sam (1956-), Denise Uyehara (1966-), and Brenda Wong Aoki (1953-) amounts to an offering to the Asian American archives.
An actor-centered performance art that downplays text and strict narrative structure dates back to the classical Greek mimes and flourished in the sixteenth-century improvisational performances of the commedia dell'arte actors. Banned from performing in formal Greek and Shakespearean theatrical events, female actors featured strongly in these alternative venues. As a self-conscious theatrical genre, however, performance art did not achieve prominence until the post-modern era, when theater artists began openly questioning the stability of character, the veracity and relevance of story, the controlling role of the author, and the boundaries of genre and aesthetics, high art and low art. Within this fluid world of experimentation, performance artists found a discourse through which to articulate their exploration of movement, voice, stage presence, visual art, space, performance objects, music, multimedia, politics, theatrical effect, and subjectivity.
In particular, Asian American theater artists have embraced the artistic freedom of performance art. Artists as diverse as Lane Nishikawa, Margaret Cho, Jude Narita, Ping Chong, Aasif Mandvi, and Dan Kwong have been able to challenge and subvert ethnic stereotypes, humanize the Asian body and voice on stage, enjoy an empowered subject position, and revel in an aesthetic world in which boundaries, identities, and narratives are in flux. Because performance art assumes the actor as the primary generative force of the performance, the Asian American actor is given wide range to draw attention to his or her own living and diverse presence(s) before an audience. For instance, an audience member watching the often stereotype-busting Margaret Cho might ask, "When does the 'actor' Margaret Cho become the 'character' Margaret Cho? And vice versa? And most importantly, is this woman for 'real'?" Or perhaps, a spectator at a large-scale Ping Chong visual extravaganza might ask, "How does Ping Chong's apparent inclination toward traditional Asian aesthetics fit within his strong identity as an Asian American raised in New York City?"
The three female performance artists interviewed here highlight the great range of approaches, tactics, and goals demonstrated by the past forty years of Asian American performance art. Canyon Sam, for instance, is a San Francisco-based writer known for her explorations of Tibetan life, culture, and the experiences of women, including her own upbringing as a Chinese American daughter. Neither a trained actor nor a theater artist, Sam stumbled upon the possibilities of live performance during her graduate studies. Of the three performance artists in this interview, her work is the most realistic in its emphasis on the creation of true-tolife, believable, and empathetic characters, many of whom she met on her travels through Asia. A solo performer who uses minimalist staging, Sam is committed to social activism, feminist perspectives, and storytelling. Her performance art works include The Dissident (1991), Taxi Karma (1991), and The Capacity to Enter (1999). …