Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage


At a time when Asian American theater is enjoying a measure of growth and success, Josephine Lee tells us about the complex social and political issues depicted by Asian American playwrights. By looking at performances and dramatic texts, Lee argues that playwrights produce a different conception of Asian America in accordance with their unique set of sensibilities.

For instance, some Asian American playwrights critique the separation of issues of race and ethnicity from those of economics and class, or they see ethnic identity as aa voluntary choice of lifestyle rather than an impetus for concerted political action. Others deal with the problem of cultural stereotypes and how to reappropriate their power. Lee is attuned to the complexities and contradictions of such performances, and her trenchant thinking about the criticisms lobbed at Asian American playwrights -- for their choices in form, perpetuation of stereotype, or apparent sexism or homophobia -- leads her to question how the presentation of Asian American identity in the theater parallels problems and possibilities of identity offstage as well.

Discussed are better-known plays such as Frank Chin's "The Chickencoop Chinaman," David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," and Velina Hasu Houston's "Tea," and new works like Jeannie Barroga's "Walls" and Wakako Yamauchi's "12-1-a.""


This book begins a critical examination of selected plays written by Americans of Asian descent. The works considered cover a diverse range of subjects and dramatic styles; my discussion teases out the shared strategies by which plays and playwrights make performance, dramatic form, and audience response inseparable from the meaning of race and ethnicity. As we shall see, such an examination necessarily engages with many pressing concerns, ones whose effects are felt outside as well as inside the theater. These concerns make it crucial for us to refocus our approaches to dramatic and literary interpretation in response to larger political questions about Asian American experience, identity, and action. Through the reading of these plays, we may gain insight not only into individual plays, but also more generally into the complex modes of action that these works employ and exemplify.

Before discussing such critical strategies, I will briefly summarize some significant history that will help to contextualize the genesis and production of these plays. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the first major wave of Asian immigration to the United States. Attracted by the economic opportunities provided by the California gold rush and westward development and spurred by civil unrest and famine in China . . .

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