Asian American Theater and Drama from the 1960s to the 1990s
- Esther Kim LeeEsther Kim LeeDepartment of Theater Studies, Duke University
Asian American theater was created in the 1960s and the 1970s as a national movement by actors, playwrights, designers, directors, and producers who wanted to promote the inclusion and representation of Asian Americans in American culture. At the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of “Asian American theatre” did not exist, and “Asian American drama” was not a known genre. Instead, there were “oriental” actors who wanted to play non-stereotypical roles and to fight the practice of yellowface, a makeup convention in which white actors alter their face to look Asian. The “oriental” actors had a two-pronged agenda of art and activism to be taken seriously for their talent and experience. The first Asian American theater company, the East West Players, was founded in 1965 by actors in Los Angeles to further the agenda. In the 1970s, other Asian American theater companies and groups emerged around the country, and original Asian American plays began to be produced. Playwrights such as Frank Chin, Wakako Yamauchi, and Philip Kan Gotanda had their first plays produced at Asian American theater companies founded in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1980s, Asian American plays began to be produced in mainstream theater, which includes Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theaters. The success of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which received the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play, brought much attention to Asian American drama, and a number of plays were produced and published subsequently. Playwrights such as Velina Hasu Houston, Elizabeth Wong, and Jeannie Barroga had their plays produced at major theater companies, and Asian American theater companies continued to support new playwrights. In nontraditional theater venues, multimedia and avant-garde artists such as Jessica Hagedorn and Ping Chong were active in creating original performance pieces. Additionally, solo performance became a major performance genre for Asian American artists who wanted to use their body and voice to tell their own stories. Dan Kwong, Denise Uyehara, and Brenda Wong Aoki were forerunners in launching the genre of Asian American solo performance. A number of Asian American actors such as B. D. Wong, John Lone, and Mia Katigbak also received significant opportunities and recognition, but their two-pronged agenda of art and activism remained relevant and urgent. In the early 1990s, Asian American actors led the protest of the Broadway production of the mega-musical Miss Saigon that featured a white actor in yellowface makeup in the original London production. The protest galvanized Asian American theater artists around the country and inspired a new generation of writers, actors, designers, directors, and producers to create what would become one of the fastest growing sectors of American theater.