Melodrama and Asian American Performance
- Eunha NaEunha NaDepartment of English, Seoul National University
American theater has long used melodramatic elements to shape the contour of racial dynamics and its representations for white mainstream audiences. Recurrent tropes of racial melodrama have appeared in such works as George Aiken’s stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1858) and Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), asserting a strong influence on the public perception of the ethical flaws of slavery and the ambiguity of racial identities. With its sympathetic portrayals of racial minorities as virtuous, innocent victims of social injustice, racial melodrama engaged white viewers in stories of racialized characters that aroused basic human feelings of compassion and sympathy as well as a sense of moral righteousness that encouraged and mobilized political actions, such as abolitionist movements, well beyond the theater.
Modern and contemporary Asian American dramatists have adopted formal and thematic elements of melodrama and its affective strategies as a way to gain public visibility and re-articulate prevailing ethnic stereotypes formulated within a binary framework peculiar to melodrama. Melodrama’s emotional intensity and stylistic excesses effectively help to convey the historical, social, and emotional experiences of Asian Americans, including migration, displacement, and injustices such as Japanese American World War II incarceration. At the same time, Asian American dramatists’ critical revision of the melodramatic mode complicates the gendered and racialized dynamic that has defined the cultural identity of Asian Americans against white, mainstream America. The clearly melodramatic characteristics in Gladys Ling-Ai Li’s The Submission of Rose Moy (1924) seemingly reaffirm the stark division between Asian and American identities, only to reveal their ambiguities and uncertainties. While Velina Hasu Houson’s Asa Ga Kimashita (1981) and Tea (1987) render the suffering of Japanese American female characters emotionally relatable to the viewer as a universal experience, Asian female victimhood also serves as a melodramatic sign of national abjection under the violence of American racism and imperialism. Melodrama meets stage realism in Wakako Yamauchi’s The Music Lessons (1980) and in Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash (1985), where melodramatic pathos is facilitated through the plays’ attention to socio-political and psychological realism. Contemporary Asian American culture’s continued use of melodrama is most notable in transnational films such as The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Saving Face (2004), works that explore the potentials and limitations of melodrama as a critical aesthetic strategy.