Caroline Kyungah Hong
Asian Americans have had and continue to have a complicated relationship with comedy and humor. On the one hand, comedy and humor have always been a vital and dynamic part of Asian American culture and history, even if they have rarely been discussed as such. On the other hand, in mainstream US culture, Asian Americans are often represented as unfunny, unless they are being mocked for being physically, socially, or culturally different. Asian Americans have thus been both objects and agents of humor, a paradox that reflects the sociocultural positioning of Asian Americans in the United States. Examples of how Asian Americans have been dehumanized and rendered abject through comedy and humor, even as they also negotiate and resist their abjection, reach as far back as the 19th century and continue through the 21st. The sheer volume of such instances—of Asian Americans both being made fun of and being funny on their own terms—demonstrates that comedy and humor are essential, not incidental, to every part of Asian American culture and history.
“Liveness” is a crucial concept that traverses the boundaries of many academic disciplines; however, most prominently, performance studies, media studies, and music studies have been engaged in the ongoing debate regarding its shifting parameters. Not only does the concept navigate through multiple academic disciplines, but it also calls attention to the constantly morphing conditions of social interaction and community formation in an ever-digitizing world. Defined from a wide range of perspectives throughout history under specific sociocultural circumstances, the idea has brought critical scrutiny to the related questions of presence, disappearance, absence, and recurrence of the performing subject. At the same time, immediacy, temporality, and authenticity of human contact as well as human-to-nonhuman contact have also been interrogated under the rubric of liveness.
Interdisciplinary studies of liveness tend to inquire into three areas: ideology, technology, and ontology of performance, which are by no means fixed terrains but rather overlapping and corroborating regimes reflecting the transforming notions of liveness. As the medium of performance became more diversified and convergent over time, the notion of liveness accordingly became complicated. Liveness is no longer defined simply as “bodily co-presence of actors and spectators” (Erika Fischer-Lichte), but with historical specificity in mind and with an eye to the way “the idea of what counts culturally as live experience changes over time in relation to technological change” (Philip Auslander, “Digital Liveness: A Historic-Philosophical Perspective,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 34, no. 3 , 3).
There are no limitations to the performance genres and platforms that fall under the critical analysis of liveness: music, TV, stage plays, online media, live-action roleplay (LARP), and mixed-reality performance—“mixing of the real and virtual as well as their combination of live performance and interactivity” (Steve Benford and Gabriella Giannachi, Performing Mixed Reality [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011], 1)—all wrestle with the ontological questions of what is live. On a more profound level, the derivative semantics of liveness, such as “live,” “alive,” and “life,” point to the ontological dimension of the term as they collectively articulate the “ephemerality, mediation, reproduction, and representation” (Daniel Sack, After Live [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015], 13) of human life.
Ju Yon Kim
The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission.
Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.
Queer South Asian Diasporas can refer to the individuals and communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who trace their ancestry to the South Asian subcontinent, but have lived beyond its borders. These communities and individuals generate vibrant forms of cultural production: writing, activism, filmmaking, performance art, and creative manipulations of everyday practice. Additionally, queer diaspora can refer to a particular way of analyzing South Asian public cultures and discourse through a transnational lens with an eye toward the ways that normative genders and sexualities are managed and manipulated to secure and undo nationalist projects. Given the dislocation rendered by pushes and pulls from multiple nations and communities, a common theme in the theorization of queer diaspora and the representation of LGBTQ South Asian life is the struggle over and production of “home” as physical space, affective landscape, and shared embodiment. Theories of queer diaspora help scholars understand how some practices that are not particularly associated with mainstream queer identities can be interpreted as queer, especially when read in the context of South Asian histories. The homosociality of South Asian domestic life, filmic conventions, and ritual practices lend themselves to queer interpretations. While these intimacies do not read as queer to everyone, LGBTQ South Asians precisely apprehend these queer possibilities as alternatives to white and Western gay habitus. Also, queer diaspora explains that migrant, postcolonial subjects are often perceived as having non-normative genders and sexualities given the ways that imperial projects have managed those aspects of human life. This framework is reflected in the narratives of LGBTQ South Asians who name how their (un)desirability is based on race, including the hair on their body, their ethnic heritage, and the stereotypes they are associated with.
In European and North American theater and film, the centuries-old practice of “yellowface”—white actors playing Asian-identified characters—has dominated the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have been presented. Since the 19th century, yellowface representations in American theater portrayed these characters as villainous despots, exotic curiosities, or comic fools. These roles in turn greatly reduced the opportunities for the employment and recognition of Asian and Asian American actors. Yellowface performance does not only misrepresent Asians and Asian Americans by limiting the kinds of visibility and opportunities that they might have, but it also supports the imagined distinctions between those values presumably embodied by white Americans and those associated with oriental others. Late-19th and early-20th-century plays such as George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (1900) not only used yellowface acting but also expressed anxieties about interracial interactions and the potential for racial contamination produced by U.S. imperialism and Chinese immigration. Both yellowface and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian and Asian American characterizations from film and theater in order to benefit white actors) continue to be used in U.S. theater and film. In addition to protesting, Asian American performing artists have responded by creating alternative venues for Asian American performers and writers to make their talents known, such as Los Angeles’s East West Players (established in 1965). Asian Americans have also fully engaged with these issues through writing a host of plays that feature characterizations of actors who suffer the effects of discriminatory casting practices. Two plays in particular, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) not only critique the legacies of yellowface representation but also prompt broader reflection on how contemporary Asian American identities are shaped by both political radicalism and “model minority” conformity. These plays re-appropriate yellowface to comment on the changing and contested nature of racial categories such as “Asian American” as well as the continuing problems of racial typecasting.