Emerging in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a queer Chicano performance artist, playwright, and writer, Luis Alfaro quickly established himself as an influential contributor to wider cultural debates about the intersections between gender, sexual, ethno-racial, class, religious, and national affiliations in the United States. In his early career Alfaro was a key player in the solo performance movement, in which performance artists used their own bodies and lives as self performance: that is, as primary physical and lived matter for interrogating their identities within a broader political questioning of US multicultural discourses. That questioning coincided with the prominence of Chicana feminist, queer, and AIDS activisms in California, all of which framed Alfaro’s early performances. Much of Alfaro’s work from the 1990s thus survives as historically significant chronicles of Chicana/o queer lives on the US West Coast. Alfaro consolidated his reputation in that decade with such classic solo performances as Downtown and Cuerpo Politizado, in which his body functioned as the prop onto and over which he articulated his queer memory work in relation to the Chicana/o neighborhoods of Central and East Los Angeles in which he grew up. Those neighborhoods anchor Alfaro’s career-long engagements with the US national imaginary as a Chicano queer cultural producer committed to community engagement and service and to telling the stories of Los Angeles’ heterogeneous Chicana/o communities. Since the 1990s Alfaro has refined his creative and critical praxis in solo performance work and plays that raise broader questions about national identity and belonging in the United States. Many of these plays have written back to and adapted works from Western theatrical and literary traditions—for example, Greek tragedies, Aesop, Spanish Golden Age theater, and Strindberg. The process of adaptation allows Alfaro to celebrate Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, and non-Latina/o immigrant communities, as cultural and ethno-racial epicenters of US national identity in the 21st century. Alfaro’s post-2000 interventions into Western theatrical and literary traditions recast those traditions so that they register meaningfully, in audience terms, for Chicana/o and other communities of color grappling inevitably with historical discourses that demean immigrant and minority populations.
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the present day, a wide range of performers and playwrights have contributed to Asian American experimental theater and performance. These works tend toward plot structures that break away from realist narratives or otherwise experiment with form and content. This includes avant-garde innovations, community-based initiatives that draw on the personal experiences of workshop participants, politicized performance art pieces, spoken word solos, multimedia works, and more. Many of these artistic categories overlap, even as the works produced may look extremely different from one another. There is likewise great ethnic and experiential diversity among the performing artists: some were born in the United States while others are immigrants, permanent residents, or Asian nationals who have produced substantial amounts of works in the United States. Several of these artists raise issues of race as a principal element in the creation of their performances, while for others it is a minor consideration, or perhaps not a consideration at all. Nevertheless, since all these artists are of Asian descent, racial perceptions still inform the production, reception, and interpretation of their work.
Lucy M. S. P. Burns and Mana Hayakawa
Acknowledging “absence” as a powerful and accurate political charge against the continuing exclusion of Asian Americans in American theater, dance, and the larger mainstream US performance landscape, Asian American feminist performance has inspired a critical mass of articles and monographs. A broad range of works by feminist performance scholars address productions that center on Asian American women, gender, and sexuality, and also explore and contest Asian American subject formation. Although they provide different ways of thinking about feminist approaches to Asian American performance, all emphasize how racialized bodies are produced within specific historical and political conditions and are invested in resisting cultural limitations and in interrogating power. Whether drawing on theater, dance, music, drag, or performances of everyday life, this scholarship can provide a glimpse of the critical concerns of overlapping academic fields. Whether mapping theoretical frameworks, archival politics, uses of dance as method, epistemologies of the body, fandom, affect, or alternative or unconventional performance spaces, Asian American feminist performance studies scholars move away from rigid definitions of identity, form, geographic location, or audience. At the intersection of Asian American, performance, and feminist studies, the multiple strategies of feminist praxis—such as archiving and analyzing historical documents, foregrounding bodily performance alongside text-based materials, and reconceptualizing theoretical and artistic paradigms—signal the capaciousness of the categories “Asian American,” “feminist,” and “performance.”
Summer Kim Lee
What is Asian American popular music? How do we identify it, define it, and listen to it? What work is being done by naming a genre as such, and need it even be named? Asian Americanist scholars and music critics have grappled with these questions, articulating the political desires for Asian American representation, recognition, and inclusion, while at the same time remaining wary of how such desires reiterate liberal multiculturalist discourses of assimilation and inclusion. A growing body of interdisciplinary work in American studies, performance studies, critical race and ethnic studies, queer studies, and sound and popular music studies has addressed the historical emergence, visibility, and representation of Asian Americans in popular music. This work has become less concerned with finding out what “Asian American popular music” is and more interested in how Asian Americanist critique can be rooted in minoritarian listening practices so that one might consider the myriad ways Asian Americans—as professional and amateur performers, musicians, virtuosic singers, karaoke goers, YouTube users, listeners, critics, and fans—actively shape and negotiate the soundscapes of US popular music with its visual, sonic, and other sensorial markers of Asian racialization.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Esther Kim Lee
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.
Krystyn R. Moon
Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit.
While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time.
Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.
Butchlalis de Panochtitlan are a queer Chicana-Latina theater and multimedia performance group active as an ensemble from 2002 to 2010. Formed in Los Angeles, they have performed in a range of venues and events throughout California and nationally. They premiered their major stage works at the important queer cultural arts center Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, California. Their irreverent name, a play on Tenochtitlan, the pre-Columbian name for modern day Mexico City, and panocha, creative Spanglish slang for female genitalia, translates to “the butch stars of pussy land.” True to their name, BdP render brown butch-centered worlds in their works that map the City of Los Angeles through the queer life in its neighborhoods, barrios, nightclubs, and re-imagined spaces of radical possibility. Although they are no longer active as a group and few primary documents exist, their impact is traceable well beyond these limits and local contexts. This article presents an overview of the work and impact of Butchlalis de Panochtitlan with attention to key themes in their body of work including home, belonging, queer family, gentrification, butch-femme relations, and brown butch socialities and aesthetics. This article draws from primary and secondary sources, digital recordings, visual images, online sources, ephemera, reviews, and published interviews.
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.
Contemporary Asian American dance includes a wide range of choreographic approaches, movement vocabularies, aesthetic traditions, and philosophies toward the body. Referencing either time or genre, the “contemporary” in contemporary Asian American dance can refer to work that includes high-art concert productions that utilize modern and postmodern movement vocabularies, reworkings of traditional Asian movement practices, or popular dance practices. Contemporary Asian American dance also encompasses work that is created by Asian American choreographers, choreography that addresses Asian American experiences or history, or work that is performed by Asian American dancers.
As a field of study, Asian American dance studies is concerned with an analysis of how the critical reception of choreography by Asian American choreographers is entangled with the history of Orientalism in both American modern dance history and the racialization of Asian Americans in US history. Beginning in the early 20th century, choreographer Michio Ito (1892–1961) navigated his training in German expressionist dance with public expectations of performing recognizable Japaneseness in the face of growing anti-Japanese sentiments on the West Coast of the United States in the years before the United States officially entered World War II. In the later half of the 20th century, Mel Wong (1938–2003) faced similar issues after leaving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to pursue his own choreography. While Merce Cunningham’s adoption of the Chinese text the I-Ching was considered a choreographic breakthrough in the development of chance procedure that would revolutionize the definition of what is considered dance, Mel Wong faced critics and funding organizations who found Wong’s own use of ritual and Asian philosophy to be incomprehensible or inauthentic.
The question of authenticity in relationship to the use of traditional Asian vocabularies runs the gamut from the performance of depoliticized folk dance forms such as those performed by the San Francisco Chinese Folkdance Association to the purposeful invention of Japanese American taiko repertory by organizations such as San Jose Taiko during the 1960s Asian American movement. In contrast, choreographers such as Eiko (1952–present), Koma (1948–present), and Shen Wei (1968–present) are not concerned with the question of Asian American authenticity and have been creating work that stakes a claim in universal themes of humanity and the environment or the relationship between movement and visual art. Understanding the work of choreographers such as Eiko & Koma and Shen Wei as contemporary Asian American dance is enabled by the transnational turn in Asian American studies to include work by choreographers whose work does not directly represent traditional understandings of the Asian American experience rooted in themes such as the trauma of immigration, intergenerational conflict, or national belonging.
Early modern regional drama produced in England between the Reformation and the closure of the public theaters in 1642 can be divided into three categories: provincial performances by touring playing companies; entertainments and masques staged by civic, ecclesiastical, and aristocratic hosts during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses; and drama produced by towns, cities, and communities themselves. There are also many instances of performances where these three categories overlap or interact. Touring companies under royal or noble patrons performed in a variety of locations upon visiting settlements in the provinces: in guildhalls, inn, churches and churchyards, open spaces, noble or gentry households, or, on a few occasions, purpose-built regional playhouses. There is extensive evidence of touring companies playing in the provinces across England and Wales until the 1620s, although there were fewer opportunities for patronized touring companies under the Stuarts and greater incentives and rewards for performing in London and (from 1608) in the new indoor theaters. Drama also came to the provinces during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses in the form of shows and masques staged in urban communities, elite domestic houses, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The heyday of such entertainments was during Elizabeth I’s reign; between 1559 and 1602 the queen visited over 400 individual and civic hosts. The reigns of James I and Charles I saw far fewer progresses into the provinces and the principal focus of Stuart royal spectacle was court masque and London’s Lord Mayor’s shows. Nevertheless, the monarch and royal family were entertained around the country from the 1620s until the 1630s, and Ben Jonson played a key role in scripting some of the provincial masques staged. Early modern regional drama also took the form of civic- and parish-based biblical plays and pageants that continued medieval guild-based performance traditions. Drama was also performed in provincial schools and in the universities, as well as in private households, throughout the period. Examining early modern drama from a regional perspective, and identifying how, where, and why drama was performed across the country, enables the construction of a broader and more complex understanding of theater and performance as a whole in the 16th and 17th centuries. When it comes to reflecting the wider social, geographical, and gender demographics of early modern England, regional drama is shown to offer a more truly representative, inclusive conception of national drama in this period than that which is predicated on London-based material alone.
This article takes a critical and historical look at how South Asian performers and performances circulated in the late 19th and 20th centuries in the United States and Australia. It compares how dance practices, both in the United States and in Australia, are interwoven with 19th- and early 20th-century Orientalism and anti-Asian immigration law in both countries, as primarily white dancers engaged with Indian dance practices to develop intercultural styles of Western contemporary dance. While the comparisons of Indian dance in the United States and Australia highlight the similarities of national policies that curtailed Asian immigration, they also suggest that the patterns of migration and travel, particularly where dance is concerned, are much more complex. Dancers and dance forms moved from India to Australia to the United States in an intricate triangle of exchange and influence.
Michael R. Griffiths
Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.
The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz
Chicana lesbian literary critics and authors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel established that Chicana and Latina lesbian and queer writings trace back to the conquest of the Americas, be it through the Chicana lesbian feminists’ rewriting of La Malinche (Malintzin Tenepal) or by the reimagining of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje) as a lesbian. Nevertheless, contemporary Latina lesbian literature in the United States has concentrated primarily on the writings by and about Latina queer women since the early 1980s. These queer Latina letters highlight the impact that women like Sor Juana and Malinche had on the reconfigurations of Latina queer and ethnic identities. To ascertain their empowerment, these Latina writers and artists drew from their personal histories and creativity as activists and survivors in patriarchal and heteronormative societies while maintaining their ethnic, cultural, sexual, and political connections across states, countries, and continents as third world feminists of color. In particular, much of the field of Chicana and Latina feminisms, which emphasize the intersections of race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, begins in 1981 with the publication of the foundational text This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Similarly, in 1987, with the publication of Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, Juanita Ramos initiated the transnational connections between lesbians of Latin American descent living in the United States. Carla Trujillo, influenced by Compañeras and Bridge, published Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About in 1991, offering the first collection of writings and visual art by Chicana queers. Ever pushing the boundaries, the anthologies by Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa’s Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression (2003) and the forthcoming Jota (2020), edited by T. Jackie Cuevas, Anel Flores, Candance López, and Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz, express assertive titles as both offer unapologetic reclamations of controversial labels for queer Latina/Latinx identities through literary criticism, creative writings, and art. These four anthologies present much of the work by authors and performance artists who have published or will publish their individual monographs, novels, texts, graphic novels, short story collections, and plays. In 2015, the journal Sinister Wisdom dedicated an entire issue to “Out Latina Lesbians” that convened over fifty writers and visual artists in the United States. Given their liminality within their respective milieus (primarily, but not exclusively) as women, gender non-conforming individuals, queers, often from working class backgrounds, and with an ethnic or cultural connection to indigeneity, Chicana and Latina lesbians and queers established their own literary and artistic canons. Their rebellious acts have challenged Eurocentric and heteronormative spaces, as individuals and collectives often assume multiple roles as teachers, writers, artists, literary critics, editors, and, in some instances, owners of their own presses.
Latinofuturism describes a broad range of Latina/o speculative aesthetics and an emerging field of study. In addition to referencing a broad spectrum of speculative texts produced by Chicana/os, Puerto Ricans, Dominican Americans, Cuban Americans, and other Latin American immigrant populations, Latinofuturism also includes innovative cultural productions stemming from hybrid and fluid borderlands spaces such as the US–Mexico border. The umbrella genre of speculative fiction (SF), moreover, indexes the companion genres of science fiction (sci-fi), horror, and fantasy. Instead of approaching these genres separately, SF recognizes the ways in which these genres overlap, blend, and mutually inform one another. As Shelley Streeby notes, the umbrella genre of the speculative is especially useful in analyzing Latinofuturist texts that self-consciously appropriate and blend genres in a manner evocative of the mestizaje animating Latina/o culture. The broader category of SF further enables us to unearth, remap, and focalize how Latina/os have contributed to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, as well as related subgenres. Through employing the speculative, Latinofuturist texts articulate a grammar of the subjunctive, daring to ask and imagine, “what if?”
Latinofuturism builds upon Catherine Ramírez’s foundational prism of Chicanafuturism, which denotes cultural production that redeploys the technological in relation to cultural identity, and, in doing so, interrogates and effaces boundaries between primitive and modern, the past, present, and future, as well as the human and non-human. Propelling Latinofuturism is the disordering aesthetic of rasquachismo, a working-class Chicana/o sensibility of creative recycling or making do. Latinofuturist writers and artists do not passively consume received forms of the speculative, but instead creatively repurpose them toward emancipatory ends. In addition, Latinofuturism draws inspiration from Afrofuturism, as articulated by scholars such as Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson, and Ytasha Womack. Whereas Afrofuturism foregrounds the African diaspora and the legacy of slavery in regard to new media and the technological, Latinofuturism focuses on migrations within and across the Americas and beyond. Prevalent themes in Latinofuturism include indigenismo, mestizaje, and coloniality, which operate to question narratives of progress and technological advancement as well as to render more radical visions of the future. However, as Isabel Millán argues, Afrofuturism and Latinofuturism become tightly knit when considering Afro-Latina/o speculative productions. More broadly, Latinofuturism must be also situated within US ethnic and global subaltern futurisms as the experiences of people of color in the United States and throughout the world are interwoven through histories of bodily and epistemological violences systematically omitted from narratives of progress and technological advancement. Importantly, Latinofuturism, along with other ethnic futurisms, share a radical reimagining of a collective future that blurs colonial binaries, making collective space to imagine and enact otherwise.
Thomas Xavier Sarmiento
Literature that features Asian Americans in the Midwest simultaneously functions as an archive that documents the existence and experiences of people of Asian descent in the heartland and as a provocation to reimagine the relationship between race, place, and (trans)national belonging. Although Asian people have been immigrating to the middle of the country since the late 19th century, the Midwest continues to figure as a hinterland where Asian people do not reside and have no desire to visit. Thus, fictional, semi-fictional, and autobiographical accounts of the region from the perspective of Asian Americans, spanning at least eight decades, help debunk the impression that Asian Americans are practically nonexistent in the Midwest, or that Midwestern Asian Americans do not have an authentic sense of racial-ethnic identity. These novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays not only engage the strangeness of being of Asian descent in America’s heartland, but also they explore imaginative ideas of affinity and place: what it means to dream of elsewheres or to rework the realities of “here” from the lens of so-called nowheres. Some of these texts depict the history of Asian migration to and refugee resettlement in the US interior, gesturing toward alternative genealogies of movement and displacement. Others create new worlds that fuse food (e.g., pop and tea, hotdish and chicken afritada), language, and other transcultural practices. Midwestern Asian American literature encompasses stories by and about East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples whose lives intersect with gender, sexuality, class, and ableness. Literature about Asian Americans in the Midwest often communicates a sense of racial isolation: the loneliness and abjection Asian Americans feel in being the only Asian person or one of a handful of persons treading in a sea of whiteness. However, it also can provoke readers to reimagine the Midwest as Asian, female empowering, and queer. Whereas dominant cultural attitudes often associate the region as devoid of people, opportunities, and racial, gender, and sexual diversity, Midwestern Asian American literature represents the heartland as abundant, with counter-narratives that encompass emotional attachments to place, social interactions different from those on the coasts, and Asian American characters who inhabit areas that are often seen as incompatible with, if not hostile to, cultural difference. The range of stories indicates more broadly that there is no unified Asian Midwest or Asian American experience. Rather, the literature of Asian Americans in the Midwest calls attention to the significance of space and place in conceptualizing racial formations as diverse and dynamic.
“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.
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.