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 Jr.’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.
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.
T. Hugh Crawford
Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.
New materialism (and new materialisms) is part of the material turn currently sweeping through the humanities and social sciences and entails a paradigm shift toward a more material(ist) understanding of social and cultural life. From new materialist thinking, new (empirical) approaches, methods, methodologies and objects of study ensue. The new materialisms emerge from feminism, philosophy, and science and technologies studies and critique the foundational binaries of modern thought, especially the nature/culture, object/subject, human/thing dualisms, whose anthropocentric biases are seen to have led to the current ecological and civilizational crisis and the incapacity to think through and adequately engage with them. Proposing to give things their due, new materialisms are interested in “the force of things” and debate “the agency of things.” The post-anthropocentric interest in the vitality of things parallels the non-dualist modes of thinking of indigenous ontologies on which some new materialisms may in fact be based, but whose influence has so far insufficiently been acknowledged. At its most radical, new materialism is posthumanist, part of the nonhuman turn. A number of scholars have sought to bring the insights and concerns of new materialism(s) into the fields of literary theory and criticism, developing “thing” or “stuff” theory and seeking to conceptualize and operationalize a new literary materialism. For this, they draw on insights from a range of disciplines, including material culture studies, book and print culture studies, and comparative textual media studies. Given the importance attached to the linguistic turn as the cultural moment and textual approach in relation to which new materialists agonistically construct the newness of their material(ist) endeavors, the publication context of Roland Barthes’s famous essay “The Death of the Author”—the multimedia magazine in a box Aspen 5+6—is highlighted as an important site for critiquing a nonmaterial approach.
Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is an intellectual movement in the arts and humanities sharing certain affinities with both phenomenology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It is a philosophically realist position often at odds with existing currents in postmodernism and critical theory. The best-known idea of OOO is that objects “withdraw” from all direct human and non-human contact, so that relations between things are always indirect and must be accounted for rather than taken for granted. More broadly speaking, however, OOO is a theory of two kinds of objects (real, sensual) and two kinds of qualities (real, sensual). Real objects and qualities are not directly accessible to thought, perception, practical use, or even causal relation, and must be approached by more allusive means. Sensual objects and qualities, by contrast, exist only for some other entity, human or otherwise. Each type of object has troubled relations with each of the two forms of qualities, resulting in four basic tensions, the analysis of which is the heart of object-oriented method in every field and not just literature. OOO literary theory has a special fondness for the weird: especially the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work is taken to exemplify two of the key ontological tensions. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe are also key OOO figures, due to their manner of theatrically investing their characters and readers in sincere relations with objects. OOO’s relation with the formalist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant is ambivalent, since Kant is admired for cutting off the aesthetic object from its surroundings but challenged for his modernist assumption that the human and non-human must never be mixed.