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Nation and Ethnicity in Asian Theater and Performance  

Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.

Theater and performance are powerful tools for definition of national and ethnic identity. Nation, nationalism, ethnicity and identity are all unstable terms and concepts. In the 17th through the 20th centuries, there occurred a fundamental imposition of Western culture onto already-existent Asian cultures. Much of contemporary Asian nations and cultures saw their original, precolonial forms shaped and transformed first by colonialism, then by war, and finally by a postcolonial period starting in the postwar period through the early 21st century. In the wake of imperialism and colonialism, a number of Asian nations and cultures have used indigenous arts to reassert an unbroken sense of national or ethnic identity, rejecting Western models of theater while simultaneously embracing Western modes of performance and critique. Often, modern Asian nations would either invent traditions or move a tradition out of its original context in order to reimagine that tradition for the entire nation. National identity versus ethnic identity versus cultural identity, which can be the same or completely mutually exclusive within a community or individual, varies depending on the ethnic construction of the state and the nation. The theater thus both shapes national understanding of identities and, in turn, is shaped by it. Models for understanding nation, ethnicity, and identity can be found by examining individual case studies: the Japanese sense of the Japanese and the Other who lives in Japan (specifically Zainichi or Korean Japanese); the separate national identities of the two Koreas, which also shapes and is shaped by their individual sense of ethnic identity; the multicultural, multinational, and multiethnic nature of Singaporean society; and the Asian diaspora creating new variants on national and ethnic identity. Theater can both construct or challenge national identities, and it can also be exploited to assert a specific identity in the service of the nation-state or dominant ethnic group. Globalization and technology also challenge and reinforce ideas of nation, culture, and ethnicity.

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Melodrama and Asian American Performance  

Eunha Na

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.