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date: 03 March 2021

Asian American Experimental Theater and Solo Performancefree

  • Dan BacalzoDan BacalzoDepartment of Theater, Florida Gulf Coast University


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.

Asian American theater began on the fringe. In many ways, it has stayed there. While more conventional dramas have included some mainstream successes (such as David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which won a Tony Award in 1988, or Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), a far larger number of Asian American plays, playwrights, and performers have remained on the margins of theater history. This is particularly true of experimental theater and solo performance. The word “experimental” can be rather ambiguous but is being used here to signal a style of playwriting and performance that breaks away from causal plot structures and traditionally realist narratives. While experimentation in form often seems to align itself with more radical racial politics, this is not always the case. It may be better to think of experimental performance as signaling the potential for reimagining the role of race in configurations of nation, gender, sexuality, class, and other aspects of social meaning and power. However, individual artists may not always challenge the status quo in this manner.

The focus of this article is avant-garde pieces, performance art, solo performance, and autobiographical storytelling. More “traditional” forms of playwriting, sketch comedy, and poetry are considered if there are noteworthy stylistic or historical factors affecting their reception. Issues of race and representation are sometimes at the forefront of these artists’ work. At other times, race is not explicitly addressed even as it is embodied by the performers themselves. Thus perceptions of race may be read into these works even if they may not be part of the intentions of the piece. Gender, class, sexuality, and politics are sometimes more integral than race or ethnicity, but most often the performances are intersectional. They exist at the boundaries and overlaps of various identifications, demonstrating differing senses of awareness in regard to oppression and privilege.

Avant-Garde Pioneers

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of avant-garde performance as a politicized art form, and Asian Americans were among the contributors to this vibrantly creative scene. Yoko Ono, for example, was a central figure in the Fluxus art movement. One of her most famous performances is “Cut Piece,” first presented in Japan in 1964 and subsequently reprised in numerous international cities, including New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1965. In the performance, audience members were invited to come up to the stage and use a pair of scissors to cut away pieces of Ono’s clothing. In other words, they knowingly participated in actions that under other circumstances could be termed violent and even criminal. Boundaries of consent and exploitation were destabilized and the audience had to reckon with their own complicity in the way Ono’s body was literally objectified. By the end of the performance, the artist was completely naked. The performance, rooted in Ono’s childhood experiences during World War II and anti–Vietnam War activism, was staged as a protest for peace, and several decades later Ono repeated “Cut Piece” on September 15, 2003, at the age of seventy, as an artistic comment on post-9/11 militarism in the Middle East.1

Visual artist Yayoi Kusama also created a series of happenings to protest the Vietnam War and war in general. Art historian Mignon Nixon describes one of these, Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street, which took place in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 1968: “Kusama directed four professional dancers, two women and two men, accompanied by a conga drummer, to strip and frolic with Rite of Spring–like abandon in front of the Stock Exchange, and on the plinth of the George Washington statue opposite, while the artist, clothed in a flowing frock and discreetly accompanied by her lawyer, spray-painted polka dots on their bodies.”2 Similar pop-up performances were repeated in various locations around the city, with different nude collaborators of varying ethnicities assisting Kusama. During at least one happening, the artist even stripped down herself.3

Neither Ono nor Kusama is often viewed in the context of Asian American theater, possibly because they were both born in Japan. However, large portions of their artistic output were presented in America, and these experimental performance pieces foreground the racialized Asian body in the most literal of ways. They were also first seen at a time when the term “Asian American”—coined in the late 1960s—either did not even exist or was just coming into being.

Also predating the term “Asian American” was the country’s oldest and arguably most prominent Asian American theater company, East West Players (EWP). The organization was founded in Los Angeles in 1965 by a group of working actors of Asian descent who initially wanted to create more opportunities to be seen by Hollywood agents. While many of the fledgling company’s initial efforts adapted Asian works or revived Western classics, EWP began a playwriting contest in 1968 that yielded a range of new plays, several of which could be termed experimental. Among these was Soon-Tek Oh’s Tondemonai-Never Happen, produced by EWP in 1970. The play centers on a Japanese American man who is being released from a mental hospital. The scenes present a mixture of memory, fantasy, nightmare, and reality. Tondemonai was one of the first plays to substantially deal with the trauma suffered by Japanese Americans interned by the United States during World War II, as well as an early example of Asian American plays that sympathetically addressed homosexuality.4

Ping Chong founded The Fiji Theatre Company (later renamed Ping Chong and Company) in New York in 1975. Many of his earliest theater productions utilize poetic language and allegory, often focusing on an outsider’s perspective. In a career spanning five decades, he has created dozens of plays and performance pieces. Among these is Nuit Blanche: A Select View of Earthlings (1981). The play has a dreamlike quality and seems more concerned with establishing an atmosphere than telling a straightforward story. According to Chong, the piece “represented a lot of stylistic experimentation for me. The sound and visual aspects were very elaborate . . . you can’t really tell how visually rich the show was by just reading the script.”5 In a New York Times review of a 1985 revival of the piece, critic Mel Gussow remarks, “The plays of Ping Chong could be approached as the theatrical equivalent of archeological digs. They are many-layered, concealing secrets and containing civilizations within civilizations.”6 In other words, there is history and meaning embedded, but it may require patience and plenty of digging in order to make sense of it. While many of Chong’s early performance works did not explicitly address issues of race or ethnicity, he later created an “East/West Quartet” that focused on the intercultural contact that American and European cultures engaged in with various Asian countries. The first of these performances is Deshima (1990), a sweeping non-linear account of Japan’s interactions with the West from Dutch traders, to Christian missionaries, to Japanese internment, to the purchase by a Japanese company of a Van Gogh Sunflowers painting for a startlingly large sum of money. By grouping these disparate events together, Chong demonstrates that they share connections, even if historians might not link them together in quite the same way. His subsequent works in this series—Chinoiserie (1995), After Sorrow (1997), and Pojagi (1999), respectively referencing China, Vietnam, and Korea—similarly function as performance assemblages that expose the violence that goes hand in hand with cultural exchange.7

Winston Tong created a series of experimental solo pieces in the mid- to late 1970s and is best known for The Wild Boys, Bound Feet, and A Rimbaud, which were performed together at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1978. Tong made extensive use of dolls in a performance that was part puppetry and part physical embodiment. Bound Feet, for example, had Tong ritually bind his own feet in imitation of an archaic Chinese technique designed to limit the growth of a woman’s feet. He then revealed two nude dolls—the male figure sporting a visible penis—and manipulated them in a manner that fetishized the female doll’s stunted feet. Race, gender, culture, and sexuality came together in this performance that relied more upon visceral physical response than it did on words. Scholar Esther Kim Lee notes that “Tong’s surprisingly unique intercultural and avant-garde sensibility made a powerful effect on the New York audience, and his solo performances earned him an Obie award in 1978.”8

Tehching Hsieh is another well-known performance artist of Asian descent. Several of his projects were year-long endeavors that pushed the limits of human endurance. His most famous project was a collaboration with white female performance artist Linda Montano, entitled Art/Life One Year Performance 1983–4. From July 4, 1983, to July 4, 1984, the two artists lived bound together by an eight-foot rope. They never took off the rope, and they never touched one another during that entire period. Despite the obvious visual aspect of this performance experiment, cultural critic C. Carr claims that Hsieh and Montano did their best not to call attention to themselves, mostly engaging in everyday activities in New York City’s Chinatown and Tribeca, close to where they lived.9 Nevertheless, they would have regularly encountered people unfamiliar with their project who would unwittingly become audience members. Given the embodied nature of the duo’s performance—with an Asian male literally tied to a white woman—it is not unreasonable to suggest that preconceptions of both race and gender figured into how people perceived this unusual couple.

While best known as a novelist, Karen Tei Yamashita wrote several avant-garde theatrical works, beginning with O-Men: An American Kabuki (1976), and also including Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh (1988) and Noh Bozos: A Circus Performance in Ten Amazing Acts (1993), among others. As the titles of these works indicate, Yamashita draws from traditional Asian performance forms, but she also reworks them in order to comment upon orientalist tropes and Asian American history. For example, Hannah Kusoh includes Butoh-inspired movement alongside depictions of Japanese internment, which scholar Stephen Hong Sohn says “involves a kind of cultural transformation in which grotesque humor abounds.”10

Jessica Hagedorn has led an eclectic career as actor, novelist, playwright, poet, and musician (not necessarily in that order). Some of her earliest work was presented with a band she formed in the 1970s called the Gangster Choir. As she describes, “They might be called upon to do some text, do some acting. We would break up songs and do fragments of things I was writing. It was a form that had no rules.”11 Her 1981 play, Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city, incorporated songs performed by the Gangster Choir, while loosely following the journey of a young Filipino immigrant nicknamed Bongbong.12 Hagedorn also collaborated with other writer/performers, most notably Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley in the 1988 piece Teenytown. The show riffed on the minstrel show format to address issues of racism in a fragmented assemblage of poetry, storytelling, music, and dance.13 Han Ong, a playwright, performer, and novelist who collaborated with Hagedorn on the 1994 piece Airport Music, stated that “Jessica was part of a generation that believed that experimentation in the arts . . . would pay back great dividends, that something new could be made to bloom from taking what the previous generation had laid down, and then leaping off of that, straight into the stratosphere—and what’s more, that the public would be right along for the strange ride.”14 Ong’s own theater work—such as The L.A. Plays (1990), Swoony Planet (1993), The Chang Fragments (1996), and Watcher (2001)—have an off-kilter sensibility in line with this adventurous spirit. And while the worldview expressed in this quote may not always prove accurate, the sentiment encapsulates the sense of possibility felt by these early Asian American playwrights and performers.

Autobiographical Storytellers

The art of autobiographical storytelling took on a political dimension in the 1970s as feminists declared “the personal is political.” The phrase implies that an examination of everyday behaviors can reveal the structural inequalities that exist in patriarchal society. One of the best-known performances that embody this philosophy is Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll (1975), in which the artist stood naked on stage and pulled out a long, folded piece of text from her vagina that detailed her encounter with a sexist film maker, which she proceeded to read to the audience. As artist and critic Steven Durland wrote, “Schneeman had internalized this sexist rejection of a feminine aesthetic and then exposed it for what it was.”15 This sort of lens can be expanded to apply to other factors—such as race, class, and sexuality—that are often stigmatized or discriminated against within a larger societal context.

Writer/performer Dan Kwong acknowledges his debt to feminist performance artists, and in particular a woman named Ilona Granet, with whom he worked while a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was the first person he had met who incorporated deeply personal stories as a way of creating art.16 Kwong presented his first one-man show, Secrets of the Samurai Centerfielder, in 1989 and has produced numerous solo and collaborative pieces since.17 The vast majority of these are autobiographical, drawing from both his Chinese (on his father’s side) and Japanese (on his mother’s side) heritage. While some of Kwong’s work is about how race and racism affect him, he also examines his own privileges as a heterosexually identified man as a way of addressing issues of homophobia and gender oppression. In an uncomfortably poignant segment in his 1996 piece, The Dodo Vaccine, Kwong plays a younger version of himself who actively bullies a boy named Michael Kondo for being a “sissy.”18 This scene critiques the adolescent socialization process that dehumanizes and stigmatizes others for being different, as Kwong realizes his own past complicity and declares his hope to do better in the present.

In addition to his solo work, Kwong has also helped others to use their everyday lives as the genesis for experimental theater performance. In 1994, he led a group of men in Los Angeles in a community-based performance workshop process that resulted in a series of performances entitled Everything You Wanted to Know about Asian Men (but Didn’t Give Enough of a $#*@! to Ask). The show included monologues and video, with the stories based upon the performers’ own lived experience. As one reviewer put it, these tales “are portraits not only of the men as they would like to be perceived, but also of men with a special aura of sensitivity—to their outward images and to the forces that have made them what and who they are.”19 In other words, the pieces emphasized vulnerability as well as an attention to history and community.

One of those initial workshop participants, Gary San Angel, subsequently moved to New York City and started up a similar group at the Asian American Writers Workshop, resulting in the formation of Peeling the Banana in 1995. As with the Los Angeles group, the workshop participants came from different walks of life, and only a few had prior theater experience. This inclusivity reflected the belief that the boundary between artist and layperson is permeable, and the act of telling one’s own story has value. While individual performances might have seemed rougher and less “professional” than others, those same pieces also allowed for an honesty and sense of authenticity that was refreshing. While initially all-male, this writing/performance collective soon expanded to include women. It also embraced a wide range of East Asian and South Asian ethnicities, which set it apart from several other Asian American theater companies at the time, whose membership was predominantly East Asian. “Connect Four,” a collaboration between four of the South Asian–identified members, was prominently featured in the group’s performance at Second Stage Theatre, Face to Face (1998). In it, a series of dating encounters—inspired by the performers’ lives but not necessarily replicating actual scenarios—addressed issues of colorism within South Asian communities, as well as gender oppression and nonheteronormative sexuality.

The troupe’s performances used autobiography as a departure point, and a lot of the early pieces were empowering manifestos or reflections on racial injustice. A subset of the group performed a couple of shows as Queer N’Asian, with material that focused on the experiences of the lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were a part of Peeling the Banana’s larger membership. This effort was led by Regie Cabico, a Filipino American performance poet who had already been making a name for himself in the slam poetry scene at the Nuyorican Poets Café. San Angel left Peeling the Banana in 1999, and the leadership role passed on to Jin Auh and later Dan Bacalzo. This new iteration of the group also abbreviated the ensemble’s name to Peeling. While its membership continued to write individually authored short sketches, they also produced a collaboratively written performance piece entitled Vampire Geishas of Brooklyn (2002), which fictionalized and satirized Peeling’s own group dynamic, detailing the internal conflicts within a scrappy female-led Asian American theater group as they wrestle with giving up their principles to produce a commercial hit. The group’s final effort was a one-act festival, Under the Skin (2003), that included two autobiographical solos, The Virginity Monologues by Aileen Cho and Unaccessorized by Rich Kiamco, both of which address the intersection of race and sexuality in a humorous yet self-reflective manner.

Numerous other Asian Americans have used the autobiographical one-person-show format to connect the personal to the political. The richness of the personal histories depicted serve as counterpoints to the flat stereotypes that are too often the only representations of Asian Americans available in mainstream popular culture. Actress and comedian Amy Hill wrote and performed Tokyo Bound (1991), Beside Myself (1992), and Reunion (1993), with the first two works told from the perspective of the writer/performer’s younger self and the last one from the perspective of her eighty-year-old mother.20 Author and activist Canyon Sam’s solo shows The Dissident (1991) and Capacity to Enter (1999) mix personal reflections with her work on human rights issues. Nicky Paraiso, who established himself as a downtown New York performer in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, penned a trilogy of solos—Asian Boys (1994), House and Jewels (1994), and House/Boy (2004)—that reflect upon family, race, class, and sexual identity from the perspective of a gay Filipino man raised in Queens. Nobuko Miyamoto’s 1994 one-woman show A Grain of Sand chronicles the performer’s childhood in the Japanese internment camps of World War II, to her early career as part of an Asian American folk trio in the 1970s, up through her experience of the Los Angeles Riots.

Alec Mapa’s first solo I Remember Mapa (1996) is part show-biz memoir and part coming-of-age story, told by a gay Filipino American man. Another one of his solos, Baby Daddy (2012), reflected upon adopting a five-year-old boy with his husband; the show was recorded and broadcast as a 2015 Showtime special. Sandra Tsing Loh, who first came to prominence as a National Public Radio commentator, has written and performed a couple of solos, including Aliens in America (1996), a comically satiric look at her childhood in California with her Shanghai-born father and German-born mother. Byron Yee’s Paper Son (1997) is an investigation into the family past of the writer/performer and the discovery that his father came to America as a “paper son,” so called because he was one of numerous Chinese immigrants who utilized faked documents and a fictionalized backstory to overcome the discriminatory Asian Exclusion Acts that severely limited Asian immigration into the United States in the early to mid-20th century.

Performance poet Staceyann Chin, an original Broadway cast member of Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, wrote and performed two solo shows Off-Broadway. Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires (2005) highlights the rifts and connections among her multiple identifications. Born in Jamaica to a black mother and Chinese father who both abandoned her, Chin talks about her difficult childhood, coming out as lesbian and nearly being gang-raped by a group of gay bashers, and finding her voice as a poet and performer in New York. In a review of the play in the trade publication Variety, Mark Blankenship writes, “Whether stuttering over painful memories or spilling out praise for an ex-girlfriend, her commitment to each story gives its emotion a very real sting.”21 Her solo Motherstruck (2016) continued to explore the complexities of identification, describing how, as an out lesbian, she nevertheless married a gay man and they intended to raise a child together prior to her husband’s unexpected death. Chin’s desire to become a mother is also complicated by her own personal history with parents who could not or would not care for her.22

D’Lo, a transgender actor/comedian of Sri Lankan heritage, has written and performed several multicharacter autobiographical solos, including Ramble-ations: A One D’Lo Show (2007), which is heavily influenced by hip-hop culture, and To T, or Not to T (2017), which reflects upon his experience of transitioning. Hasan Minhaj, perhaps best known for his work as a Daily Show correspondent, wrote and performed his autobiographical solo Homecoming King, which played Off-Broadway in 2015 and was later adapted into a 2017 Netflix special. The piece covers his childhood in California where he was raised as part of an Indian Muslim immigrant family. It touches on experiences of bullying, rejection, and heartbreak while also highlighting Minhaj’s ability as a comedian.

The most commercially successful Asian American autobiographical performer, however, is Margaret Cho. Her first one-woman show, I’m the One that I Want (1999), chronicled her rise and fall as the star of the short-lived ABC sitcom, All-American Girl. The piece showcases Cho’s skill as a comedian and directly references her career as a stand-up comic. But it also delves into uncomfortable territory as it addresses issues including her immigrant parents; identification with the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) community; struggles with weight loss and body image; alcohol abuse; and, of course, the price of fame. The show was a hit with both audiences and critics, and a 2000 DVD release preserved one of Cho’s performances in San Francisco. Cho went on to write and star in several other solo shows and release them on DVD, such as Notorious C.H.O. (2002), Revolution (2004), Assassin (2005), Beautiful (2009), Cho Dependent (2010), and Psycho (2015). These follow-up efforts adhere more closely to the stand-up comedy format—focused on shorter setups and punchlines rather than lengthy narrative tales—even if they still occasionally include hard-hitting moments of personal revelation.

Character Actors

There are several notable Asian Americans who write and perform solos that are not expressly autobiographical, even if there may still be elements from their own lives that find a way into the characters they inhabit. Some of these works are written and performed by actors who have encountered limitations in the types of roles that they have been allowed to play.

Lane Nishikawa’s first solo show, Life in the Fast Lane (1982), tackles this idea head on by beginning with the actor as himself speaking to an imagined casting director. Nishikawa soon transforms into a series of other characters who tell stories that illuminate the Asian American experience, demonstrating the richness of material that can be created.23 Other solo shows followed, including I’m on a Mission from Buddha, which was recorded and televised on the PBS network in 1991. This piece was also a series of multicharacter vignettes, and Nishikawa told the Los Angeles Times that the broadcast “gave me the chance to get my message about what it’s like growing up Asian American to a very large group of people.”24

Jude Narita’s Coming into Passion/Song for a Sansei (1985) is another multicharacter exploration performed by a single person. The show is narrated by a Japanese American newscaster who finds commonality with a diverse range of Asian women. As scholar Esther Kim Lee describes, “Each character experiences abuse, loneliness, and suffering, much of which is caused by actions of Western men both abroad and domestically. By empathizing with these women, the narrator experiences what feminists would call ‘consciousness raising’ that allows her to embrace her Asian American female identity.”25 Similar to the way the autobiographical performers discussed earlier bridged the personal to the political, Narita consciously forges connections between the lives of her characters—which include, among others, a Vietnam War–era prostitute in Saigon, a Filipina woman interviewing to become a mail-order bride, and a young girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell—and contemporary social injustices and inequalities.

San Francisco–based performance artist Brenda Wong Aoki draws from a range of Eastern and Western performance traditions, most notably Noh, kyôgen, commedia dell’arte, jazz, and modern dance. Much of her work is rooted in Japanese folklore, and some of the titles for her numerous monodramas include Tales of the Pacific Rim (1990), Obake! Tales of Spirits Past and Present (1991), Random Acts of Kindness (1994), Mermaid Meat (2000), and The Legend of Morning Glory (2008). However, Aoki puts her own spin on traditional stories. In an interview, she stated, “The Bell of Dôjôji, a noh and kabuki play, is traditionally about a poor monk who is defiled by a woman of flesh. I always do this piece from the point of view of the poor woman who is abused by the monk.”26 This modern feminist sensibility reframes the tale in an unexpected way and allows a different perspective to shine through. In performance, Aoki narrates her stories, taking on different character personas as appropriate. Theater critic Robert Hurwitt describes her style as minimalist but highly effective: “Working from a still, concentrated center, Aoki shifts quickly from one character to another, conveying each change with a clear, concise, but simple, gestural or vocal choice.”27

Denise Uyehara is the writer/performer of several solo shows but is perhaps best known for Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels, which premiered in 1994 and toured extensively both in the United States and abroad. The title obviously derives from the popularity of the Hello Kitty & Friends line of products from Japanese company Sanrio. But it also invokes stereotypes of the Asian woman as sexual fetish. In one of the play’s scenes, Uyehara portrays a “Vegetable Girl” obsessed with Hello Kitty, who goes on a date with a man who has her put on a kimono and perform a tea ceremony for him. Uyehara then switches characters to embody a “Mad Kabuki Woman” who rebukes the girl for acting like a geisha.28 The performance, as a whole, is a nuanced examination of the intersection between race and sexuality, with other characters including an Asian lesbian stand-up comic; an “Asian Guy” and “Asian Chick” giving two different sides to their ill-fated date; and a woman whose best friend is an Asian man who subsequently becomes her lover as well. The language Uyehara utilizes is often poetic and filled with frank depictions of sex and fantasy that explore the power dynamics that can affect our most intimate encounters.

Aasif Mandvi’s Sakina’s Restaurant (1998) centers on a recent immigrant named Azgi who works in an Indian restaurant in New York City. The multicharacter piece also includes representations of the restaurant’s owner, Hakim, Hakim’s wife Farrida, and the couple’s two children. Mandvi, who has since gained fame as a correspondent for The Daily Show as well as for roles on Broadway and Off-Broadway, stated in a New York Times profile that despite the different genders and ages of these fictional characters, they are nevertheless “all alter egos in some way.”29 They are also an opportunity for him to showcase his acting talents portraying individuals of his own ethnicity, who remain underrepresented in film and theater.

Another writer/performer contributing to South Asian representation on stage is Zaraawar Mistry, whose solo works include Sohrab and Rustum (2002), Indian Cowboy (2006), and The Other Mr. Gandhi (2012).30 His tales, which invoke Zoroastrianism and Parsi religious identity, have resonated with those who have found such representations scarce. In an interview, Mistry stated, “I never thought that other Indians or Zoroastrians would care about what I was doing in my work, and I was totally wrong. They’re not seeing or hearing these stories, this perspective anywhere else.”31

Snehal Desai, who has gone on to become the artistic director for East West Players, is also interested in increasing the visibility of underrepresented groups. He started out his theater career with the solo Finding Ways to Prove You’re NOT an Al-Qaeda Terrorist When You’re Brown (and Other Stories of the Indian) (2009). The piece mixed current political commentary on the suspicion of brown people in airports with the story of a gay Indian man trying to come out to his parents, who are attempting to arrange a more traditional marriage for him. Desai not only played the closeted man, Akash, but also developed a persona for the performer telling the story—who is himself not out about his sexuality and must come to terms with it over the course of the show.32 In an interview, Desai describes that one of the pleasures of performing this piece—which he toured for two years—was “attracting a good turnout among Indian theatergoers who were expecting a show about racial profiling, but not expecting a lot of talk about what it means to be gay and South Asian.”33

Pop Culture Artists

In her groundbreaking book Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage, Josephine Lee writes, “Stereotypes of Asian Americans are no longer simply the seductive images of the Orient rendered for consumption by white audiences. Instead they have become woven into the complex fantasies Asian Americans have about identity, community, and gender.”34 This can be clearly seen in the work of several playwrights and performers, who deconstruct pop culture tropes while simultaneously reveling in them.

In 1995, Rick Ebihara, Wayland Quintero, and Perry Yung—the three-man performance ensemble known as SLANT—made their theatrical debut with their provocatively titled show, Big Dicks, Asian Men, performed at La MaMa E.T.C. The trio combined rock music, shadow puppetry, and short comic sketches that satirized popular stereotypes and misconceptions about Asian American masculinity. The trio’s sophomore effort, The Second Coming (1996), is perhaps the most telling example of its efforts to rework popular culture stereotypes. One of its central skits revolves around the Clan of the Freeman Chu, a fictional organization that dedicates itself to the ideology of the classic Asian villain of American cinema, Fu Manchu. The Clan’s mission includes reclaiming their sisters who are dating non-Asian men as well as their gay brethren, who are also dating non-Asian men. The Freeman Chus are meant to recall another clan obsessed with racial purity—the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Similar to the white hoods over white faces of the KKK, the clan members wear latex masks of “Chinese” faces over their already Asian features. The fear that more and more Asians, and particularly Asian women, are “marrying out” of the race led the well-known Asian American writer Frank Chin to claim, “There is no doubt in my mind that the Asian American is on the doorstep of extinction. There’s so much out-marriage now that all that is going to survive are the stereotypes.”35 In Chin’s formulation, biological reproduction is superseded by cultural reproduction. But in SLANT’s clever pop cultural intervention, the Freeman Chu sketch, which ends with the clan members being gunned down before they can carry out their goals, represents a rejection of both the Hollywood stereotypes that have affected perceptions of Asian Americans as well as mythical concepts of racial purity.36

The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors (18MMW) sketch comedy troupe was founded in San Francisco in 1994 and has produced a large body of work over its more than twenty years in existence, albeit with some changes in the group’s membership. Several 18MMW sketches carry from show to show, such as “A John Woo Family Dinner,” which was initially created in 1994.37 The sketch includes plenty of Mexican standoff gun confrontations and a stylized slow-motion sequence—two traits associated with several of the popular Hong Kong film director’s works. Other comic bits satirize news stories making headlines at the time of the skit’s creation; address aspects of Asian American history; or simply take everyday observations to extreme comic levels. Greg Watanabe, one of 18MMW’s founders and longtime members, stated in an interview, “We often bring up things that are painful – we explore foibles in the Asian American community, we expose stereotypes. . . . But our object is always to address the fact that people are believing in someone else’s distorted view. We put things in a larger context, which is really important.”38 In addition to their live stage work, 18MMW has produced several video pieces for their YouTube channel, and the troupe members and their works are the subject of the 2006 documentary, The Mighty Warriors of Comedy.39

The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company made its New York debut at the 2003 Midtown International Theatre Festival with Stained Glass Ugly, about a man who had blown off the bottom half of his face, and had its first critical success a year later with the eponymous Vampire Cowboys Trilogy, which debuted at the Common Basis Theatre in March 2004 and later that year played the New York International Fringe Festival. While this company is not specifically Asian American, it drew attention to the work of playwright Qui Nguyen, its co–artistic director (with Robert Ross Parker). The company’s aesthetic includes a lovingly irreverent take on pop culture tropes as well as impressively choreographed martial arts battles. Among their works are Living Dead in Denmark (2006), which mixes together a host of Shakespeare characters and zombies; Men of Steel (2007), a satirical homage to superheroes; Fight Girl/Battle World (2008), a sci-fi space adventure; Soul Samurai (2009), revolving around a woman warrior’s quest to avenge her lesbian lover; Alice in Slasherland (2010), in which a geeky teenager unwittingly opens a gate to hell; and Six Rounds of Vengeance (2015), a postapocalyptic tale involving bounty hunters and a vampire queen. While many of Nguyen’s plays do not deal specifically with issues of race, there are a few that draw directly from his own family history, such as Trial by Water (2006), The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G (2011), and Vietgone (2016).

Agent G is a particularly illustrative example of the way Nguyen applies his quirky aesthetic to issues of race and representation as experienced by an Asian American playwright who questions his own connection to his ancestral homeland, Vietnam. Since the play is partially autobiographical, Nguyen includes himself as a character but specifies that the role is to be played by an African American actor. This fictional incarnation of the playwright continually comments on the play in progress and is often confronted by his characters for his questionable racial representations. For example, as his main characters arrive in Vietnam, they are supposed to communicate in Vietnamese. But since the playwright himself doesn’t know the language, he instead has them try out a few ways to convey this. One of these attempts has the characters substituting the phrase “ching chong” whenever they are speaking Vietnamese words, which prompts a character to stop the action and remark, “Qui. Seriously?” The solution the playwright settles upon is to have the Vietnamese character speak English in a pronounced Asian accent. While this might come across as stereotypical, by including other attempts at linguistically representing Vietnam, Nguyen calls attention to the way we often passively accept representations of Asian cultures. Certainly, accents are common and expected within foreign locales, but it’s also a trope for depicting the sense of Otherness that haunts the Asian American actor.

Category Defiers

There are some theater works by Asian Americans that do not fit easily into a single category. For example, the Minneapolis-based company Theater Mu has brought in members of its surrounding Asian American community to create new works that blend Asian performance traditions with more straightforward dramatic storytelling. This kind of work is exemplified by the 1993 piece, Mask Dance, which grew out of a series of workshops the theater held that were open to anyone of Asian heritage. Playwright Rick Shiomi concentrated on the stories of Korean adoptees. While the play tells the fictionalized story of three girls who are adopted into the same Minnesota family, Mike Steele, a staff writer for the Star Tribune, remarks, “What gives the play its splendid texture is the daring choice to mess up this nice, literal story by bringing in the metaphorical elements of traditional Korean mask dance.”40 As evidenced by this quote, the dances serve as an interruption into a tale that otherwise conforms to typical Western theater conventions. Moreover, the mask dance form does not stay simply metaphorical but also manifests within the play’s plot. One of the adoptees encounters a Korean performance artist who utilizes mask dance, and it is this connection that prompts her to undergo a more rigorous self-examination and desire to reconnect with her Korean heritage. The piece functions on several levels, not the least of which is bringing to light an element of the Asian American community—adoptees—who are often overlooked.

Dawn Akemi Saito is a trained Butoh performer who combines that highly physical mode of performance with more textual forms of storytelling. My House Was Collapsing toward One Side (1996) was performed by Saito, with parts of the text written by her in collaboration with writer/director Charles Mee. The solo is the tale of a woman whose life spanned several centuries. As Mee describes it, “The dramatic tension lay in the juxtaposition of listening to the nightmarish text and seeing, in her movement, sometimes grotesque, but always riveting, the longing for beauty.”41 Another solo, HA (1997), tells the story of a young woman who confronts the difficult truth of her family’s past, involving her grandfather’s work as a medical researcher for the Japanese Army during World War II and the atrocities committed against their prisoners of war. Roberta Uno acknowledges the power of Saito’s scripted text but also says “it is hard to imagine it without her exquisite, disturbing, post-Butoh movement twisted around each word.”42 Saito’s work is not meant to be pretty, which is an implicit commentary on constructions of race and gender in relation to the Asian female. Her performances foreground the physicality of the body, utilizing movement as a method of storytelling that is intentionally alienating.

Young Jean Lee has frequently said in interviews that she starts new theatrical projects by thinking about “the last show in the world” that she wants to write, a technique inspired by her graduate study at Brooklyn College with playwright Mac Wellman.43 This method of working has resulted in a body of work that is difficult to categorize, as she faces new problems associated with the form and content of each new play and learns new skills as she seeks to solve them. One of her earliest critical successes was Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006), a deconstruction of the ethnic identity play that features a self-hating Korean American woman; a bunch of racist jokes, stereotypes, and clichés; and a white couple whose mundane relationship problems eventually take over the entire show. One of the most effective moments of the performance is not even presented live. At the top of the show, the audience hears, in darkness, a prerecorded segment featuring the playwright herself as she and some friends make a video of Young Jean Lee being repeatedly slapped in the face. The audience is then shown some of the video footage, but it has been edited so that only Lee’s reaction shots are seen as she either prepares for or responds to the pain caused by the slaps. The result is disconcertingly compelling.44 In an interview, Lee talks about the “destructive impulse” that lies at the heart of the work: “I want to destroy the show: make it so bad that it just eats itself, eating away at its own clichés until it becomes complicated and fraught enough to resemble truth.”45 The edginess that this quote implies can be seen in some of the other projects she’s tackled, such as The Shipment (2009), a play about black identity politics; Lear (2010), a costume drama written as a response to Shakespeare’s play; We’re Gonna Die (2011), a collection of songs meditating on death that were written and performed by Lee with her band, Future Wife; Untitled Feminist Show (2012), a nearly wordless performance featuring a cast of women performing in the nude; and Straight White Men (2016), a naturalist drama that challenges the notion that success in life is measured by achievement. Ironically, it’s this latter play—which on the surface is the least “experimental” of Lee’s works and features no Asian American characters—that marks the first Broadway debut of an Asian American female playwright.46

Finally, experimental Asian American theater is inclusive of slam poetry. This has included the Chicago spoken word collective I Was Born with Two Tongues, Def Poetry Jam veteran Beau Sia, queer poet and performance artist Justin Chin, and the transgender South Asian duo DarkMatter, among others. While some of these poets’ work is autobiographical, their individual poems also range more broadly from political rants to experiments in rhythm and rhyme to commentary on various aspects of everyday life and popular culture. For example, one of DarkMatter’s funniest poems is an acerbic duet spoken from the perspectives of the two witches of Indian descent featured in the Harry Potter novels, Padma and Parvati Patil. These poets have performed in individual evenings dedicated to their work as well as appeared as part of larger line-ups of poets or as competitors in poetry slams.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on Asian American theater has been partially influenced by what is readily available as published play texts. The works can be examined for their content and literary value, even if the reader was unable to witness a performance firsthand. Unfortunately, experimental theater pieces do not always get published. As Josephine Lee acknowledges in Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (1997), “The preference for language-centered performance scripts also negatively affects the publication of theater works that rely on movement, dance, or music, where the primary modes of action cannot be captured through verbal description.”47 Scholars have addressed this problem through dedicated archival research, as in Yuko Kurahashi’s Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players (1999), which relies heavily on unpublished scripts and interviews with artists associated with that company.48

An increasing number of edited collections of performance texts assisted in bringing further attention to experimental work. Scripts by Ping Chong and Jessica Hagedorn are included in Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays (1990), edited by Misha Berson. Works by Aasif Mandvi, Hagedorn, SLANT, Peeling the Banana, and Chong are all part of Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage (1999), edited by Alvin Eng.49 In addition, individual playwrights and performance artists including Chong, Dan Kwong, Young Jean Lee, Qui Nguyen, and Denise Uyehara have published either single play editions or edited collections of their works.

Asian Americans are occasionally represented in anthologies and scholarly works that more broadly address experimental theater. Solo plays by Alec Mapa and Uyehara are included in O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance (1998), edited by Holly Hughes and David Román. Nicky Paraiso is one of the featured artists in Out of Character: Rants, Raves, and Monologues from Today’s Top Performance Artists (1997), edited by Mark Russell. Hagedorn, Brenda Wong Aoki, and Dawn Akemi Saito are included in Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentieth Century (2000), edited by Jo Bonney. A discussion of Tehching Hsieh’s collaboration with Linda Montano leads off C. Carr’s On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century (1993). Yoko Ono comes up a couple of times in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (1988), by RoseLee Goldberg, and both Ono and Hsieh get very brief mentions in Arnold Aronson’s American Avante-Garde Theatre: A History (2000). However, Asian American artists are just as likely not to be represented at all in works dealing with experimental theater, such as Acting Out: Feminist Performances (1993), edited by Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan; or Arthur Sainer’s The New Radical Theatre Notebook (1997).50

Karen Shimakawa’s National Abjection: The Asian American Body on Stage (2002) includes a literary analysis of several Asian American plays. But her final chapter turns more toward performance analysis, specifically concentrating on work by Chong. It is in this examination of avant-garde theater that she sees the most hope in destabilizing traditional readings of the raced body while still acknowledging the fraught histories that they represent. In A History of Asian American Theatre (2006), Esther Kim Lee presented a broad perspective of what could be considered under the umbrella of Asian American theater, spotlighting some early experimental pieces by Asian Americans and including an entire chapter devoted to solo performance. While textual exegesis of dramatic works remains a component of the existing scholarship, oftentimes theater and performance are utilized in more of a metaphorical manner, as in Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1996), which begins with a discussion of Jeannie Barroga’s play, Walls, but is less a book about Asian American theater and more about constructions of Asian American culture. Even works such as Ju Yon Kim’s The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday (2015), which includes textual analysis of certain plays and performance pieces, is often less focused on the meaning within a play script and more on how it might metaphorically illuminate a theoretical issue of concern to the author.51

Both theater artists and performance scholars are increasingly paying attention to transnational connections within the works they create or study. There remains a certain amount of anxiety in regards to what “counts” as Asian American performance, as many artists have produced large amounts of work within the United States without ever becoming US citizens. Scholarly works such as Dorinne Kondo’s About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theatre (1997); May Joseph’s Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship (1999); Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns’s Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire (2013); Eng Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias (2013); Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America (2014); Sean Metzger’s Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (2014); and Elizabeth W. Son’s Embodied Reckonings: “Comfort Women,” Performance, and Transpacific Redress (2018) all address the intersection of Asian racial identifications and performance. Each of these books connect back to Asian American theater but also use the theatrical experience to illuminate racial performances that occur “offstage.”52

Further Reading

  • Berson, Misha, ed. Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1990.
  • Carr, C. On Edge: Performance at the End of the Century. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993.
  • Eng, Alvin, ed. Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage. New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1999.
  • Hughes, Holly, and David Román, eds. O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
  • Kurahashi, Yuko. Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players. New York: Garland, 1999.
  • Kwong, Dan. From Inner Worlds to Outer Space: The Multimedia Performances of Dan Kwong, edited by Robert Vorlicky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
  • Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
  • Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body on Stage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.