What comes to mind when you hear the words “Asian-American theater”? The Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. The actor B.D. Wong. Maybe Julia Cho or Diana Son, both nationally produced playwrights. Anyone else? For even the most avid stage addicts, Asian-American theater remains a blip on the radar. Starting June 11, the first National Asian-American Theater Festival seeks to remedy that image, presenting 31 works from more than 25 companies around the country at multiple venues in New York. The unified effort on display, however, belies a story of internal antagonism. A rift between older and younger artists has emerged, say various members of the community, pitting tradition against experimentation, the early generations against subsequent ones. In this small theatrical milieu, the growing pains are proving to be much larger than expected.
At the heart of the debate lies a dilemma that’s both universal and painfully specific: “Why does it always have to be about identity?” The question, posed at a conference last year for Asian-American theater companies, raised an issue that weighs heavily on this community—namely, why is racial identity such an obsession? Why do companies keep producing plays about being Asian? Isn’t it enough already? The objection came from a younger conference participant, and it surprised many of the veteran artists. “It was really a generational divide,” says Ralph Peña, director of the Ma-Yi Theater Company. “The younger group wants to branch out into new and different territory, while the older generation still sees race as important.” For the old guard, which includes playwrights who have been active for more than 50 years, heritage dramas about immigration, internment, and assimilation are still vital. For younger artists, newer forms such as hip-hop, spoof comedy, and spoken poetry (or various combinations thereof) hold greater allure.
These edgier artists see Asian-American theater as forever playing the same old songs about the hardships of being a minority. “We’re stuck in this groove in a way,” says Peña. “I’m looking at theater from Asia and they’re already way ahead of us.” One popular form of rebellion among young Asian-American performers is the solo show, a form that emphasizes the individual over racial identity. (The festival features several solo shows, including Korean Badass by Stevie Lee Saxon and Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Kristina Wong.) “It’s a really interesting form for younger theater actors,” says Mia Katigbak, artistic director of the National Asian-American Theatre Company. “It lets them express themselves without having to go through the routes of producing a traditional play.” She says her company tries to strike a balance between revivals of classic Western dramas and new works by Asian-American writers. “I think race can be an interesting subject so long as it’s done in new and fresh ways. Identity is still a quintessentially American issue.”
For the Los Angeles–based East-West Players—the country’s biggest and best known Asian-American theater company, who are bringing The Three Filipino Tenors to the festival—the pressure to remain loyal to its founding roots is palpable. “We have to maintain continuity between our past and what lies ahead,” says Tim Dang, the group’s artistic director. He admits that “Asian-American” is a term that’s grown increasingly splintered and perhaps outlived its usefulness. In recent years, more actors of South Asian and Central Asian descent have sought work at East-West Players, which has traditionally confined itself to casting actors of East Asian ancestry. Mixed-race, or hapa, actors are also becoming more visible. As racial identity grows less rigid and more fluid, Asian-American theater is trying to figure out how to stay relevant. “We want people to think of us not as Asian-American actors, but just as actors,” says Dang. “It seems contradictory, but that’s really what we’re working toward. Our goal is that one day theater groups like ours won’t need to exist”