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Cultural Exchange

Date: Sep 29, 2009


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Quick: When you hear the phrase “Asian-American theatre,” what do you think? 

If no single image comes to mind, that’s okay. The Asian-American theatre community has become so diverse, especially in New York, that it’s almost impossible to pin it down. That diversity will be on display in the second National Asian-American Theatre Festival, running at Theatre for the New City from October 13 to 18. More than 100 Asian-American playwrights, designers, actors, and directors will gather for a week of performances.

The center of the festival, in spirit and in some cases on stage, will be New York’s many professional theatre companies that are dedicated to Asian-American work. Taken together, they evoke the complex, vibrant life of a national theatrical culture.

Making a Space for Making Theatre

Despite their individual missions, all of these companies were founded in part to give Asian-American artists a chance to do more work. If it weren’t for them, actors might be living on a thin gruel of The King and I revivals and occasional supporting parts.

Of course, the city’s most prominent Asian-American companies are over ten years old. Since they’ve been producing work for so long---and since artists like Young Jean Lee, David Henry Hwang, and Julia Cho have broken through in mainstream venues---does that mean the problem is solved?

“There are more opportunities now,” says Tisa Chang, who founded Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York’s oldest Asian-American company, in 1977. “But for artists of the top rank, it’s still really hard for them to get the top roles.”

That’s why Chang is intent on producing work with knockout characters. She wants to demonstrate that Asian-American artists are ready not just to work, but to command the stage.

To that end, Pan Asian Rep is presenting the New York premiere of Imelda, a musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos that runs at the Julia Miles Theatre through October 18. Marcos is a woman any actress might love to play, and Chang says she hopes the production’s star, Jaygee Macapugay gets noticed. She adds that she’s proud the production features an entirely Filipino cast. “They’re all talented and trained, and they’re just so happy there’s another musical besides Miss Saigon that they can sink their teeth into,” she says.

But if it’s still a challenge for established Asian-American actors to get cast, then what about emerging performers? Often, they work at 2G, a company founded in 1997 to support the next generation of Asian-American theatre artists. For their tenth anniversary presentation of ten-minute plays, the company even cast performers with no professional experience.

 “We’re trying to give opportunities to people who might not know they’re actors,” says Lloyd Suh, 2G’s artistic director. “We’ve always thought that the best way to get people into the theatre is to put them in a show. Maybe a young guy in college wants to be an actor, but he’s decided he has to be an investment banker. If we put him in a show, then we feel like he’s on our side.”

Suh is also a playwright, and when he isn’t running 2G, he’s serving as co-director of Ma-Yi Theatre’s Writer’s Lab. Founded in 1989, Ma-Yi has carved its niche by supporting Asian-American playwrights, and its Writer’s Lab has roughly twenty members. Suh says opportunities for Asian-American writers are increasing, but that the struggle to be produced, let alone be nurtured over the length of a career, is enormous.

Of course, as much as they need to be seen in plays written by Asian-Americans, actors in the community also deserve the chance to tackle Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Williams. Enter the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), which is known for producing classic plays with Asian-American casts. (The company’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull opens at Theatre for the New City on Thursday.)

One of NAATCO’s stipulations is that its productions never have Asian settings. There will be no Hamlet at the Imperial Palace. There will be no Death of a Salesman in Chinatown. For Artistic Producing Director Mia Katigbak, that’s a crucial tenet of her company’s mission. “It’s legitimate to put a play in an Asian context, of course it is, but it’s not the only way to see Asian-Americans on stage,” she says. “That translates to how you see them in real life.”

Defining “Asian-American Theatre”

By casting Asian-American actors in plays by French, British, and Russian writers, NAATCO asks us to consider what “Asian-American Theatre” really means. Is it theatre written by Asian-Americans? Starring them? Is it theatre that tackles their cultural issues?

There are no simple answers. Suh, for instance, notes that the mission of Asian-American playwriting seems to change every few years. He says the first wave of writers, which emerged in the early seventies, mainly announced that Asian-American culture existed. The second wave, which he dates to the nineteen eighties, tried to define what Asian-American culture meant in relationship to the rest of the country.

Suh sees himself in the third wave. “I feel like this generation of writers is approaching a broader range of issues, only through an Asian-American lens,” he says. Take his play American Hwangap, which was produced by Ma-Yi this summer: The characters are Korean, but the play’s ultimate subject is how a family responds when a parent moves away. That’s a theme any writer might explore.

It’s not just subject matters that are changing. The Asian-American theatre community is also expanding its sense of who its audiences and collaborators can be. NAATCO’s Seagull, for instance, is directed by the decidedly non-Asian Gia Forakis, who approached Katigbak with her idea for a vaudevillian reinterpretation of Chekhov’s classic. “In my mind, doing the production here was never about casting,” Forakis says. “It was about NAATCO’s willingness to take a risk. This just felt like the perfect place to bring my particular take on the play.”

That’s exactly how Katigbak wants her company be seen. She says, “My primary interest is theatre, period. We do The Seagull in a vaudeville style, and I’m not thinking, 'Oh, how does this affect the racial... blah.' I can't. It's more like, 'Oh, this is a cool way of doing a classic.' And people will think about the ethnic question, but hopefully, above that, there's an appreciation of what's being done on stage. And when that happens, that's an incredible barrier breaker."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor