The Aggregation of Asian American Performance Reviews

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Ju Yon Kim, Sean Metzger, Dan Bacalzo, Josephine Lee, and Esther Kim Lee

I am currently attending the Association for Asian American Studies conference in Madison, Wisconsin. Earlier today, I spoke at a roundtable on “Building Collaborative Online Resources for Asian American Theater, Drama, and Performance Studies” alongside colleagues Josephine Lee, Ju Yon Kim, Esther Kim Lee, and Sean Metzger.

While a lot of cool ideas were shared, I’m focusing here on my portion of the presentation. I pitched the idea that a section of this proposed online resource should be devoted to aggregating reviews of Asian American-related performances.

Below are some of my prepared remarks (which I didn’t stick to during the actual roundtable), along with directions for an assignment that teachers could use to generate these review roundups with their students and an example I created for Soft Power, the musical play collaboration between David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori.

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When doing research about Asian American theatre productions that I did not have the opportunity to see, one of the first things that I will typically do is look at the reviews. Not only do they contain information about the script – which is particularly useful if that script remains unpublished – reviews also provide information on staging, design elements, and actor performances.

I used to work as a theatre critic in New York City, so I have a pretty good idea about both the possibilities and limitations of theatre criticism. While some reviews are extremely perceptive, others are written from narrow viewpoints that fail to fully account for Goethe’s three questions when it comes to criticism: What is the production trying to do? Is it successful? Is it worthwhile?

You can, of course, argue that judging if something is “worthwhile” is extremely subjective—and that’s absolutely true. Theatre criticism, by its nature, is subjective and informed by the critic’s background and experiences. But that does not mean it isn’t an effective tool for academic research into theatre productions. What’s often needed, though, is a bit of context. And that’s where scholars and students of Asian American performance can come in.

This roundtable is about building collaborative online resources for Asian American theatre, drama, and performance studies. And so, what I’d like to talk about today is adapting a frequently seen technique of online theatre sites: the review round-up. The usual format of these articles is to start out with a brief introduction to the show. There’s often some kind of rating system used, based upon perceptions of critical reception. I don’t particularly like that aspect, so I’ll be leaving it out. The bulk of the roundup is made up of short excerpts from the reviews that capture the tenor of what the critic had to say about the show. Links to the full reviews are usually provided, as well.

What I envision is creating an online resource where aggregated reviews of Asian American performances can be posted and accessed. And I see two primary benefits of this endeavor. First of all, I think this could be an effective homework assignment to give to students that will allow them to research a specific production and write up the brief introduction which can provide context about the play, the playwright, the production, and its reception. This can and should go beyond what is normally seen on theatre websites so that it contains a scholarly dimension while remaining accessible in writing style. That latter attribute is key to the second primary benefit: once these review roundups are posted, then they can be read by anyone interested in a particular play or production.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of this assignment for sharing with the public, I suggest that the instructor of the course create a list of productions that they would like to see added to the online resource and have their students draw from that list. Below are sample instructions that could be given with the assignment:

Choose a production from the list provided to you. Please note that these productions are specific to a particular time, city, and venue. Research that production and its critical reception. You should find a minimum of three reviews of this production and choose a brief passage from each that you feel captures the tenor of the review. Include citations for the review (noting author, publication, and publication date). If it is accessible online, include a link to the original review. You must also provide an introduction that situates the production within the discourse surrounding Asian American performance. This will involve going beyond the selected reviews so that you might consider a playwright’s past work, interviews with members of the creative team, historical information related to the play’s subject matter, or other relevant details.

These instructions provide basic guidelines for the assignment, and should be paired with an example. I have created one for the David Henry Hwang-Jeanine Tesori musical play Soft Power, which played the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles May 3-June 10, 2018. I did not actually see this production, so I felt it was a good test study for me to gauge how the assignment might work. The instructor might then select exceptional aggregated review assignments to post onto the shared resource – with the student’s permission, of course.

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Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito in Soft Power
© 2018 Craig Schwartz Photography

Soft Power

Play and Lyrics by David Henry Hwang

Music and Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori

Directed by Leigh Silverman, with choreography by Sam Pinkleton

Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

Production run: May 3-June 10, 2018

 

Review Roundup by Dan Bacalzo

This musical play was directly inspired by the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, with losing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as one of its main characters. There’s also a fictionalized version of Hwang, who hallucinates a futuristic scenario that spoofs American culture and Chinese perceptions of it via a musical theatre lens. The “soft power” invoked in the work’s title refers to the possibility that America will lose its global preeminence, as China asserts a more dominant cultural influence on the world stage.

Hwang is best known for his Tony Award-winning play, M. Butterfly (1988), which is likely the most widely taught play by an Asian American playwright. He has included stand-ins for himself in previous works, such as Yellow Face (2007), which satirically explored race-based casting and issues of representation. Hwang is also no stranger to musical theatre; he was a script doctor – and credited as co-writer of the book – for Aida (2000), the book writer for Tarzan (2006), and penned the adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (2002), all of which played Broadway. His musical collaborator for Soft Power is Jeanine Tesori, who previously worked with Tony Kushner on the musical Caroline, or Change (2004), and won a Tony Award for her score for Fun Home (2015). Soft Power explores familiar themes contained in much of Hwang’s prior work – cultural appropriation, hegemony, and East-West socio-political relations – while seeming to offer something new in terms of its structure. East West Players, the country’s oldest and arguably most prominent Asian American Theatre (founded in 1965), was among Soft Power’s producers.

Reviews of the production celebrate its topicality and innovations in form. However, several reviewers in print and online publications felt that it was a little too complex for its own good, running the danger of confusing the audience and/or coming across as heavy-handed. Asian American scholar Dorinne Kondo provides a fuller engagement with the nuances and ideas contained within the musical play in an article-length review that also contains critiques of aspects of the show, such as the binary between East and West that the work perpetuates. This review  unfortunately does not have a readily accessible link, but can be obtained via the library systems of many universities.

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“Hwang, a dramatist of extraordinary intellectual suppleness, and Tesori, a composer of seemingly limitless range, have joined forces to deconstruct the imperialist worldview that has informed such beloved Broadway musicals as “The King and I,” which has inspired and provoked “Soft Power.” That might sounds [sic] academic, but the show is a bouncy exploration of the shifting center of gravity in East-West relations in a theatrical package overflowing with Broadway showmanship.”

– Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2018

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-soft-power-review-20180518-story.html

 

Soft Power might be the most creatively and intellectually ambitious musical of the year. Unfortunately, like the dream it portrays, much of the production lacks coherence. The focus on theme over story leaves it feeling a bit like a showcase for clever songs and heavy-handed observations on identity. As a protagonist, Xing seldom drives the action, instead witnessing and reacting to events. His relationship with Clinton allows for occasional hilarious political insights but fails to ignite any passion.”

– Jordan Riefe, The Hollywood Reporter, 5/17/18

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/soft-power-theater-1112954

 

“Yet there are many pieces that offer more than the gonzo archness of an edgier Saturday Night Live sketch. Clinton sings, “Democracy will break your heart,” and heartbreak is the central theme of the show — the heartbreak of the ballot box, of choosing duty over love, of racism, sexism, and the truly gut-wrenching upset of the yawning gap between the promise of the American Dream and its reality. This is best realized in the cast itself. Excepting Alyse Alan Louis, who portrays Clinton, the entire cast is Asian American, donning blond wigs frequently to portray an overly tanned, satirical take on “America.” It takes up disgraceful traditions of yellowface and whitewashing in the American theater to turn them on their head.”

– Maureen Lee Lenker, Entertainment Weekly, 5/17/18

http://ew.com/theater/2018/05/17/soft-power-theater-review/

 

Soft Power is all about perception: how the Chinese perceive the United States, how an American author of Chinese descent remarks on those Chinese acuities, how the American musical can be a critique of the American dream when observed by the Chinese. Lifting autobiographical scenarios and filtering them through multiple lenses, Hwang has built a complex bridge between two divergent cultures.”

– Jonas Schwartz, TheaterMania, May 25, 2018

https://www.theatermania.com/los-angeles-theater/reviews/soft-power-ahmanson-theatre_85345.html

 

“Above all, Soft Power stages an Asian American–critical race studies perspective that is absent from mainstream, white-dominant, US theater, television, and film. Hwang asks what it would be like for the US nation-state to see itself from ‘another point of view’ through his continuing quest to upend the politics of racial representation in beloved ‘classics’ of opera and musical theater.”

– Dorinne Kondo, American Quarterly, March 2019

Vol. 71 Issue 1, p265-285.

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Lea Salonga, Miss Saigon, My Mother, and Me

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Lea Salonga Headshot

Lea Salonga

The first few notes of a song from Miss Saigon began to play, and audience members erupted in applause. However, it was not one of the songs most of the assembled crowd were probably expecting. I know I certainly wasn’t. Lea Salonga delivered a passionate and soulful rendition of “Why God Why?” from the blockbuster musical. For those less familiar with the show, the reason that struck me as odd is that it’s a solo by the character of Chris, an American soldier, singing about the conflicted feelings he now has after spending a night with young Vietnamese prostitute Kim—the part that Salonga originated to great acclaim (including both Olivier and Tony Awards) during the musical’s premiere production.

Salonga sang the number as part of a one-night concert event at Artis-Naples, in Naples, Florida. I took my mother to see the show. Also my aunt, who is visiting from the Philippines. We were far from the only Filipinos in the audience, and I found it a bit amusing that several of the (white) patrons around me were actively commenting on that fact. But Salonga is Filipino royalty, a success story that infuses Filipinos far and wide with pride. She’s also currently one of the coaches on the version of The Voice that is produced in the Philippines, and which my mom watches on TFC (The Filipino Channel). During the car ride over, my mom filled me in on some of the young singers who have been a part of “Team Lea.”

“Why God Why?” happens to be one of my favorite songs from Miss Saigon. I enjoy singing it at late-night karaoke parties, particularly if I’m hanging out with Asian American friends. The soaring melody and overwrought emotions are a delight to dig into, and I loved hearing Salonga do just that in her concert. I know that she would never publicly (or probably privately) say anything negative about Miss Saigon, as she owes her international career to the musical. Nevertheless, I found the number slyly subversive. Seeing the woman who once played Kim crossing race and gender lines to embody the white American G.I. lusting after the sleeping Vietnamese girl he’s just deflowered caused my brain to explode a little bit as I tried to sort out the issues of representation, appropriation, and international politics being invoked.

As you might have guessed, I have a complicated relationship to Miss Saigon. The first time I saw the musical was with my mother and father in London in the early 1990s. Salonga had left the show by then, but we watched another talented Filipina actress play the role of Kim and we all left singing the musical’s praises. I was happy that my parents were sharing in my love of musical theatre, and they couldn’t stop talking about the fact that it was a Filipina who was playing the lead. It wasn’t until years later, when I read Martin F. Manalansan IV’s article “Searching for Community,” which references gay Filipino identification with the show (printed in Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader), that I realized that my ethnic identity was coloring my critical faculties in regards to this musical.

While in graduate school at New York University, I read up on the casting controversy surrounding the Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon, centering on the yellow face performance of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. I also read about the lesser known protest movement that critiqued the show’s use of racist stereotypes. As a teacher, I’ve used this moment in time as an effective way of bringing up issues of race and representation, gender and sexuality, and protest versus censorship.

Miss Saigon - Alistair Brammer as Chris and Eva Noblezada as Kim - Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in the current Broadway production of Miss Saigon
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon is currently back on Broadway, and I’m uncertain if I want to go and see the revival. I recently read Diep Tran’s powerful article in American Theatre that articulates the show’s erasure of Vietnamese stories in favor of another “white savior” narrative, and I’m in 100% agreement with it. But I still have a nagging desire to re-experience the musical for myself.

The last time I saw Miss Saigon was in 1999, my first year as a professional theatre journalist. I had interviewed two of the performers from the Broadway cast for the magazine InTheater. And I was curious how I’d react to the musical now that I was more familiar with both its history and the critical race theory I’d been studying at NYU.

What I remember most about the production was the performance by one of the actors I’d interviewed, Margaret Ann Gates, who played Ellen, the wife that Chris has married in the United States after being forced to abandon Kim during the fall of Saigon. Gates is an actress of Asian descent, and this was a bold casting choice that changed the way I viewed the musical, and the character of Chris. It was clear that Ellen was Chris’s attempt to replace Kim with someone he consciously or unconsciously chose because she reminded him of his lost love. The moment when Ellen and Kim meet for the first time was utterly heartbreaking, as it seemed (to me at least) that both of those characters come to the same realization in that moment, literally seeing themselves in one another.

Let’s just say that Chris didn’t come across all that favorably to me in this production. However, what I did find poignant were the stories of collateral damage resulting from American ignorance. Those themes were, of course, already in the show, with Kim’s violent act of self-sacrifice at the end as the most obvious example. But somehow it seemed different when there was another face—an Asian American face—that I could focus my identification through at the end of the story. One that survives, and who must come to grips with how she will deal with the mess left behind by her husband. I wondered if Ellen would leave Chris. If I were her, I certainly would.

None of this, of course, negates any of the critiques leveled against Miss Saigon in terms of racial representation and imperialist mindsets. Still, I was surprised by how easily the musical tugged at my emotions. And even now, I’m amazed by how so many of the songs remain stuck in my head even though it’s been years since I’ve seen the show or listened to the original cast recording.

Miss Saigon Cast Recording

Miss Saigon Original Cast Recording

I can’t remember now if I bought the recording before or after I saw the musical with my parents in London. I do know that I used to play it all the time; it was one of my guilty pleasures even after I became conscious of the musical’s problematic racial overtones. I finally gave the CD away, during one of the purges that always preceded a move from one apartment to another. And if I’m honest, I regret doing so, as I enjoyed listening to the songs—even though I continue to hate some of the explicitly racist lyrics.

My love for the Miss Saigon original cast recording has a lot to do with Lea Salonga. Her voice comes across as so lush and pure. And even though I’ve never seen her in the musical, she’s who I picture whenever I think about the show.

And I still love to hear her sing. My mother’s favorite moment from the concert in Naples was Salonga’s extended version of the song “Reflection,” from Disney’s Mulan (a movie that also brings up complex feelings that are perhaps better reserved for a future blog post). I quite enjoyed Salonga’s rendition of “Burn,” from the most popular musical currently on Broadway, Hamilton. I also got a kick out of her take on the One Direction song, “Story of My Life.” But the moment I found most affecting was the duet she did with a man named Bernie, who was volunteered by his wife to sing “A Whole New World” (from Aladdin) up on stage with Salonga. Bernie was, perhaps predictably, Filipino. And as a (white) woman I overheard say to her (also white) friend after the show, “All Filipinos are good singers.” I don’t think that’s actually true, by the way, but for now I’ll embrace the stereotype.

Bernie’s performance wasn’t perfect, as he lost his place in the lyrics at least once. But (with some assistance from Salonga) he was always able to get back on track. And he sounded good! I found myself leaping to my feet after the end of the song—something I rarely do. And it wasn’t like a peer pressure standing ovation, as I was one of only a handful of people so moved to stand and applaud at that juncture.

I think I stood because I felt overcome by a feeling of identification and community—even though I don’t know Bernie, and have only spoken to Lea Salonga once (when I interviewed her via phone for an article). But I was there at Artis-Naples with my mom, in an auditorium with more Filipinos than I have ever seen in any other theatre in Southwest Florida, listening to a Filipino performer sing some of my favorite songs. And at that moment, I felt free enough to cast aside the critical objectivity I spent such a long time cultivating when I worked as a journalist, and just reveled in the joy of the moment.

 

David Henry Hwang Elected Chair of American Theatre Wing

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David Henry Hwang
Photo by Lia Chang

David Henry Hwang has been elected as the new chair of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that founded the Tony Awards and which also has programs to develop new talent and assist theatre organizations across the country. Hwang succeeds current chair William Ivey Long, who concludes his four-year term this year.

Hwang is best known for his Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, and has been a vocal advocate for Asian Americans in the theatre. Among the playwright’s other works are Chinglish, Yellow Face, F.O.B., Golden Child, Kung Fu, and The Dance and the Railroad. He also wrote the books for the musicals Aida and Tarzan, as well as the updated version of Flower Drum Song. He is a three-time Obie Award winner, and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In a statement, Hwang declared “I am honored to serve the American Theatre Wing as it celebrates a century advancing excellence. Through its wide range of programs and activities, the Wing supports the vitality and diversity of theatre in our nation. I will do my best to help build on this iconic legacy.”

For more information on The American Theatre Wing, visit www.AmericanTheatreWing.org.