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Poster design by Eric Sharp

Poster design by Eric Sharp

Asian American Theater turns 50 this year. As with many historical markers, this anniversary is rooted in specificity without being definitive. It commemorates the beginning of East West Players, the first Asian American theater company, founded in Los Angeles in 1965.

East West Players was not the first time performers of Asian ethnicity banded together in America. The Chop Suey Circuit of the 1930s and 40s united singers and dancers of various ethnic heritages to perform nightclub acts at places like the Forbidden City in San Francisco or the China Doll in New York. We could also consider the Cantonese Opera performances begun in California in the mid-nineteenth century by troupes such as Tong Hook Tong as a beginning point for Asian American theatrical entertainment. There were even plays written by authors of Asian ethnicity in Hawaii—which did not officially become a state until 1959—that stretch as far back as the 1920s.

This is why the celebration of Asian American theater that is being presented at the Association for Asian American Studies conference in late April both centers around and goes beyond the founding of East West Players. The AAAS conference in Evanston, Illinois will have a panel on Friday, April 24 at 9:45am entitled “50 Years of East West Players at Home and in the World,” as well as a set of staged readings the previous afternoon, Thursday, April 23 at 4:30pm at a session called “Asian American Theater Turns 50.”

This latter event will feature actors from Mu Performing Arts—Randy Reyes, Eric Sharp, Audrey Park, and Su-Yoon Ko—who will perform excerpts from five significant plays from the early decades of Asian American theater, not all of which debuted at East West Players.

The oldest of these, The Submission of Rose Moy, was written by Hawaiian-born playwright Ling-Ai (Gladys) Li in 1924. Like many Asian American plays that would follow, it is a story of intergenerational conflict. The title character is a college-educated woman whose dreams and ambitions are put on the line once her father declares that she must marry a wealthy Chinese merchant.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s Laughter and False Teeth is a one-act dark comedy, originally presented in 1954. The play centers on a beautiful but toothless woman who wants to get a set of dental plates. It has a subversive edge and is the first dramatic work that I’m aware of to be set in a Japanese American internment camp.

Internment also plays a significant role in Soon-Tek Oh’s Tondemonai: Never Happened, which premiered in 1970. Oh, a Korean American actor and playwright, was also EWP’s first executive director. Not only does Tondemonai deal significantly with the emotional fallout resulting from the internment experience, it also boldly depicts homosexual desire—so boldly that the scantily clad opening scene between two men led to EWP’s departure from its church basement home.

Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman was the first Asian American play to be produced Off-Broadway, premiering at the American Place Theater in 1972. This provocative work deals with themes of racial disidentification and absent fathers, as it follows a Chinese American filmmaker attempting to make a documentary about an African American boxer.

Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance is adapted from her short story of the same name. It is set in California during the Depression and centers on two struggling immigrant Japanese farming families. It won the Los Angeles Critics’ Circle Award for best new play for its 1977 premiere.

Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, will introduce this afternoon of staged readings at the AAAS conference. Sean Metzger, Greg Robinson, and I (Dan Bacalzo) will join her as commentators to help set a historical/scholarly frame around these five remarkable plays.

If you’ll be attending the AAAS conference—to be held at the Hilton Orrington in Evanston, IL (near Chicago) from April 23-25—I hope that you will join us. You should also check out additional conference panels that address theatrical subjects. I’ll be presenting a paper on playwright Qui Nguyen and the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company (specifically centering on Nguyen’s The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G) bright and early on Friday, April 24 at 8am. So, come join me for that, too!

For more information on the Association for Asian American Studies Conference, visit http://aaastudies.org/2015-aaas-conference/.

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