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.
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 Not only do they contain information about the script – which is particularly useful if that script remains unpublished – reviews also provide information on staging, design elements, and actor performances.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.
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.
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.