Esther Kim Lee, Dan Bacalzo, Jeremy Tiang, and Jeanne Sakata at the National Asian American Theater Conference
Photo by Andy Buck
I appeared on a panel of artists and scholars this past weekend as part of the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, organized by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) and held this year in Philadelphia. All conference events took place at the Asian Arts Initiative, co-host of the ConFest. The rather broad topic our panel was meant to address was “The State of Asian American Theater.”
Actor turned playwright Jeanne Sakata talked about the changing demographics of who is currently writing for the Asian American theater, expressing excitement over the number of young Asian American female playwrights who are now getting produced. Jeremy Tiang—a playwright originally from Singapore who studied in the U.K. but now lives in Brooklyn and only recently received his green card—noted the complexities of identifying as “Asian American.” He engaged with the idea that there is a multiplicity of experiences relating to such identifications, and observed that a lot of existent Asian American dramas deal with the idea of not belonging.
I spoke about teaching Asian American theater, and how many of the plays that helped form the genre were necessarily directed at establishing a connection to America. However, as time has gone on, more playwrights are dealing with transnational ties to Asia and a global identity that is less easily defined. Esther Kim Lee, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland, discussed how funding structures and the season selections of major theatrical institutions both dictate how identity labels are used. She also talked about the growing number of colleges and universities that now include classes about Asian American drama, and how this gives us the opportunity to contextualize the work being produced.
A lively discussion followed, engaging with such topics as the idea of whether or not there is a “canon” of Asian American drama, the inclusion of more South Asian and biracial voices within that genre, and the claiming of Asian American identity as a political act. These critical conversations built not just on what was said by the four of us, but also on conversations stemming from previous panels at the conference.
Pun Bandhu, Randy Reyes, Leslie Ishii, and Sarah Mitteldorf at the National Asian American Theater Conference
Photo by Dan Bacalzo
I attended several over the course of two days, seeing a lot of the same faces at each one. Among these was a plenary on Casting and Representation for Asian Americans that referenced recent controversies surrounding yellowface performance, while also discussing progressive steps for improving the situation of Asian American artists. New York City-based actor Pun Bandhu spoke articulately about the work of AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) in holding theaters accountable for their lack of diversity. Fellow panelists Leslie Ishii, Randy Reyes, and Sarah Mitteldorf then talked about their own experiences in their respective locations of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia.
Another plenary was devoted to scholars responding to the work of my fellow panelist Jeanne Sakata’s play, Hold These Truths. The show—an excerpt of which was performed by Makoto Hirano—is about Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the few individuals who legally challenged the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and while Hirabayashi lost his case the play is a moving, inspirational, and even humorous account of this man’s courageous journey.
May Joseph’s reading of the work looked at the tension between rights and obligations, with Hirabayashi as an archetypal American fighting for his rights even as they were abnegated by the state. Her word choice of “abnegated” is an intriguing one, as it implies that the state is denying itself those same rights that they were taking away from Japanese Americans, as other citizens could then potentially be treated in the same way. This is in keeping with how the next speaker, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, described how, with the internment, the law was suspended, but not broken. Karen Shimakawa rounded out the panel by talking about the ambivalent pleasure involved in what she referred to as a reparative performance practice, such as what occurs in Sakata’s play.
I also attended a session about Asian American performance outside of California and New York. Panelists discussed training, funding, creating opportunities, and strategies for sustaining arts organizations. Another panel focused on deconstructing ideas of home, and I was particularly intrigued by scholar Donatella Galella’s talk about the musical Anything Goes and the manufacturing of theatrical seduction through yellowface performance. She argues that supposedly safe spaces become sites of contestation when you have the “wrong” response to something that is supposed to make you happy.
There were even more panels that I was not able to attend. Luckily, several (including my own) are preserved on HowlRound, which has archived the ones that it livestreamed during the conference. Roger Tang has also written up a summary of the goings-on that you can read on the You Offend Me, You Offend My Family blog. In addition to the conference panels, CAATA produced a festival of stage performances and I’ll be posting a review roundup of shows I saw as part of the festival later this week.