Rising From Inscrutable Ashes: Asian Americans in American Theater

Posted by Prince Gomolvilas
ON Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Several weeks ago, I was alerted to an article in the March 2010 issue of American Theatre magazine that serves as an exhaustive survey of Asian Americans in theater. Of course, I immediately skipped ahead to the part where I'm mentioned (oh, oh, you're surprised at my narcissism?!—don't you know me by now?!), and then I set the piece aside for later reading. (I'm too busy macrameing friendship bracelets for Zac Efron!)

Well, I finally read the article, and author Lily Tung Crystal has done a really commendable job of uncovering little-known theatrical history and putting it in context. Her look at the San Francisco Bay Area theater scene and the place of Asian Americans in it shows you how the microcosm of the Bay Area has far-reaching implications throughout the United States.

Aside from my paragraph (ha!), here's the most intriguing and provocative passage:

Ironically, when Asian-American theatre in the Bay Area should have been at the height of its development, the market suddenly took a step backward. As the Wallace grant ended, [Sharon] Ott left Berkeley Rep to helm Seattle Repertory Theatre, taking her Asian sensibility with her. In the decade-plus since her departure, Berkeley Rep has produced only two plays by Asians or Asian Americans.

Still, managing director Susan Medak insists, "Berkeley Rep has not in any way stopped producing or lost interest in Asian or Asian-American artists. In fact, this March, we're premiering a new play by Naomi Iizuka [Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West] that we commissioned." But, she admits, "We stopped aggressively looking for Asian-themed work, mostly because Sharon was leaving. [Current artistic director] Tony Taccone does not have the same long-standing collaborations with Asian-American artists that drove our programming in the past. We stopped investing as heavily in Asian audience development because we found we were attracting more Asian audiences by simply concentrating on younger audiences. I don't feel we've abandoned Asian audiences, though. They are coming more, but that's not because we're doing Asian work."

The idea that Asian-American audiences will support non—ethnically Asian work as much if not more than their own is not a new one, as filmmaker Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) discovered at a Hollywood studio marketing meeting. "They had pie charts, and I saw slices labeled African-American, Caucasian and Latino. When I asked, 'Where are the Asian Americans?' one executive said, 'Look, Asian-American spending patterns are white, so we consider them Caucasian.'"

Really?! Am I really just like any random white guy?!

Read "Opening the Golden Gate."
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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the link to the article; it made for fascinating reading. When I interned at SFMT in the late 90's, I worked with youth in the Tenderloin- mostly Cambodian and Laotian kids- for the Youth Theater Festival. More than anything else, their experiences opened my eyes to the inequity experienced by Asian youth, both within the theater world and at large.
    The fact that movies, tv, and most shamefully, theatre, do not offer an accurate representation of life is ridiculous.

    Also, they totally should have had a much longer paragraph re: your awesomeness.


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