A Season to Celebrate Asian-American Theater Is Lost to Pandemic
A Season to Celebrate Asian-American Theater Is Lost to Pandemic
The cast and crew of “Wolf Play” were on their third day of tech rehearsals at Soho Rep in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were doing this complicated boxing scene, and we had the smog machine and the costumes, and it looked awesome,” said Hansol Jung, who wrote the play.
It was just days before the opening, and as the scene ended, the company’s three artistic directors came in and announced the production was closing. “They were crying as they told us,” Jung said. “It felt so weird saying goodbye to something that didn’t yet exist.”
Jung’s “Wolf Play” was one of eight productions of works by playwrights of Asian descent that were cut short or canceled in New York City this spring because of Covid-19. Just as these playwrights were finally ascendant in downtown theater, the pandemic not only aborted their moment but unleashed a wave of anti-Asian discrimination across the country.
As a Korean-American poet and essayist, I have witnessed a thrilling renaissance of Asian-American literature in the last few years that has kicked aside conventional tales in favor of stranger, more uncharted narratives. When I began writing in the early 2000s, the publishing industry mostly seemed to look at Asian stories as if they were testimonials of tragic immigrant lives. We were condescended to or treated like content farms.
Now I’m reading books by Asian-American authors that are as varied in style as much as content, and I was eager to see how this experimentation has spread to theater. But because of Covid-19, I didn’t have a chance to see any of these productions. I had to make do with their scripts.
Jung told me in a phone interview that she was used to a scarcity model. If a major theater programmed a play by an Asian-American, she used to joke that her chances were shot for a production there the next season. What a dream then that for a few weeks in 2020 so many Asian-American plays were up.
Subjects ranged from a Cambodian band to Korean divers; from international adoption to a Hitchcockian murder mystery. The plays are bold and often outrageous (I detected Young Jean Lee’s acerbic influence in a few scripts). From noir to porn to rock musical, these playwrights deploy genre to pickax their way into the nebulous inner lives of characters traumatized by migration, racism or genocide.
Favoring Brechtian devices over conventional realism, many of these playwrights write Asian-American characters with a self-conscious knowingness that they’re centering Asian bodies before a white audience. Often, they break the fourth wall or use multimedia — like Christopher Chen’s LCT3 production “The Headlands” — to unseat any preconceived notions the audience may have of the Asian race.
“I think a lot of playwrights who want to get into the meat of racial issues use experimental theater to get underneath reality,” said Chen, whose noir-inspired play delves into the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco.
Sometimes, just as the audience identifies with characters, the playwright unmasks them, exposing the scaffolding of the plot. The goal is not to please, or to entertain, but to provoke.
An influential playwright who uses avant-garde techniques to explode racial myths is Young Jean Lee. Following on the heels of Reza Abdoh and Suzan-Lori Parks, Lee projects her own prickly unease about her race onto her audience through scathing satire and bait-and-switch plotlines.
“In purely naturalistic theater you’re not supposed to break the fourth wall, and the main tool at your disposal is audience identification with the characters,” Lee said to me recently. “In experimental theater, you can use a wide range of techniques and tricks to have an emotional impact on the audience.”
“We’re Gonna Die,” one of her more linear but no less confrontational plays, opened on Feb. 25 at Second Stage Theater. A one-woman show that weaves together blunt songs and stories about mortality, it was performed this time by Janelle McDermoth; in the 2011 original, Lee took the role as a challenge to herself because she was afraid to sing for an audience.
In Haruna Lee’s “Suicide Forest,” which opened in February at A.R.T./New York Theaters, characters are drawn as Japanese stereotypes — repressed salaryman, submissive schoolgirl, scary ghost woman — only to be twisted apart like taffy.
The businessman’s teen daughters, who are in Lolita get-ups of silvery-pink pigtails and puffy frocks, are played by actresses in their 60s. Lee, 34, who is nonbinary, portrayed Azusa, the schoolgirl. Lee breaks character late in the action to confess that as a teenager, they masturbated to Hilary Swank’s love scene with Chloë Sevigny in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
“Growing up in the U.S., stereotypes were handed to me,” Lee said in an interview, “and my conflict has been fulfilling those stereotypes to survive and actively pushing them away — but not knowing what I’m pushing them away into.”
Calling it a “nightmare bilingual play,” Lee made sure that large parts of the dialogue were in Japanese and that the cast was made up entirely of native speakers, including Lee’s mother. It was produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, which focuses on developing plays by Asian-American writers. Working with the director Aya Ogawa, also of Japanese descent, made a difference, too.
“When we had our first conversation, I could tell she understood the bones of the play and the simultaneity of Americanness and Japanese aesthetic,” Lee said. “That felt like a revelation.”
When Celine Song met with casting directors for her play “Endlings,” which opened March 9 at New York Theater Workshop, they warned her it might be hard to find older Asian-American actresses for the roles of Korean hanyeos, or fisherwomen, in their 70s to 90s. Grandmas who make dumplings they are not. Instead they curse like truckers and talk about how they beat their children so they wouldn’t end up following their example.
But casting was easy because there were many actresses of Asian descent in New York who had struggled in their youth to find jobs. “During their time, white women were taking their roles and doing yellow face,” said Song, 31, who grew up in South Korea and Canada.
The play also features a character named Ha Young who is the stand-in for the playwright. Ha Young is ambivalently ambitious, confessing her desires to take over “great white theater” while simultaneously chastising herself for wanting to “sell out.” As she berates her audience, she might as well be berating herself for internalizing the white gaze: “Aren’t you excited to tell your friends? How you saw a weird play about weird old diving women from Korea?”
In Jung’s “Wolf Play,” co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, a Korean boy is adopted by a white couple in Arizona. When the wife becomes pregnant, they decide they no longer want the child. Through a chat room, the couple illegally “rehomes” the boy with a family in San Francisco. Traumatized and dissociated, the child believes he’s a wolf, and he is represented by a puppet, a stark reminder that he has no control over his fate.
Jung said she was inspired to write the play after reading a news story about Facebook and Yahoo groups some Americans used to enlist new parents for their adopted children (most from other countries), as casually as if they were discarding unwanted furniture. “It sort of really, really enraged me,” Jung said.
Other plays that didn’t even have a chance to open include Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman之死” and Melisa Tien’s “Best Life.” On the other hand, Lauren Yee’s bawdy and gutting “Cambodian Rock Band” had a nearly three-week run at the Signature Theater before Covid-19 shut it down. In the play, a former musician who survived the Khmer Rouge purge returns to his homeland, as his daughter there prepares to prosecute a notorious former leader on war crimes charges.
Since the pandemic has kept the writers holed up at home, Jung, Song and Chen said they were writing for TV, and Young Jean Lee is involved in several theatrical projects.
Most are hopeful about the wellspring of Asian-American voices, except for Song who was cautious about this moment in theater: “I don’t want to tell people there is a lot of Asian theater because then there will be a backlash. Theater will get complacent and stop programming Asian voices.”
Jung said she wasn’t sure what kind of stories people would want after the pandemic. Still, she was galvanized by her Asian-American peers. “We’re not just in the people of color slot anymore,” she said. “We have something to say to the world and not just to other Asians. When we come back, we’ll just have to double down.”
Cathy Park Hong is a poet and the author of the essay collection “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning.”