If asked to name an Asian-American playwright, most people would respond, "David Henry Hwang." The success of M. Butterfly on Broadway catapulted the writer to the forefront of the Asian-American theater scene. So far, he is the only Asian-American playwright to achieve status on Broadway, where his play Golden Child was also staged, and where he is currently represented as one of the writers for the musical Aida. But what of the multitude of other Asian-American playwrights who haven't achieved this kind of success?
"I wish there could be a chance to re-imagine Asian America," says playwright Alice Tuan. "To allow the new forces, the new interesting things that are happening, to come through a little bit more, and not to give the whole pie to David Hwang, which I think is happening."
This year, the Public Theater's seventh annual New Work Now! festival of play readings (running through April 30) attempts to address this situation with a special focus April 16 through April 23 on Asian-American playwrights. Tuan is among the writers represented. She also helped organize a series of panels that give the week's readings a context.
The event kicked off on Sunday, April 16, with a panel discussion on "The Journey of Asian American Theater." Panelists included Ralph Peña, artistic director of the Ma-Yi Theatre; Mia Katigbak, Artistic/Producing Director of the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO); Alvin Eng, editor of the anthology Tokens?: The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage; and the ubiquitous David Henry Hwang.
"Most young Asian-American writers are aware of me," says Hwang, acknowledging his impact. "If it's not a modeling, it's a reaction." Hwang commented that at this point in his career, he finds that even he is reacting against himself. "If you're the only thing that theater audiences see," he says, "you end up creating a new stereotype."
Many early Asian-American plays told immigration stories, or focused almost exclusively on racial identity. The next wave of Asian-American playwrights seems to be moving away from this. Often, race continues to play a part in these plays, such as Chay Yew's A Language of Their Own (staged at the Public in 1995), but it is not the sole focus, nor is it the driving impetus of the plot. Sometimes, there is no identifying racial marker in the script, as in Diana Son's 1998 play, Stop Kiss. Does that mean the play is no longer Asian-American? Or is there such a thing as an Asian-American sensibility? These were some of the questions raised on Sunday, and which will continue to be explored throughout the week.
Prior to the panel, a group of six actors presented short excerpts from nearly every Asian-American play the Public has staged since 1981, as well as selections from this week's play reading series and Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, which is scheduled for the Public's next season. Between the years 1979 and 1983, Hwang was the only Asian-American playwright the Public produced. For ten years after that, the Public didn't produce any Asian-American work at all. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to the virtual absence of other Asian-American playwrights in mainstream theater.
During this time, jokingly referred to by Peña as the Public's "dark period," both the Ma-Yi Theater and NAATCO were founded. "There was no venue for what we wanted to say," said Peña, whose company devotes itself to developing and producing work by Filipinos. NAATCO, on the other hand, specializes in staging the classics of the Western European and American canon with a crucial difference: All parts are played by Asian-Americans. "It's really annoying to be pigeon-holed," says Katigbak, explaining that her company gives Asian-American actors a chance to perform roles they may otherwise never get to play. "I just want to change people's perceptions."
New Work Now!'s special focus on Asian-American playwrights may also change theatergoers' ideas about what they might expect from an Asian-American play. The first in the series, Euijoon Kim's hilarious My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk, was presented Sunday evening. Roars of laughter filled the theater as the audience was treated to a hip-hop comedy that was funnier and more engaging than much of the work currently playing on Broadway or Off-Broadway.
The rest of the week features readings of Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views, Edward Bok Lee's St. Petersburg, Sung Rno's wave, Sunil Kuruvilla's Rice Boy, Alexander Woo's Forbidden City Blues, and Alice Tuan's Hit.
"There's a great breadth of work," says Merv Antonio, literary manager for the Public. In choosing the plays, he and the rest of the Public's literary staff read through a plethora of scripts. "We wanted to sculpt during the week the different perspectives, different points of view, different cultural vantage points that a lot of these writers are coming from," says Antonio. "Not all of them will be Asian identified. Not all of them will be strongly politicized. A lot of the playwrights grew up in the Midwest or East Coast surrounded by white people. So although they're Asian-American by name and color and surface quality, their influence in terms of environment was strongly American, or white."
In conjunction with the New Work Now! festival, there is also a series of cutting-edge work called Performance Now! at the Public's cabaret/performance space, Joe's Pub. Several Asian-American performers are featured, with a special focus given to Asian American composers. Second Generation Productions will present songs from its rock musical, Making Tracks, on Friday, April 21. Excerpts from Leon Ko's new musical, Heading East, will be performed on Saturday, April 22. And on Tuesday, April 25, composer Fred Ho leads a musical ensemble in excerpts from Night Vision, billed as a "Third to First World Vampyre Opera."
Ho's composition, written with the librettist Ruth Margraff, is distinctly different from the other two works, which fall squarely in the musical theater tradition. "I'm on the radical edge," says Ho. "My aesthetics are pan-Asian, inspired by Asian folk and music-theater traditions, combined with world music influences, as well as the most volatile of 20th-century African-American music."
The Public's New Work Now! focus wraps up on Sunday April 23 with a playwrights roundtable (moderated by the author of this article). Following that session will be a closing panel on "Re-Imagining Asian America: Current Trends and Future Hopes." Included on the panel are playwrights Jessica Hagedorn and Alice Tuan; David Eng, assistant professor of English and Asian American Studies at Columbia University; Welly Yang, producer and co-founder of Second Generation Productions; and Chay Yew, playwright and director of the Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum.