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The Lush Flowering of Asian American Drama

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 1997; Page G01

NEW YORK-These days, David Henry Hwang can simply discuss his latest play, "Golden Child," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center.

He can explain how the story had been simmering in his brain since he was 10, a suburban California kid who responded to news of his grandmother's illness with a sudden odd compulsion to preserve his family's history. He spent a summer in the Philippines, tape- recording the ailing Chinese matriarch's memories of her father and his three jousting wives, then turned the

narrative into a 60-page novella. "An interesting foreshadowing," notes Hwang, who keeps a copy of the precocious manuscript (typed by his mother) here in his stylish duplex above Central Park.

He can report on his grandmother's reaction -- she recovered and later moved to California -- when she saw "Golden Child" performed at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa a few weeks ago. "She said she feels bad that now everyone will think her mother was an opium addict. Which is true, she was," says Hwang, 39, with an affectionate grin and a shrug. "But other than that, I think she liked it okay."

He can talk about the plans to take "Golden Child" to Broadway. Or about the screenplays he's toiling over.

But he doesn't have to make profound declarations about the role of minorities in the theater, or argue the case for colorblind casting, or weigh in on the social issues confronting hyphenated Americans. Not unless he wants to. "Nobody has to be the Official Asian-American anymore," Hwang says with some relief.

That's because there are lots of exemplars of Asian American theater now, many more than when Hwang's "M. Butterfly" was Broadway's hot ticket of 1988 and he seemed to acquire that position along with the great reviews. Born out of the identity politics of the late '60s and '70s, Asian American theater is flowering, with new writers and performers emerging and more theater companies coalescing. "The audiences are larger, it's more accessible, it's more visible than we would have thought 20 years ago," says Hwang, whose success has helped the movement take hold. "It's exciting, the way you'd be excited about seeing any child grow up."


Several veteran companies have reached major milestones. New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, an artistic incubator, is now in its 20th season and still generating new work: In April it will unveil the musical "Shanghai Lil's," set in a Chinatown nightclub during World War II. East West Players in Los Angeles marked its 30th anniversary last year. It has raised $1.2 million to transform an abandoned church into its new quarters; the first production there will be Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures." Both theaters present Asian classics in translation, along with new plays examining aspects of the immigrant experience, often incorporating elements of traditional dance or drama.

They've been joined by a second generation. In California, new companies have formed in Stockton and San Diego.

In New York, the Ma-Yi Theatre Ensemble stages work of particular interest to the city's burgeoning Filipino population. At first, "we did English translations of Filipino plays because we couldn't find Filipino American playwrights," says executive director Jorge Ortoll. "But it turns out there are a number of them; they just didn't have a platform." Now they do. Meanwhile, the seven-year-old National Asian-American Theatre Company produces classic plays with all-Asian casts, giving actors the chance to do Moliere and Albee. Next up: "Ah, Wilderness!," the company's first stab at O'Neill.

The provocatively named Slant Performance Group, which consists of three young dancer-actor-musicians, has created downtown buzz with an in-your-face revue whose title must go unprinted here. It includes deliverymen on tricycles singing "No Menus Please" and a sketch set in a doctor's office as Asian men await penis enlargement surgery.

And Theater Mu caused a stir in Minneapolis-St. Paul with its very first production: "Mask Dance" was fashioned by playwright Rick Shiomi in 1993 from the recollections of Koreans adopted as babies by Midwestern Caucasian families.

At the same time, plays with Asian themes are increasingly finding their way to mainstream cultural institutions. New York's Public Theater now stages at least one work by an Asian American writer each year. The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., will present an adaptation of Amy Tan's popular novel "The Joy Luck Club" in April. Another landmark bestseller, Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior," was staged by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1994, drawing 35,000 people, some of whom used a plot synopsis printed in Chinese. And playwright Chay Yew has launched an Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles' leading showcase, where he's working with about 30 writers.

The proliferation is all the more striking considering the suspicion young Asian Americans often encounter when they tell their families they want to pursue arts careers. "The engineer-banker-doctor-dentist route is more approved of," notes Yew. In fact, law school represents a kind of road-not-taken leitmotif among Asian theater folk: Hwang was considering it before his first undergraduate play at Stanford wound up at the Public Theater. Wayland Quintero of Slant, who is Filipino and Japanese, stunned his family and friends by dropping out of the University of Hawaii law school to be a dancer. Philip Kan Gotanda actually has a law degree, still unused as he writes widely produced plays.

In part, their elders' disapproval or bewilderment stems from the low status of theater in their homelands. "In traditional culture, to be an artist or work in the theater is as low as being a prostitute," says Yew, who left his native Singapore at 16. In part, it stems from economic concerns: Immigrant parents are often determined that their children have a more secure future, something the theater rarely provides. "You can't be a writer," Hwang's mother once warned. "They never have any success until they're 40, and then they're alcoholics."

Nevertheless, the surge in Asian immigration and the newcomers' push into the middle class has helped fuel the growth of Asian American theater. The number of Americans of Asian or Pacific Island origin doubled between the 1980 and 1990 censuses. Five years later, the Census Bureau estimates, it had climbed another 25 percent, to 9.3 million.

As Asian Americans gain an economic toehold, as they and their children acquire diplomas and English language skills, "a growing number of people fit into the traditional demographics of theatergoers: college-educated, disposable income, open to the mainstream experience," says Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Rep. Like a lot of arts organizations, Asian and otherwise, Berkeley Rep took note of the potential new market and mounted outreach programs to lure Asian Americans to its shows.

Those efforts got some help from major grant-givers like the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund and AT&T Onstage, both of which have declared an interest in promoting cultural diversity. Both ethnic theaters and mainstream theaters looking for minority-group playwrights have benefited.

With the passage of two decades, the themes that Asian American theater addresses are evolving. Already Tisa Chang, who as artistic director of Pan Asian Rep is a prime target of submissions from new writers, can see the changes in subject matter. "It used to be more family, the struggle of a young person with his parents, the clash of cultures, the traditional versus the new," she says. Now, she's receiving plays about being a product of intermarriage, "a child of different cultural backgrounds." Yew's plays consider the relationships of those who are Asian and gay, still a taboo subject in many traditional Asian homes.

"For the newer generation, the Asian American identity is becoming secondary," says Terry Hong, theater critic for the bimonthly A. Magazine. "They write about life, love." Though the plays are written by Asian Americans, "that's not the main issue. I think it's a healthy thing."

There is rampant experimentation with form as well. Ping Chong, a fixture of New York's avant-garde scene since the '60s, has always created intensely visual theater pieces that rely on photographs and lighting as well as movement and music. The latest, "After Sorrow," coming to Washington's Dance Place in the fall, was inspired by a visit to Vietnam. Theatre Mu incorporates traditional Asian dance and theater into its contemporary plays; the men of Slant are more likely to use pop culture references and play rock-and-roll. Collaborations with artists from Asia itself are also on the rise.

Perhaps inevitably, where issues of race and ethnicity surface, there are tensions -- the same sort recently debated by black playwright August Wilson and white critic Robert Brustein at Town Hall here. Should Asian American artists commit themselves to smaller, ethnically specific theaters where their works will be directed by and performed for Asian Americans? Chang believes something is lost when they don't. "Mainstream theater companies tend to absorb the more palatable artists," she says. Their work "has to please a wider audience; it becomes user-friendly, less incisive."

But sticking exclusively with Asian American theaters, the largest of which have annual budgets in the range of half a million dollars, means that fewer people can see what artists do, learn what they think. "I'd always said I didn't want to be ghettoized as an Asian American artist," says Chong. "I was an American artist; I didn't want to be treated as a special welfare case." That led to some flak for not "dealing with issues of interest to the community," though in recent years Chong's works have considered Asian themes and his own history.

In an ideal world, both types of theaters would thrive. In this one, with governmental budget cuts troubling all nonprofit companies, people were rankled when funders gave grants to non-Asian theaters to produce works about and for Asian Americans.

Yet even in an economically harsh climate, the theater continues to grow in both directions. As "Golden Child" heads for Broadway, Hwang was tickled to learn that a small New York group called Yangtze Repertory Theatre recently produced one of his earlier works in a double bill with the U.S. premiere of a 1987 Chinese play. For the Chinese work, performed in Mandarin, the English translation was projected above the stage; the Hwang play, performed in English, was translated into Chinese.

Meanwhile, Hwang is writing an opera with composer Bright Sheng, called "The Silver River" and based on a Chinese myth. Chong is considering directing. It's a collaboration that would weave together many strands: Chong, who's 50 and whose parents were involved in Chinese opera, grew up in Manhattan's Chinatown speaking Cantonese. Hwang had a more assimilated California boyhood in a family that didn't observe the New Year or speak any Chinese dialect with their children. When he and his parents and siblings visited Shanghai together a couple of years ago, "I felt, this is a really fascinating culture and everyone looks like me, but it's not home." But it was home for Sheng, 42, who after suffering through the Cultural Revolution moved to the United States in 1982.

"The art form is growing and there's all kinds of interesting people to work with," Hwang notes. "There's a lot of artistic energy in the field. It's not just some politically correct obligation. It's fun."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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