Current Issue, Vol 28 no.1

Strangers Onstage: Asia, America, Theatre, and Performance

by Esther Kim Lee
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

When I was writing my dissertation in the late 1990s, I would tell anyone who would ask that my topic was Asian American theatre. I was ready with my elevator speech tinged with obligatory graduate student’s anxiety, but mostly, I was excited to share how I was interviewing artists around the country for the project. “Actors, playwrights, communities, and producers!,” my voice would rise. Some people politely responded with “that’s interesting,” which could mean many things, but often, I would get an answer that ran something like, “oh, I love kabuki!” I would have no choice but to smile and say, “me too” because it was true and because I had to think about my follow up response. How aggressively do I explain that Asian theatre is different from Asian American theatre? How do I detail the links between Asian American theatre and other American ethnic theatres? Should I describe the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner and how it represents the exclusion of Asian Americans in the imagining of America? Or do I present a crash course on the East West Players, the first Asian American theatre company founded in 1965 in Los Angeles? Depending on the circumstance and my mood, my response varied, but generally, I tried my best to explain the significance of documenting a part of American theatre history that had been overlooked.

While I grew tired of explaining my project, I also fantasized about titling my yet to be written book “Strangers Onstage” to recall Ronald Takaki’s seminal book, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1990). Most Asian immigrants crossed the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic. Because of their visual and geographic strangeness compared to European immigrants, they were excluded from citizenship, accused as disloyal, interned, and disenfranchised from all sectors of the society. Theatre was no exception. American theatre, as Karen Shimakawa has brilliantly argued, has functioned as a major site of “national abjection” of Asian Americans. Feeling like a stranger myself, I wanted to tell the story of other strangers who collectively built Asian American theatre while hoping to bridge different disciplines, including Asian American studies and theatre and performance studies.

On that metaphorical bridge, I had the fortune of meeting scholars, both senior and emerging, who shared my scholarly mission and who also felt like strangers in a field that was still not legible to many. Together, however, we knew the field had much potential for multiplicity of research agendas, theoretical growth, and critical intervention. In the past five years, several books have been published as a full demonstration of that potential. The titles include: Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns’ Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire (2013); Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America (2013); Sean Metzger’s Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (2014); Eng-Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias (2014); and Ju Yon Kim’s The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday (2015). The books showcase innovative interdisciplinary approaches and nuanced understandings of how race, body, geopolitics, history, and performance intersect.

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