Current Issue, Vol. 34 No. 2

Asian American Dramaturgies in the Classroom: A Reflection

by Ariel Nereson
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 2 (Spring 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

In fall 2021, after three semesters of Zoom instruction, I returned to the classroom to teach my Advanced Dramaturgy course for graduate and advanced undergraduate students at the University at Buffalo – SUNY (State University of New York). As a practicing choreographer and dramaturg, I teach across dance and theatre undergraduate and graduate curricula, and many of my courses focus on composition through both textual and kinesthetic modes. As I continue learning, developing, and implementing antiracist and culturally responsive teaching practices, I connect these principles to how I generally teach script and movement analysis via a method that emphasizes the imbrication of form, content, and means of production.[1] I offer here a reflection on teaching an Asian American dramaturgies unit within my Advanced Dramaturgy course in order to practice critical self-reflection; model the composition of this unit and acknowledge its limits and affordances; and advocate for the use of theoretical contributions like Dorinne Kondo’s “reparative creativity” as pedagogical tools. I am chagrined to admit that though I taught this course previously in 2015, it took the anti-Asian violence in the US during the COVID–19 pandemic for me to incorporate and name Asian American dramaturgies in the course. I shared this with my students as evidence of my complicity with racism and its impacts on my pedagogy (was it the prevalence of the model minority myth that led to the absence of Asian Americanist critique in my 2015 syllabus?) and to model solidarity and justice as pedagogical tactics in need of constant energy and commitment. I share it here to practice accountability as a white educator.

Kondo’s reparative creativity, a theory of performance’s worldmaking capacities toward liberation, is developed through her own artistic practice as both a dramaturg and playwright. In Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity, Kondo includes a variety of writings, from reflections on her experiences as a spectator and artist, to scholarly analyses of racial capitalism, to her full-length play Seamless. Thinking across these modes allows students to integrate script analysis with sociocultural structural analysis, to understand stakes as not only present in a script as a matter of dramatic structure but also vital to our decisions about season selection, marketing and promotion, educational programming, and audience outreach—to the myriad ways that performance functions as worldmaking. Kondo’s work has inspired this special issue of JADT, the summer 2022 Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) conference theme, and my own research on racialization and embodiment. I wanted to give students this concept as one of their theoretical tools to think and make with as dramaturgs.

Part of my responsibility as an educator, as I have learned from Felicia Rose Chavez’s teachings on antiracism in the creative classroom, is to clarify and name explicitly for my students that we are tracing power dynamics and their impacts on the historical development of dramatic theatre as we move amongst units.[2] While in this reflection I single out our unit on Asian American dramaturgies, I want to clarify that my approach to structuring the syllabus names each unit out of a desire to counter what Kondo characterizes as “power-evasive liberalism” and its “cousins,” “humanist multiculturalism” and color blindness.[3] My approach may, at first glance, appear as cultural tourism, where we spend a couple of weeks on each identity category and leave whiteness unmarked.[4] Instead, our class analyzed racialization as a project of all production, for example how Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home engages with whiteness. This structure intends to counter a traditional drama pedagogy in higher education wherein, as Kondo writes, “the majority of plays are white but rarely marked as such.”[5]

My goals for our collective thinking through this unit were threefold: to introduce more contemporary Asian American playwrights to myself and my students, to model some kinds of research that a dramaturg working on a production of a particular text might need to do, and to locate theatrical production in a vibrant practice of Asian Americanist critique. Our contemporary Asian American dramaturgies unit comprised four sessions addressing the following materials: Lauren Yee’s 2008 play Ching Chong Chinaman; Kat Chow’s journalism on the history of “Ching Chong” as a racial slur; Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s chapter “Reading and (re)directing racial scripts” in our textbook, The Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy; selections from Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 memoir Minor Feelings; Kondo’s play Seamless and her chapter “Racial Affect and Affective Violence”; and Donatella Galella’s essay “Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Performance.”[6]

As a way of establishing the experiential knowledge in the room, I asked students to reflect individually, by writing, on two sets of questions:

  1. What do you “know” about Asian Americans? How do you know it? What stereotypes have you encountered? How have you participated in stereotyping?[7]
  2. Can you name an Asian American playwright? Have you seen an Asian American playwright’s work produced? If so, who, where, and when? Have you encountered Asian American characters onstage? If so, who, where, and when?

Students were given the choice regarding the first cluster of questions as to how much of their individual reflection they wanted to share in the group discussion. I also participated in the reflection and sharing. No students in this course self-identified as Asian American. Had this been otherwise, I would rethink this exercise – not eliminate it, but consider possible harms to Asian American folks in the room and reconsider the format given my own whiteness and its impacts. I did instruct students that if they wanted to share with the group, they needed to share through “I” statements. I emphasized that while in their personal reflections racial slurs may be part of their experience of Asian American stereotyping, we would not voice those slurs in our group discussion, a continuation of a class policy we had used all semester based on Koritha Mitchell’s teachings about discursive violence.[8] I found that the first set of questions produced predictable responses in the sense that racialized minoritarian identities are perpetuated through resilient stereotypes, here of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” as non-conforming to white US American ideals of masculinity and femininity, as linguistically “other,” and as pursuing academic achievement no matter the cost. Students had quite a bit to say in response to this first set of questions, which made the relatively short discussion of the second set of questions stand out.

In our brief discussion of the second set of questions, two concerns for me as the instructor emerged: the first was a general conflation of Asian with Asian American.[9] Given the paucity of Asian American representation on US stages, I wasn’t exactly surprised that my students listed any Asian character they had encountered in a US production. The vast majority of characters on this list were defined through the violence of colonial encounter and compulsory heterosexuality, such as King Mongkut from The King and I and Kim from Miss Saigon. My second concern resulted from the dominance of male playwrights on the students’ lists: David Henry Hwang and Qui Nguyen were the two most frequently cited playwrights. One student mentioned Young Jean Lee, but otherwise female Asian American playwrights were not represented. Through this discussion, I realized that I had organized our Asian American dramaturgies unit without consciously attending to gender dynamics, so my selections provided a serendipitous, but nonetheless necessary, corrective that, in the future, I would be more intentional about framing.

Rather than giving a sequential account of how these four sessions went, I want to emphasize some unexpected, rich, and welcome connections that emerged through the confluence of these readings. I firstly note that these authors, while all identifying as female, represent a range of Asian American identities (with the exception of Carpenter) that are taken up in their respective texts, including Chinese American, Japanese American, and Korean American communities. This turned out to be a particularly needed intervention into the generalization of “Asians” that students had experienced. The pairing of the two dramas—Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman and Kondo’s Seamless—demonstrated the breadth of dramatic possibility that Asian American dramaturgies explore, and both plays read wonderfully on the page. Yee’s play is a laugh-out-loud comedy, filled with linguistic and physical humor, that moves at a rapid clip through the Wong family’s expert assimilation into US American tropes of “Chineseness.” Kondo’s play, a family drama, proceeds at a steady, more meditative pace, and takes up painful histories of Japanese American incarceration, as it stages the lead character’s confrontations with familial and national pasts. While Yee’s play is more realistic, both texts incorporate stylistic tactics of realism and non-realism and allowed for comparison with other texts throughout the syllabus. I felt it was important to begin this unit with a comedy in order to continue our discussions of the importance of affirming the right of minoritarian actors to have fun onstage, to appear and labor without the necessity of staging trauma.

Both of these plays open with the staging of a family portrait (another connection to previous texts in our course like Fun Home). In Yee’s comedy, the Wongs are attempting their annual Christmas card portrait as they deliver rapid-fire dialogue satirizing the US cultural hegemony of Christmas. The characters freely stereotype Chinese Americans, white Americans, and Christians in hyperbolic prose; the scene ends with a camera flash, directly preceded by patriarch Ed Wong’s line, a cue to racial alienation: “Everyone open their eyes nice and wide now.”[10] Kondo’s play likewise stages a family portrait that ends with a camera flash. Unlike Yee, Kondo opens with direct address to the audience, as the characters introduce themselves and provide a running commentary on each other’s characterizations. Characters occasionally share sentences, each speaking a fragment, in contrast to Yee’s realistic dialogue. The scene ends:

KEN: Because you see.

MASAKO: We’re a very.

BEN: Happy.

DIANE: Family.[11]

Paying attention to the opening beat of a script is standard script analysis training for the dramaturg. Comparing Kondo and Yee countered the collapsing of distinct Asian American identities into a homogenous group as we traced how these playwrights depart in their dramatic structures following their shared set-up in order to articulate differential experiences of US racial projects.

Another serendipitous cluster of inquiry emerged around critical race theory and affect theory as tools the dramaturg might bring to bear on structures of composition and representation. Our initial discussions about Asian American stereotypes on- and offstage were paired with discussion of Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s chapter “Reading and (re)directing racial scripts.” In this essay, Carpenter introduces the term “racial scripts” to indicate the interconnectedness of racial projects, i.e., plays ostensibly “about” race, with racial projects, i.e., the systemic distribution of resources according to racialized hierarchies of identity as defined by critical race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant.[12] Carpenter’s work affirms Kondo’s dramaturgical approach wherein “Instead of asking what race is, I ask what work it is doing, when, for whom?”[13] Carpenter’s account of dramaturging Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2012 production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man at Center Stage in Baltimore compellingly models how the dramaturg navigates both kinds of racial projects. This reading became critically important to how our Asian American dramaturgies unit unfolded because Carpenter’s terminology of racial scripts allowed our class to reflect back on our initial discussions about stereotypes and characterization, to see how systemic critique is often pushed aside in favor of psychological critique (particularly in the US American theatre and its obsession with psychological realism), and to acknowledge how an incessant focus on individualized racial identity avoids recognizing the structural workings of racial projects.

A second cluster of ideas around feeling was another example of an effective, though accidental, compositional choice for our unit. I included, respectively, Donatella Galella’s essay “Feeling Yellow” in order to tie back to our previous unit on musical theatre, Dorinne Kondo’s “Racial Affect and Affective Violence” because of its readability and complexity, and selections from Cathy Park Hong’s memoir Minor Feelings to engage with contemporary Asian Americanist critique written for a general audience. These readings shared an investment in feeling, or affect, as evidence of racial projects and formed a primer in affect theory for our class that was sited in the seats of the theatre. They also share a grounded, first-person address that is integrated with textual analysis and cultural critique. Our discussion of these texts emphasized another of the course’s through-lines: that artists are not geniuses whose creative production is somehow above or below the political and the social. We are responsible for our content and to our audiences.

I’d like to offer a teaching tool related to sharing dense scholarly texts. For Galella’s essay, I asked students to prepare a 3-2-1 assignment: identify 3 main points, choose 2 significant quotations, and propose 1 question to the class based on the insights of the reading.[14] Shared with permission, here are a few of their insights:

  • There is a lot of hidden emotional labor that we ask of people…amplified through the work of marginalized groups—white folk need to take on educating themselves, rather than asking those within the group to explain.
  • Why has it taken this long for creators, designers, and writers to notice the problem in this industry? It seems like all of a sudden every regional theatre developed a “new plan of action” for equal opportunity and diversity on stage, which is fantastic, but it seems like they are only doing it because everyone else is.
  • Commonly selected quotes included: “A theory of feeling yellow makes visible how white supremacy preserves pleasure for the privileged in order to preserve hierarchy” and “While quiet dissent may not move the majority, loud laughter moves the minoritized. Racialized representation can make the spectator of color painfully conscious of racism even in anticipation of a performance.”[15]

When I reviewed the students’ 3-2-1s, I observed that moving from Carpenter to Galella, as we moved through the plays, helped students identify connecting personal responses to dramatic material to structural critiques of US culture as dramaturgical work.

We turned this theoretical discussion toward the concrete realities of season selection at our institution. Season selection was happening concurrently with our course and discussing a hypothetical season proposal that included both Kondo’s and Yee’s plays made space for students to be self-reflective, in terms of considering their roles and investments in our department, and also to engage in institutional critique, particularly of the commonplace, incorrect, and violent excuse of not selecting particular texts because “we don’t have the actors for that.”[16] Students noted the reappearance of this logic in our discussions, as we had previously analyzed texts that called for primarily Black and African diasporic casts and primarily Indigenous casts, in relation to the demands placed on minoritarian playwrights if they wish to see their plays regularly produced. Rather than lumping together racialized “others” through our course units, we used our tools from this unit’s authors, particularly those of systemic critique, to understand these plays as being in a relation of solidarity within racial projects that structure performance-making in North America. In this way Drew Hayden Taylor’s Berlin Blues and Yee’s Ching Chong Chinamen are similar not because they are comedies centered on people belonging to particular minoritarian identities written by playwrights belonging to these communities (and thus checking a set of diversity boxes) but because they are composed, produced, and received in a white supremacist theatrical environment that seeks to constrain their meanings.

As I prepared this reflection for publication in early 2022, the Public Theater in New York produced Out of Time, a monologue project “written by five Asian American playwrights for Asian American actors over age 60.”[17] Days later, an Asian American performer who was headed to the Public to perform as part of a Lion Dance program before the first preview of Lloyd Suh’s drama The Chinese Lady was assaulted in a public act of anti-Asian violence.[18] This assault was a material consequence of anti-Asian racism experienced simultaneously with increased visibility for Asian American theatrical production within white cultural hegemony. This concurrence, as both a contemporary outcome of white supremacy and as related to long histories of violence against racialized “others” in the US, reflects the urgent stakes of the classic dramaturgical question “why this play now?” Asking this question of each play on our syllabus and in our season points to the necessity of centering minoritarian artistic production as an ethical pedagogical and dramaturgical practice. How does this play serve our students, our audience, and our worldmaking, be they harms or reparations? Kondo’s reparative creativity, as well as its intersection with other theoretical tools like critical race theory and affect theory, gives students language with which to answer these questions. I hope that readers who do not already engage with Asian Americanist dramaturgies will incorporate these readings into not only their own courses (and they certainly resonate beyond the dramaturgy classroom) but also the systems we teach with and inside of, like auditions, admissions, casting, season selection, internship placement, hiring, and guest artist residencies, among others.


Ariel Nereson is Assistant Professor of Dance Studies and Director of Graduate Dance at the University at Buffalo – SUNY. She is the author of Democracy Moving: Bill T. Jones, Contemporary American Performance, and the Racial Past (University of Michigan Press, 2022). A recent Dance Research Fellow at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, she researches racialization, embodiment, and movement-based performance. She is also a choreographer and dramaturg.


I thank Donatella Galella and the anonymous peer reviewers for their generous challenges and affirmations provided in their feedback. I thank my students for being in conversation with me and for understanding our classroom as a space of worldmaking.


[1] This tripartite focus (form, content, means of production) is inspired by the “grid of politicality” theorized by Ana Vujanovi´c, after Randy Martin, as the multidimensional space where we might register the politics of performance. For this theorization, see Vujanovi´c, “Notes on the Politicality of Contemporary Dance,” in Dance, Politics & Co-Immunity: Current Perspectives on Politics and Communities in the Arts, Vol. 1, ed. Stefan Hölscher and Gerald Siegmund (Zurich: Diaphenes, 2013), 181-191.

[2] In her book The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), Chavez writes, “It’s our responsibility as workshop leaders to verbalize our anti-racist agenda for them [students], in clear, unapologetic language, language that opens doors instead of closes them” (24).

[3] Dorinne Kondo, Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 131.

[4] I am grateful to the anonymous peer reviewer who encouraged me to better clarify the structure of the course and the possible reading of cultural tourism.

[5] Kondo, Worldmaking, 169.

[6] Faedra Chatard Carpenter, “Reading and (Re)directing Racial Scripts On and Beyond the Stage” in The Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy, ed. Magda Romanska (London: Routledge, 2015), 145-150; Kat Chow, “How ‘Ching Chong’ Became the Go-To Slur for Mocking East Asians,” Code Switch, New York Public Radio, NPR, New York, NY: WNYC, 14 July 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/07/14/330769890/how-ching-chong-became-the-go-to-slur-for-mocking-east-asians (accessed 18 August 2021); Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings (New York: One World, 2020); Donatella Galella, “Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Performance,” The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 32, no. 2 (2018): 67-77; Dorinne Kondo, Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity; Lauren Yee, Ching Chong Chinaman (New York: Samuel French Acting Edition, 2011).

[7] The emphasis on stereotyping in this set of questions relates to a broader throughline in the course about how identity-based stereotyping impacts dramaturgy as both composition and representation, and builds on prior discussion in the course about gender stereotypes in musical theatre and colonial stereotypes about Indigenous peoples in a previous unit on Indigenous dramaturgies and comedy.

[8]  Mitchell’s ideas and policies about discursive violence in the classroom are also available as a podcast at http://www.korithamitchell.com/teaching-and-the-n-word/.

[9] I thank Donatella Galella for drawing my attention to Lisa Lowe’s formulation of “forever foreigners” to characterize this common racist experience (Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996]).

[10] Ching Chong Chinaman, 8.

[11] Worldmaking, 242.

[12] Carpenter, “Reading and (Re)directing,” 145-146.

[13] Kondo, 169.

[14] This tactic revises a popular K-12 teaching strategy wherein at the end of a class, students complete an exit ticket and identify 3 things they learned, select 2 things they want to learn more about, and formulate 1 question.

[15] Galella, “Feeling Yellow,” 71, 73.

[16] In future iterations of this course, I plan to include additional reading around the casting conversation, including the work of Brian Eugenio Herrera in his essay “‘But Do We Have the Actors for That?’: Some Principles of Practice for Staging Latinx Plays in a University Theatre Context,” Theatre Topics 27, no. 1 (2017): 23-35.

[17] Matt Stevens, “Shared Stories in Asian American Voices,” New York Times, 20 February 2022, AR9.

[18] Leah Putnam, “Asian American Artist Attacked During Commute to Perform at The Public,” Playbill, 25 February 2022, https://www.playbill.com/article/asian-american-artist-attacked-during-commute-to-perform-at-the-public. Readers can find ways to take action against anti-Asian violence at www.StopAAPIHate.org.


Guest Editor: Donatella Galella
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Co-Managing Editor: Emily Furlich
Co-Managing Editor: Dahye Lee

Guest Editorial Board:

Arnab Banerji
Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns
Broderick Chow
Chris A. Eng
Esther Kim Lee
Sean Metzger
Christine Mok
Stephen Sohn

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Tracey Elaine Chessum
Bill Demastes
Stuart Hecht
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
David Krasner
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Ariel Nereson
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “Introduction to Asian American Dramaturgies” by Donatella Galella
  • “Behind the Scenes of Asian American Theatre and Performance,” by Donatella Galella, Dorinne Kondo, Esther Kim Lee, Josephine Lee, Sean Metzger, and Karen Shimakawa
  • “On Young Jean Lee in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die” by Christine Mok
  • “Representation from Cambodia to America: Musical Dramaturgies in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band” by Jennifer Goodlander
  • “The Dramaturgical Sensibility of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap and Cambodian Rock Band” by Kristin Leahey, with excerpts from an interview with Joseph Ngo
  • “Holding up a Lens to the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists: A Photo Essay” by Roger Tang
  • “Theatre in Hawaiʻi: An ‘Illumination of the Fault Lines’ of Asian American Theatre” by Jenna Gerdsen
  • “Randul Duk Kim: A Sojourn in the Embodiment of Words” by Baron Kelly
  • “Reappropriation, Reparative Creativity, and Feeling Yellow in Generic Ensemble Company’s The Mikado: Reclaimed” by kt shorb
  • “Dance Planets” by Al Evangelista
  • “Dramaturgy of Deprivation (없다): An Invitation to Re-Imagine Ways We Depict Asian American and Adopted Narratives of Trauma” by Amy Mihyang Ginther
  • Clubhouse: Stories of Empowered Uncanny Anomalies” by Bindi Kang
  • “Off-Yellow Time vs. Off-White Space: Activist Asian American Dramaturgy in Higher Education” by Daphne P. Lei
  • “Asian American Dramaturgies in the Classroom: A Reflection” by Ariel Nereson

www.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.eduwww.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Yu Chien Lu, Administrative Producer

©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

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