These groundbreaking theaters shine a spotlight on Asian stories
From New York to Minneapolis to Los Angeles, independent stages fill in the gaps of the American experience.
Avid theatergoer Terry Hong clearly remembers traveling to New York City in 1988 to see playwright David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, the first Asian American play to be performed on Broadway.
“It was a life-changing moment for me,” says Hong, who has written extensively about Asian American theater. “Stereotypes were being confronted, dissected, challenged, in the most clever, brilliant ways.”
Based on a true story, the play is about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Beijing Opera star only to have it end in tragedy. Audience members familiar with Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly would have found similarities at first—until Hwang’s play shatters expectations of how this story is traditionally supposed to play out. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and national identity are all questioned and upended.
Hwang won the Tony Award for Best Play that year. As the awards mark its 75th anniversary on June 12, he remains the first and only Asian American playwright to do so.
Although it was produced under the bright lights of Broadway, M. Butterfly (which was later made into a film) owes its wings to the legacy of pioneering Asian American theater artists at small companies such as Los Angeles’ East West Players and New York City’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. These companies were founded specifically to smash stereotypes—of what roles Asian American actors can play and what narratives about the Asian diaspora are told on stage.
“I know David and a lot of other writers will tell you straight up that these theater companies were crucial to their development,” says Chil Kong, former artistic director of Los Angeles’ Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, which disbanded in 2009. “Not only because they got a place to do their writing, but because they got to sharpen their knives. They got to really focus on their art, make it as edgy as possible, and tell the story they wanted to tell.”
The unfiltered stories they deliver reveal the breadth and depth of the experiences of Asian Americans, who are still often viewed as foreigners or an existential threat—with often deadly consequences. As Jeff Yang writes in the new book Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, “cultural visibility, representation, and authorship weren’t just important for our self-esteem. They were necessary for our survival.”
With the recent rise of anti-Asian violence, these theaters’ mission of illuminating and affirming the value of Asian American lives remains as vital as ever. “It’s something that people are mindful of now, because our community is under attack,” says Snehal Desai, artistic director of East West Players. “The social justice aspect of the work we do is something that has considerably deepened.”
Unlike stories read on a page or viewed on a screen, stories performed on a stage are “a fully immersive, every-dimension experience,” says Hong. “Only live theater can do that.”
Travelers visiting cities that are home to Asian American theater companies—from San Francisco to Minneapolis to Boston—get to be in the room as performing artists reveal a slice of uniquely American life. In the process, they just might come away with a better understanding of the city and its diverse communities.
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Theater as sanctuary
Last month, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated to 93-year-old actor James Hong. To those in the Asian American theater community, though, Hong (no relation to Terry Hong) has long been a star.
The prolific actor has been in over 600 TV shows and films, most recently Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once. Lesser known is that he is one of the cofounders of East West Players, the nation’s oldest Asian American theater company, established in L.A.’s Little Tokyo neighborhood in 1965.
“In the mosaic of his career, you see someone who has been incredibly resilient in the face of an industry that initially had little place for him, and certainly little respect,” says Yang, who is a board member at East West Players. “They’d say to him ‘hey, Chinaman, get over here.’” When Hong started his career in the 1940s and even later, it was also not unusual for white actors to play lead Asian roles.
Creating East West Players was a way for Hong and his fellow theater artists to perform in spaces where they weren’t the only Asian on the playbill, and in roles that went beyond “the Chinaman” and other caricatures. It was also “a staging ground for a new generation of performers, many of whom got their first chances on stages like this,” Yang says. Famous alumni include Pat Morita, BD Wong, Amy Hill, John Cho, and Kal Penn.
And David Henry Hwang. “AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] theaters shaped my artistic dreams and ambitions long before I ever thought of becoming a playwright,” Hwang says, via email. His first brush with theater came early on, when he chose to accompany his mother to then-new East West Players, where she was the pianist, rather than go to his aunt’s house for babysitting.
“In retrospect ... it seems significant that at the age of 10, I saw people who looked like me as actors, directors, producers, and artistic leaders,” he writes. “Perhaps that made it more possible for me, almost a decade later, to imagine that I too could write plays.”
In the wake of East West Players, other Asian American theater companies bloomed in cities with growing Asian communities: Northwest Asian American Theatre in Seattle, Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, Pan Asian Rep in New York City, Theatre Mu in Minneapolis.
“The first wave really was to plant seeds. Make sure it stays so people know it’s important we have to be here,” says Kong, who is now artistic director of Maryland’s family-focused Adventure Theatre. “The second wave was really about finding our voice, it wasn’t just an immigrant voice. It was also an Asian American voice, and what did that mean?”
Where you are in your life’s journey, Kong says, influences what plays you respond to. “I didn’t understand how to embrace myself until I read FOB by David Henry Hwang. Any Asian male who has questioned their identity can see themselves reflected in that play.”
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Works like The Wash, by Philip Kan Gotanda, or Tea, by Velina Hasu Houston, helped Kong get in touch with what his parents felt as first-generation immigrants. “Then there are these wonderful plays that are about these 20-year-olds, like Washer Dryer, about somebody who’s looking for a condo with a washer dryer. It’s by an Indian American writer, and it’s essentially like, hey, we’re fun and funny too.”
Not all of those first-wave theater companies have survived, and East West Players remains the only one with a dedicated building (other Asian American companies work in coproductions with brick-and-mortar theaters.)
East West’s 250-seat venue was a former church and has become a cultural anchor of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. “It’s a hundred-year-old historic building and it’s preserved because it was one of the places where Japanese Americans could come and leave their belongings safely before they were taken to the internment camps [during World War II],” says Desai. “Literally our theater is in a sanctuary. That’s something that I think about a lot: it being a safe space, for healing and grieving, but also for laughter.”
The popular and critical success of recent films like Minari and Crazy Rich Asians and TV series like Fresh Off the Boat suggests that Asian American cultural talent is finally getting the mainstream recognition it deserves. So, are Asian American theater companies still needed?
“Mainstream theater companies do Asian stories and sometimes they do [them] fairly well,” admits Kong. “But the key is that we still need incubators. We still need a process by which we can get comfortable and tell stories for us, by us. Until you hone your voice, you can’t adjust your voice to be more universal [for mainstream audiences] with any confidence.”
And Asian American theaters still support and inspire even established theater artists. “They remain at the vanguard of new work, new stories, and new voices,” says Hwang, “just like the world I discovered in a church basement at the age of 10.”
East West Players, Los Angeles: The nation’s largest and oldest Asian American theater company presents both works by Asian American artists as well as mainstream plays and musicals “with an Asian American twist.” Its fall 2022 shows focus on “the conversation between Black and Asian communities,” says artistic director Snehal Desai.
Ferocious Lotus, San Francisco: Founded as a collective to nurture and provide opportunities for Asian American theater artists in the Bay Area, Ferocious Lotus presents its 10th anniversary show this fall with a festival of new short pieces with the theme of “evolution.”
Ma-Yi, New York City: Founded in 1989 to present Filipino American plays, Ma-Yi has broadened its slate to include new works from diverse Asian American voices. In August 2022, the company debuts Once Upon a (Korean) Time, by Daniel K. Isaac, which weaves traditional Korean fables into a story of post-war Korean diaspora.
Pan Asian Repertory, New York City: The pioneering Asian American theater company on the East Coast, Pan Asian Rep was founded in 1977 and has worked with the likes of David Henry Hwang, Lucy Liu, and Daniel Dae Kim. From June 27-July 3, 2022, the company presents a series of experimental works melding poetry, text, dance, and music.
Theater Mu, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota: Since its founding in 1992, Theater Mu has grown into an Asian American theater powerhouse. Its buzz-generating current production, Cambodian Rock Band, by Lauren Yee, plays through July 31.