I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face* (*Exception: David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face)

Howlround has published a fantastic article about the representation of diversity in theatre and the fact that yellow face is still used unabashedly on some major stages in the United States. In it, HowlRound.com contributor Mike Lew envisions a a new norm for what equitable representation in theatre would look like. He points out that the thirst for Asian-American theatre is curbed by the desire for it depict Orientalism, not the actual Asian-American voice of Asian theatre creators today.


Originally published by Howlround on October 7, 2014. Written by Mike Lew.


This week on HowlRound, we’ll be examining Asian American Theater and exploring the theme of the 4th National Asian American Theater Conference & Festival, “Home: Here? There? Where?”—Click here for the blog series, livestreaming schedule, and future video archive. Use #theNAATF and #newplay in Twitter.

The Ma-Yi Writers Lab is the largest collective of Asian-American playwrights ever assembled. The Lab was founded in 2004 as an offshoot of Ma-Yi Theater, which was itself an offshoot of the Asian-American theater movement: a company formed in 1989 out of the need to tell stories by and about Filipinos at a time when those stories weren’t being heard.

Today the Lab comprises the widest possible cross-section of Asian backgrounds: East and South Asian (and biracial), first and second generation American (and generations beyond). Collectively our writers have been making a substantial national impact. Recent Labbie achievements include a Helen Merrill Award, Lanford Wilson Award, National New Play Network Commission, Leah Ryan Prize, Laurents/Hatcher Prize, Kendeda Award, two Princess Grace Fellowships, two PoNY Fellowships, six Dramatists Guild Fellowships, and five New Dramatists residencies.

With such an outpouring of support for our work, it may be tempting to wonder whether an ethnic-specific writers’ group is even necessary. Are culturally-specific theater companies outdated? Several years ago I remember (naively) asking Michael John Garcés why he’d earlier chosen to work with ethnic-specific companies like INTAR as opposed to focusing on big theaters all along. He answered—with remarkable patience—that when he was coming up, theaters like INTAR were the only ones that would hire him.

I think that remains true today for many artists of color. Companies like Ma-Yi are giving crucial opportunities to minority artists that big theaters are all too happy to ignore. INTAR is actually a pretty great case study. Over the past few seasons, INTAR has been producing some of the best new plays I’ve seen anywhere, to shockingly little acclaim. Andrea Thome’s Pinkolandia was pretty much my favorite play of the past five years. Why isn’t every major off-Broadway theater commissioning her work? Jose Rivera’s Adoration of the Old Woman was world-rocking in its form and political complexity. Why isn’t someone like that—truly one of America’s master writers—being represented on Broadway?

I would posit that when it comes to writers of color, we’re being subjected to an anthropological gaze that places our plays under the context of “ethnic work,” some kind of category apart from other new plays and judged by a separate criteria. There’s this burden of expectation that all we have in us is stories from our homeland. Yet that expectation is increasingly at odds with what we’re interested in talking about as writers, or where we’re headed as a country. Early in my career I kept encountering well-meaning mentors who encouraged me to “write about my family,” which was really code for “write an ‘80s-style Asian identity play.” But I’m third generation Chinese-American. I couldn’t write a Chinese immigrant play if I tried.

We recently took in a new class of Ma-Yi Labbies and during their interviews, each writer invariably asked something to the effect of, “So do I have to write about Asian stuff here?” What a relief to be able to tell them that Ma-Yi is a place where Rey Pamatmat can write his Filipino brother/sister play and his inter-dimensional time travel play; where Qui Nguyen can get a production of his family history play and his Blaxploitation/Samurai mash-up. There’s no tenure on membership, so we’re able to track each other’s output over time, and see how each sequential play fits into the constellation of plays that comprise a writer’s body of work. It’s fascinating to witness the aesthetic diversity each writer brings to the table—the huge range of interests we take on in our work—compared to the much narrower range of plays that gain traction out in the world. Inside the Lab: inter-dimensional time travel. Outside the Lab: ethnic family dramas only, please.

The anthropological gaze is undoubtedly present in reviews of our work. The humor in Robert O’Hara’s play Bootycandy was recently compared to In Living Color. Dominique Morriseau’s Detroit ’67: Good Times. Tanya Saracho’s Mala Hierba: a telenovela. The tone of Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them? That of “a Tiger Mom-ed kid plonking away at the piano.” These aren’t allusions we’re inviting in our own work based on what’s on the page. These are cultural preconceptions being hauled into the theater and placed upon us. How do you distinguish the singularity of your voice when your voice isn’t really being heard to begin with? Given the uneasy fellowship between reviewers and producers, how do writers of color ever hope to “break out” if our work is being filtered through a lens of cultural bias?

Recently, there’s also been an insidious trend of Orientalism in major productions: plays set in Asia or plays that portray Asian characters but do not cast Asian actors in the roles. These are instances of figurative or sometimes even literal yellow face. Alongside Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) and Signature Theater, Ma-Yi Writers Lab recently performed an awareness-building event satirizing such productions: The Orphan of Zhao in England, The Nightingale in San Diego, Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular in Chicago, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Broadway. Since then these instances of cultural appropriation and yellow face casting keep popping up. The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Roundabout. Julius Caesar in Philadelphia. The Mikado in Seattle. All kimonos and kabuki makeup, no Asian actors. It’s insensitive. It’s neo-colonialist. It’s as if these productions seek to borrow the trappings of Asian culture while erasing the Asians. I keep coming back to Tanya Barfield’s haunting line in her transcendent play The Call. To the American couple seeking to adopt a baby, from their African immigrant neighbor: “You want a child from Africa but you do not want Africa.” You want Asia but you don’t want any Asians.

What’s so crippling about all this is that here I am, wanting to have a nuanced discussion about what an equitable representation of Asian voices in the theater would look like, and instead I’m put in the position of having to articulate why I think it’s unacceptable to have non-Asian actors made up in yellow face, a practice that common decency dictates should have been abandoned decades ago.

When it comes to diversity in the theater I keep being told, “It’s getting better.” And it is getting better. It’s just that it’s not getting better fast enough. Check the latest off-Broadway theater statistics from AAPAC. Is diversity in the theater really getting better? It’s questionable, especially given the segmented way we present race on New York stages despite the racial diversity you can see in the street. Lynn Nottage put it best: “I sometimes think that theater is the last bastion of segregation. When you go to a theater, you see a black play and it’s all black people, or a Latin play, and it’s all Latinos. When you go to a white play, it’s like there are no people of color who live in New York.”

What would an equitable representation of people of color actually look like?

*When theaters stop choosing plays based on anthropological expectations and instead treat the experiences of people of color as an extension of their own human experience…

*When our stages reflect the diversity of the cities we live in…

*When we stop thinking about race in terms of segmented populations, and treat it as something more complex and polymorphic…

*When we start empowering people of color in management and high-level creative and Board positions…

*When theaters and reviewers embrace writers of color for what they have to say and not just the demographics they represent…

That’s when we’ll have reached a place of genuine inclusion.

But until then, thank God for places like Ma-Yi (and NAATCO, and Desipina, and 2g). Of course they’re still necessary.