The Asian experience in American theater has long been entwined with controversy – often because of its absence. Musical theater works like The Mikado, The King and I, and Miss Saigon were all written by creators who didn’t have Asian backgrounds and all dabbled, to varying degrees, in inauthenticity and stereotype. Worse yet, these shows’ Asian characters were often played by non-Asian performers in a pernicious tradition known as yellowface or whitewashing.
Of course, if you dig into the details, the historical record’s more complicated than that. For instance, despite some problems with its depictions of Asians and Asian culture, the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song in 1959 broke ground by casting performers of Asian descent to play many of the Asian roles; the show launched the long career of Jack Soo, who later became TV-famous on the sitcom Barney Miller. And that same season there were four other shows on Broadway with Asian themes and Asian-American actors in their casts.
But the default position of American theater toward Asian-American voices and performers has tended to be one of erasure and neglect. In 1991, a highly visible and organized protest greeted Miss Saigon’s casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese pimp. And in 2014, theater leadership finally seemed to start hearing audience objections to The Mikado’s traditional reliance on yellowface casting – a mere 129 years after Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the thing.
Meanwhile, the stereotypical representations of Asian characters and cultures in shows like these is a separate issue, one that calls for more diversity among the playwrights writing the scripts in the first place.
It’s fair to say that after a period of fitful invisibility, Asian-American playwrights have enjoyed a surge of activity in recent years. In a New York Times piece, Cathy Park Hong chronicles how the New York theater scene was poised to see an explosion of new plays by writers of Asian descent in 2020, until the pandemic hit and closed rehearsals. As the theater tentatively reopens along with the rest of society, will those playwrights still be poised to find a place on American stages?
Until we know for sure, the plays listed below offer a taste of the kinds of voices that have been largely underrepresented.