The First National Asian American Theater Festival
Philadelphia, January, 1767. A group of white actors prepared for a production of Voltaire’s Orphan of China by applying yellow face paint and donning (inaccurately) Middle Eastern costumes. In doing so, they created, according to Esther Kim Lee’s History of Asian American Theatre, the first performance of “Asianness” on the American stage. It was, of course, a stereotypical one—and the next two centuries would bring few improvements for Asian American performance: neither the term “Asian American,” Lee asserts, nor the term “Asian American theater” even existed before 1965.
It’s no minor development, then, that this month New York will host the first-ever National Asian American Theater Festival (NAATF), gathering 25 companies and artists from across the country for two weeks of performances showcasing Asian American stagecraft. “It’s something that’s long overdue,” remarks performer Alan Muraoka—best known for his role as the proprietor of Hooper’s Store on “Sesame Street”—whose production of Falsettoland for the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) will appear in the festival.
NAATF has indeed been developing for years. In 2003, TCG convened a group of Asian, Latino, and African American theatermakers to discuss the future of their art forms. After a second conference, and intensive dialogue, between three veteran Asian American theater companies—Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, NAATCO, and Ma-Yi Theater Company—a festival was born. “I just felt that the work was really important,” explains Tisa Chang, artistic director of Pan Asian Rep and one of the festival’s three executive committee members. “Pan Asian is celebrating our thirtieth anniversary—but so much has evolved, so many more players are on the field. We felt that it would be really appropriate and fun to bring in the major companies in the nation.”
To celebrate this blossoming of Asian American performance, the committee assembled a cross section of their colleagues’ work—straight plays and musicals, solo performance and sketch comedy. Some pieces treat the Asian American immigrant experience—such as TeAda Productions’ Refugee Nation, which interweaves tales of Laotian refugees; others reclaim stereotypes through humor: among them Lee/gendary, which explores the “inner landscape” of Bruce Lee, and Kristina Wong’s Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Many feature music and movement; one performer will do aerial dance (“She required very high ceilings, so we put her in the Flea,” notes Chang).
Others see NAATF as a chance for past productions to gain exposure. Muraoka’s Falsettoland—which recasts William Finn’s musical about a gay/straight family preparing their son’s Bar Mitzvah with Asian American actors—is a revival of the 1998 hit that put NAATCO on the theatrical map. To Muraoka, the musical’s popularity proves the viability of nontraditional casting: “even though it’s an Asian American cast doing it,” he says, “after the first five minutes, if it’s a good cast, it transcends ethnicity. You’re watching the story of a family going through difficult times, and how they survive it.”
Paradoxically—for a festival dedicated to Asian American artists—transcending ethnicity is a priority for many of those involved: to them, the festival will spotlight Asian American talent as a way to promote their integration into mainstream theater. “There is definitely a higher awareness in colorblind casting than say, twenty years ago,” says Obie-award winning actress Ching Valdes-Aran, who will star in NAATCO’s House of Bernarda Alba, “but the supply is still more than the demand. There is still a dire need of work for us!” Like Falsettoland, Bernarda Alba fills this gap: NAATCO’s mission is producing Western classics with Asian American casts, providing its actors a shot at lead roles for which they would not usually be considered. And across cultural boundaries, Valdes-Aran located common ground with Bernarda Alba herself: “I grew up in a Catholic country in a very Catholic family,” she says. “I knew or heard stories of grand aunts and great grandmothers who were like Bernarda.
Falsettoland, with its Bar Mitzvah-centric plot, might pose even greater intercultural challenges. “There’s always going to be people saying, Asian people shouldn’t be doing this,” says Muraoka. “And I say to them, you might want to look a little bit deeper into your ideas of what ethnicity means to you.” It’s a question that the NAATF organizers themselves confronted in conceiving a festival of and for “Asian Americans”—a designation that itself encompasses immense diversity. Chang acknowledges that the term is imperfect, but says, for sheer simplicity, it became necessary: “Imagine if we had to say something like Asian-Pacific-Islander-South-Asian,” she laughs. “I think people can understand that the parameters of [Asian American] are so wide now.”
“Asian American theater is really another form of American theater,” points out director-designer Loy Arcenas, whose revival of Lonnie Carter’s The Romance of Magno Rubio will be Ma-Yi’s contribution to the festival. “Somehow, in this country, in this culture, we think that just because you are Chinese-American, you are Chinese. I don’t think that’s the case.” Yet for all of Magno Rubio’s American-ness—it traces the travails of a Filipino migrant worker in 1930s California—Arcenas found, when touring the production to the Philippines, that contemporary Filipinos empathized. “It resonates in the Filipino psyche,” he explains, adding that due to the Philippines’ history as an American colony, “the American dream was very much planted into the Filipino mind.”
Back in New York, NAATF organizers are hoping that the festival will resonate with Asian communities stateside. “There’s a large segment of the Asian American community,” says Muraoka, “who has no idea that there are Asian American performers out there” in mainstream professional theater. Accordingly, NAATF has placed performances in Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island in hopes of diversifying its audience. Ultimately, though, the festival organizers hope to reach everyone: “Asian American theater cannot survive being specifically for one group,” says Arcenas. “It is part of the American experience. Discover a new aspect of American theater.”
The National Asian American Theater Festival runs June 11-24 at venues around New York. Visit www.naatf.org for more information.
Miriam Felton-Dansky is assistant professor of theater and performance at Bard College. Her book, Viral Performance: Contagious Theaters from Modernism to the Digital Age, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2018. She was a theater critic for the Village Voice from 2009-2018, and her essays and articles have also appeared in Artforum.com, PAJ, TDR, Theatre Journal, Theater, ASAP/J, and Theatre Survey (forthcoming). She is currently writing a book about spectatorship in live art.