When my father came to America, he traveled to a land he had seen only in dreams. He was born the second son of a Chinese peasant who had left the farm and struck it rich in the big city of Shanghai. As a second son, however, he bristled against the limitations and expectations of the old world. By making the decision to borrow money from his father’s concubine and cross an ocean to a new land, my father not only accepted the inevitability of change, but in fact rushed to embrace it.
I was born and raised in Southern California, and it would have been one thing to have dealt solely with the first-generation cultural frictions that have defined American life since its inception. But my father also married a woman from a devout born-again Christian family, and so I was born into this weird Chinese American Baptist evangelical fusion. I spent most of my childhood watching a number of different fundamentalisms compete for supremacy before a background of constant change. There were the elders who claimed that Chinese culture was the greatest in history, and who made a decent case. There were the Christians who claimed the same about Jesus, and backed up their assertions with scripture. There were white missionaries, who had paid their dues in pre-Revolutionary China and were now ministering to Chinese Americans living in the L.A. suburbs. They basically felt Western culture was superior, but did need to eat Chinese food regularly. Then there were Chinese Christians, who believed by faith that Christianity was superior, yet could not purge the old traditions, who resolved their dilemma by taking Chinese beliefs and dressing them up in Christian drag.
Small wonder, then, that I have spent most of my adulthood writing about identity confusion—and grappling with the vexing dilemmas presented by an ever-changing world. The more I have explored characters caught in these maelstroms, the less willing I have become to pass judgment on difficult human choices. Simultaneously, the more saddened I have become by the human tendency to cling to fundamentalisms.
In college I turned away from Christianity only to find myself soon after reborn, this time, as an Asian American. This was in the late ’70s, still the relatively early days of the Third World Identity movements. And though Asian America means a great deal to me, there have always been certain aspects of the movement which I’ve held at arm’s length. The isolationism, the proselytizing, the siege mentality, the veneration of martyrs—I had just left one cult, I was leery of going straight into another.
It seems to me there are fundamentalisms in the American theatre just as there are religious fundamentalisms, political fundamentalisms and ethnic fundamentalisms. At this point, I should define my terms. For me, a belief becomes fundamentalist when those who question it become the enemy, the heretic. One can maintain a core system of beliefs and values without feeling the need to demonize those who think differently. It seems to me that, among our peers, at least, we must feel free to question anything, say anything, without fear of being labeled heretical. Particularly against the current backdrop of change. So I will attempt to begin the conversation—addressing a few idiosyncratic concerns from my own perspective as an individual artist, as an Asian American, as an American playwright.
When I went to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut for the first time, I was assigned Edith Oliver as my dramaturg. Fresh off the plane from California, I met this gravelly-voiced woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips, words laced with a healthy dose of profanities. And I thought, “Wow. This must be a real New Yorker.” Which was true in more ways than one. Edith gave me one piece of advice, repeatedly: “Honey, don’t change a thing.” Advice most playwrights would kill for, but which I promptly proceeded to ignore. At the critique session, I listened as everyone told me how to rewrite my play. And I concluded that they must all be correct. I spent the rest of my time at O’Neill rewriting along their various suggestions, and needless to say, eventually threw out the vast majority of those rewrites. But not all. A few pieces of advice had proven useful. And so I learned my first lesson about criticism: that it may all be worthwhile, but only a tiny bit will be worthwhile for me.
My first play was eventually produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater. He then went on to produce my next four plays, providing me in my twenties with a platform and education which I was immensely privileged to receive. I came to the Public Theater, essentially, as the recipient of an affirmative action program. Which brings us to issues of race and diversity. Joe Papp had, the year previous to my arrival, produced a play in which he had cast a Caucasian actor in an Asian role. Joe responded to the resulting protests by inviting one of the protesters onto the staff with an assignment to find works for Asian actors. A year later, my play was produced. Obviously then, I believe in affirmative action, since it’s extremely difficult for me to regard my existence as anything other than a net plus for the American theatre. Also, as an Asian American, I have something of a dual perspective on racial issues. I know how it feels to be the victim of racism. At the same time, however, I also often find myself experiencing liberal white guilt. I feel guilty for slavery, I feel guilty for the Holocaust—go figure, maybe that’s one of the by-products of assimilation, or of the fact that Asian cultures cultivate such a highly developed sense of shame.
So while I applaud the efforts of so-called mainstream theatres to diversify their play selection and casting, I am also wary of what director Clinton Turner Davis calls “drive-by diversity.” Theatres attempting to foster new work for new audiences must do their homework, the same way one would hopefully research any Shakespearean work, to understand context and provide background. This is especially true when a theatre first takes on such work. Because, frankly, we all know that if the work doesn’t “succeed” the first time out, it’s going to be a long time before that institution takes another chance on a similar piece. Now, no artistic director can be forced to value a particular work. Love cannot bloom by fiat. A very important problem in almost all artistic institutions is lack of diversity in leadership. I don’t mean by this that only people of a particular community can understand or appreciate works from that community. (Most of us would agree that our goal is to produce work which transcends cultural divisions.) Yet in the selection and development of new plays, a diverse artistic leadership is more likely to make successful choices than a monolithic one. Frankly, minorities live in the dominant culture, so we’re more likely to know what works of color might appeal to a general audience than white people know what works might appeal to minority audiences. If we are striving for a theatre which “looks like America,” then certainly it makes sense to get our own houses in order.
I would argue that American theatre is more racially segregated than American film. In the film world, minority directors and writers are increasingly being hired for films with nonethnic subject matter. Granted, Hollywood hardly makes any films with ethnic subject matter. Because the American theatre has attempted to embrace diversity, it has also paradoxically increased racial segregation among its artists. (African-American directors, I am told, get a lot of work during Black History Month.)
I believe we must construct new values for a post-P.C. age. I subscribe to the belief that political correctness was an attempt to create a new etiquette, manners appropriate for a more diverse and internationalist age. But manners, as all who rebelled against pre-’60s behavioral standards can attest, are a two-edged sword. Though they may foster a more civil society, they do so by providing covers for people’s true thoughts and impulses. Now that the outlines of P.C. etiquette have been broadly established, I find it more interesting to begin transgressing those rules. If we offend or provoke, we do so by design-to make a particular point-and not out of ignorance.
As an Asian-American artist, I learned long ago that to write is to expect criticism. When my first play, FOB, was produced at the Public Theater, a now-defunct San Francisco publication wrote that it “set Asian America back 10 years.” So why are mainstream theatres surprised when they do this sort of work, then get attacked? As theatre artists, we’re used to getting bad reviews. What differentiates multicultural work is that audiences and informed critics sometimes shift the emphasis of discussion from aesthetics to content. And while no writer likes to be dissed, I ultimately feel such controversies are healthy. They mean that the audience is engaging in the work, using it to define their own likes and dislikes, and therefore their own identities. To work in a post-P.C. framework is to relish such discussions. Better that these debates take place within the context of a theatre than violently on the streets.
Just as so-called mainstream theatres need to expand their worlds, so-called ethnic theatres could also stand to embrace a more internationalist view of their missions. Asian-, African-, Latino-American theatres can fall prey to myopic American parochialism unless we look to artists and traditions outside these shores. Working on my most recent play, Golden Child, I felt it important to take the work to Asia before bringing it to Broadway. By playing in Singapore, I began to realize that concerns I had considered previously to be uniquely Asian American were, in fact, much more global in reach. Debates about cultural authenticity start to seem almost surreal when the root cultures themselves are no longer “authentic.” Who, for instance, is an authentic Chinese person? Is it a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, who lived through a Cultural Revolution designed to sever the nation from its traditions? Is it Chinese in Hong Kong? Singapore? Taiwan? Or the diaspora communities of Europe and America? Is authenticity any longer even a valid concept, except for reactionaries who wish to turn back the clock and freeze history in an era of their choosing? As the world grows ever smaller, diversity begins to encompass ever more.
After working for a number of years in the not-for-profits, I scored my first, and thus far only, solid Broadway hit—M. Butterfly. People sometimes ask me about the difference between working for Broadway and the not-for-profits. As my first Broadway play was heading toward its opening, I developed this involuntary gag reflex, where I would just be walking down the street and go, “Aaagh.” Since then, I have had one and a half more plays reach Broadway (I say “a half,” because my play Face Value closed in previews), and I’m currently working on a few projects with Broadway aspirations. This means, I suppose, that I’ve become a Broadway playwright. Which is a bit of an oxymoron, but, then again, the term “playwright” has a slightly surreal ring in the modern world anyway. There are some times when I feel that having a Broadway hit made me, and other times when I feel it ruined me. And, of course, the answer is that it did both. It ended one life, and it began another.
From the experience of having survived a commercial hit, I was infected, perhaps permanently, with a Broadway virus. Broadway remains a goal for which I strive, and though the symptoms of this virus may abate for stretches at a time, I know it remains in my blood. Broadway is still the place where an American playwright can have the greatest impact upon this country with a single production. And we all know that successful Broadway plays then get produced in all the regionals. Therefore, for all its irritations and absurdities, I do not believe American playwrights can or should abandon it. My single success there now casts its long shadow over all that I do, perhaps exemplified most ironically by a negative review of my subsequent show, Face Value, whose headline read simply, “M. Turkey.” This affinity for Broadway is an extra-artistic concern. That is, it should have no bearing upon the work itself. But even as I state that artistically correct position, I wonder if the truth is more complex. For I know that I have always been an author with ambition, one for whom the need to write good plays has been linked in some inextricable, perhaps corrupt, way with the desire to build a career.
This doesn’t mean that I only work on projects which may come to Broadway. There are plays I must write, though they have no commercial potential. But my perspective does leave me feeling that the differences between the commercial and not-for-profit worlds are rather exaggerated. At least as they appear so to an artist working in both. When a play like Golden Child is commissioned by South Coast Repertory, premieres at the Public Theater, then travels to the Kennedy Center, a commercial house, then to the Singapore Repertory Theatre, then to American Conservatory Theatre and finally to Broadway, I think I may be forgiven for losing track of the distinctions.
I don’t mean this as a criticism. On the contrary, I’m the one infected with the various viruses. But I do think it’s important to be realistic about how we have changed; our “authentic” selves today may be substantially different from our “authentic” selves of two or three decades ago. For all intents and purposes, I now live in a for-profit world. This became even more true once my child was born. Even when I’m working on a project for love, that decision is part of a larger practical calculation called my career. Which I suppose might be analogous to how many of you run your institutions. When I was working on shows at the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco in the early ’80s, things could be done relatively cheaply because no one expected to get paid. There was a surplus economic value-i.e., artists willing to work for nothing-which has largely dried up, at least within my generation.
But the next generation of American theatre artists enter a field knowing the rules of the game, and those who survive find some way to thrive. Nonetheless, I worry that the opportunities available to me seem to have diminished for the Gen-Xers and -Yers. Specifically, resources for emerging individual artists. Certainly a large part of this has to do with the elimination of grants to individual artists by the NEA. But when I needed it, I also received a Rockefeller playwriting grant. And perhaps it is my imagination, but it feels like those grants which do exist are increasingly concerned with mid-career artists. Yes, I know mid-career artists have important needs-not everyone is lucky enough to win a Broadway lottery. Yet I also wonder whether this trend represents another example of boomer economics, of our generation keeping for itself what few resources remain available.
My generation of theatre artists basically institutionalized what might be unfairly called “the TCG model”: a season, a subscription, an artistic and managing director, etc. And I wonder, as do many of you, whether this model has become dated. At the same time, I don’t know what might replace it. I do know that I’ve never quite understood the idea of a “season.” Whenever an artistic director says to me, “I have this slot,” I always start to feel we’re parking cars or something. I don’t know why plays which draw audiences should not be extended indefinitely, and unpopular works allowed to die their natural death.
Many of the most satisfying experiences I’ve enjoyed have been in theatres that either fly over or under TCG’s radar. But whether commercial, or in small community-based spaces, I have not found any one model more successful than another in fostering art. My generation, by the way, also invented the term “Asian American.” And part of me longs for the next generation of Asian artists to transcend that label, to redefine it, or to blur it out of existence. In short, to do what young people are supposed to do: kill their parents. Similarly, I wonder if a coming generation of theatre artists might be able to redefine structures my generation created. Perhaps by eliminating institutions altogether.
For in the end, it is still all about the art, isn’t it? That is one thing I am very happy has not changed for me. Despite all the ups and downs, at least one moment a week, the same thought comes into my head: “I am incredibly privileged to be doing this.” When I sit down to face the blank page, it is as if the intervening years have disappeared, and I am once again a first-time playwright, filled with terror and joy, uncertain where the road may take me, yet anxious to travel there. I feel the same way I did the summer before my senior year in college, when I saw an ad in the Los Angeles Times calendar section that said, “Study playwriting with Sam Shepard.” I clipped that ad and sent it in. It was the inaugural session of what would eventually become the Padua Hills Playwriting Festival. But since this was the first year, only two students applied for admission, so we both got in. At Padua, Sam, Irene Fornes, Murray Mednik and Walter Hadler encouraged me to write from my unconscious, to transcend intellectualism and rationality. And the more I followed their exercises, the more an amazing thing happened.
I hadn’t intended to write about some of the subjects which have ended up dominating my work to date. I had simply wanted to be a playwright. But as I began to let my unconscious take over, surprising concerns began to emerge from my pen-East/West conflict, cultural fusion, immigration, assimilation. I hadn’t thought that these issues mattered to me. I thought I was simply a kid who happened to have Chinese parents. It was the writing that taught me otherwise. That revealed me to myself. Its voice was my voice. One I had never known until I put pen to paper. We in the theatre dream onto the stage. And those dreams for me have revealed the world more truthfully than any other voice I have known.
This is why I believe that good times are ahead for the theatre. As virtual realities become more commonplace, reality itself will become a rarer and more precious commodity. Live performance-human bodies, reaching out to an audience of the fellow-living-this experience will acquire new cachet in an ever more isolated world. I believe humans will always hunger for primal, spiritual, face-to-face connections, unfiltered through electronic cables and airwaves. I suppose this is my faith. Because I know what I feel at a great theatre performance: a connection I have experienced in no other medium.
As the author who wrote M. Butterfly, I think it’s fair to say that I believe our capacity for self-delusion to be fairly boundless. Yet it is also part of the human dilemma to try and understand ourselves. Because if we face realistically our current needs and circumstances, we will make the ruthless and practical decisions necessary to continue making art. This is not about the TCG model. It is not about mortgages or hits and flops or institutions or age or race. It may not even really be about the American theatre. Those issues merely frame the question. A question which remains constant: How can we make better work?
In my life and work, I have tried to strike a balance-holding onto some traditions, while learning to appreciate the changes which render others obsolete. The fact that change is often frightening does not preclude us from staring it in the face-and ultimately embracing new worlds. I suppose in this sense I have not come such a distance from my own father, who once stepped onto a boat in order to cross an ocean.
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