1. Cabaret and Chop Suey
In Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s 1986 play Yankee Dawg You Die, an older Asian-American actor says to an upstart younger star, “We built the mountain, as small as it may be, that you stand on so proudly.” Since British actor H. Agar Lyons donned yellow face to play the role of Fu Manchu in 1923, equal representation in entertainment has been an uphill climb fought by generations of Asian Americans.
The Chinese name for San Francisco translates literally as “Gold Mountain,” and much of the figurative mountain to which Gotanda alludes has risen over the past century from the rocky environs of this Pacific city. With its 21-percent Asian population (31 percent in San Francisco proper) and its long Pacific Rim history, the Bay Area has been a unique home for Asian-American actors, dating back to the 1930s—and that remains vividly true today.
But change is afoot. Recent shifts in the local theatrical ecology of the Bay Area are altering the range of opportunity and visibility for Asian-American theatre artists of every stripe. One of the region’s oldest and most important organizations devoted to Asian-American artistry, the Asian American Theater Company—which generated unprecedented accomplishments in the 1970s and ’80s but fell into hard times in the late 1990s—is presently mounting its first full season since 2006. Its sister regional companies, San Jose Repertory Theatre and TheatreWorks of Palo Alto, continue to aggressively seek out actors and writers from the Asian-American community, and even flagship venues such as American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre have plays with Asian and Asian-American themes in their upcoming seasons. Young Asian-American artists I spoke with for this article are more likely than not to view their ethnicity as a professional asset.
That’s a far cry from the 1930s, when the circuit of cabaret clubs, popularly known as the Chop Suey Circuit, came into being. Although the circuit included New York and Los Angeles, “There was no other city with Asian clubs like San Francisco,” declares 92-year-old Dorothy Toy.
She should know. Toy and her partner Paul Wing, known as the dancing duo Toy and Wing, were one of the biggest acts ever to roll through the circuit. Born in the Bay Area, they met in Los Angeles, made a name on Broadway, played the lamed London Palladium, and danced through Hollywood in films like No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Happiness Ahead. Paul was ethnically Chinese, Dorothy Japanese. But like many of her non-Chinese peers, Toy changed her name (from Takahashi) to better market herself to Caucasian Americans who thought “Asian” meant “Chinese.” Her stage name would later help protect her from internment during World War II.
After the war, Toy and Wing settled in the Bay Area, often headlining clubs like Kubla Khan, Club Shanghai and Chinese Sky Room, all of which offered nightly shows featuring singers, dancers and emcees who were mostly American-born Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos; unlike many of their traditional parents, they spoke flawless English and embraced American pop culture, singing and dancing to the hits of the day. But the biggest, most glamorous and most reputable nightclub was the Forbidden City, opened in 1938 by the suave entertainment entrepreneur Charlie Low.
“At first, the clientele was mostly G.I.s,” Toy recalls. Many of these military men didn’t believe Chinese women could dance or sing, so they wanted to see for themselves. The tourists came next. And, finally, Hollywood took notice, as movie stars like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan began catching Forbidden City shows during their visits to San Francisco.
The mainstream press took an interest in the Circuit—for better or worse—forcing even the greatest Asian-American stars to live in the shadow of their Caucasian counterparts. They dubbed Larry Ching the Chinese Frank Sinatra, Toy Yat Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker and, of course, Dorothy Toy the Chinese Ginger Rogers. “Larry hated being called that. He always wanted to be his own singer,” notes 64-year-old Cynthia Yee, who was Miss Chinatown 1967 and toured with Toy’s Oriental Doll Revue as a young woman.
Still, the Chop Suey Circuit gave many of its performers their only shot at a life in the arts. “The clubs were the only places that employed Asian entertainers,” Yee points out. “There was virtually no legitimate theatre for Asians in the Bay Area. But the Chinese clubs attracted casting agents from Hollywood and New York looking for Asian talent.”
Agents came to San Francisco in general and the Forbidden City in particular to cast Holly wood films and Broadway productions. C.Y. Lee frequented the Forbidden City when he was writing his novel Flower Drum Song, which featured settings loosely based on the club. He also encouraged the 1958 musical’s director to scout talent there. So Gene Kelly himself arrived to find actors for the landmark production.
Forbidden City regulars Jack Soo and Robert Ito both journeyed to New York for the Broadway show, which helped launch their careers in television. After starring in director Henry Roster’s 6.1m of Flower Drum Song, Soo became a series regular on TV’s “Valentine’s Day” and “Barney Miller,” while Ito starred in “Quincy, M.E.” Hollywood also plucked other club stars—including Sammee Tong (“Bachelor Father”), Mai Tai Sing (“Hong Kong”) and Jimmy Borges (“Hawaii Five-0”)—for featured TV roles.
Flower Drum Song went on to garner six Tony nominations, winning one, and became a much-publicized motion picture in 1961. For the first time, the show gave Asian-American performers noteworthy work on Broadway, but the hope for long-term employment was short-lived. On a national level, an all-Asian show of its size was not to hit Broadway again until Pacific Overtures in 1976—and on film, Asian-American actors continued to watch their roles go to Caucasian actors in yellow face. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Chop Suey Circuit performers saw their clubs disappear. A year after Flower Drum Song became a film, the Forbidden City shut down, followed by the Chinese Sky Room in 1964. Both were victims of the rise of television and the strip clubs on North Beach’s Broadway.
“The industry changed,” Dorothy Toy says ruefully. “It wasn’t good for us. When the nude shows and shows like Hair came out, we couldn’t compete with that.” Like most of her fellow performers, Toy left the stage for more practical pursuits: The once-dynamic dancer became a pharmacy technician. Ching, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, became a delivery truck driver. Other performers landed jobs ranging from hairdressing to hawking Cadillacs to selling real estate.
“It was survival,” shrugs former Forbidden City costume designer Chuck Gee. “The Chinese are very practical. We don’t worry about pride. We became janitors, cooks and restaurant owners because we understood that you have to work to sustain yourself. Ah, meiyou banfa. You can’t really change things.”
The Chinese term meiyou means “nothing can be done about it,” expressing a resigned acceptance of realities over which one has little control. Many of the performers of the Chop Suey Circuit reminisce about their former lives with that attitude. As Gotanda’s older actor says in Yankee Dawg You Die, “There was no Asian-American consciousness…and no Asian-American theatres. Just a handful of ‘orientals’ who for some godforsaken reason wanted to perform.”
Their aspirations were apolitical. Larry Ching was known for getting into fistfights with club patrons who used racial slurs, but when asked if they found the situation discriminatory, most Chop Suey Circuit performers I spoke to suggest that race was irrelevant. “Our own people looked down on us more” than did the white establishment, Yee avows. “The Chinese thought being a performer was very low-class.”
2. Art as Politics
But for the next generation of Asian-American actors, politics was everything.
The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which virtually banned Asian immigration, was repealed in 1965. It was soon after that that the late UCLA professor and historian Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American.” Identity politics were in full flower in America, and for the first time, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Korean Americans united in common political cause.
As work for Asian cabaret workers dried up, other Asian-American artists in the Bay Area sought work in the legitimate theatre. Rather than the resignation of the generation before, this new spate of actors exhibited grit and resolve as they fought for casting equality. As American as their Caucasian counterparts, they grew frustrated when they could not land the same roles that went to white actors.
Seventy-year-old Dewi Yee was acting in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and recalls, “The only parts I could get were cither prostitutes or maids.” When she moved to the Bay Area, she met like-minded artists of color looking for opportunity, like playwright Frank Chin.
In 1972, the city’s flagship American Conservatory Theater (ACT) commissioned Chin to write a play that eventually became The Year of the Dragon. Chin insisted that his Asian characters be represented by Asian actors, but ACT didn’t know where to find them. So Chin and then ACT executive director Edward Hastings established the Asian-American Theatre Workshop (AATW) in 1973, and the group started meeting in the studios of ACT’s historic Geary Street theatre. Hastings was so interested in diversifying Bay Area theatre that he even offered an intensive actor-training program to Asian Americans for free.
AATW eventually moved into a 99-seat storefront theatre, became the Asian American Theater Company, and proceeded over the coming decades to expose audiences to the writing of playwrights like David Henry Hwang, Cherylene Lee, Rick Shiomi and Philip Kan Gotanda. Los Angeles’s East West Players had been founded earlier, in 1965, and New York’s Pan Asian Repertory got its start at La MaMa in 1977, but East West Players artistic director Tim Dang believes that AATW held a unique place in the development of Asian-American theatre nationally. Pan Asian Rep originally focused on Asian masterworks and western classics, and “when East West Players opened, it was mainly for actors who wanted to play roles that weren’t accessible to them—roles that usually went to Caucasian actors,” Dang explains. “When San Francisco entered the picture, the writer and the Asian-American experience became the focus—AATW’s mission was to make theatre by and for Asian Americans.”
Many Asian-American actors found their first artistic homes at the newly minted AATC. Sharon Omi was one of them. Fresh out of school, she had had trouble getting cast in university productions because of her race, even though she was a theatre major. When she found AATC, “It was like payday,” she remembers. “I thought this was phenomenal—Asian-American actors telling Asian-American stories.” “I was just blown away,” adds her husband and fellow actor Ken Narasaki. “I couldn’t believe I’d found a bunch of Asian-American actors who thought their work was important. We really thought we were going to change the world with this small theatre.”
AATC sparked an explosion of Asian-American talent, bolstering the careers of actors like Amy Hill, Dennis Dun, Kelvin Han Yee and Lane Nishikawa. Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the Equity company established a theatre complex with two stages, produced full seasons of critically acclaimed productions, and collaborated with other ethnic and regional theatres. AATC became a formidable force on the Bay Area theatre scene, and its playwrights and actors were able to expand into major theatres nationally.
At the same time, the political tenor of the country inspired mainstream theatres to experiment with increasing diversity, and color-blind casting came into vogue. Asian-American actors found themselves in roles not previously open to them. “Earlier on, the theatres were 100-percent white,” recalls Narasaki. “Funders were trying to get them to do color-blind casting because the Bay Area was ‘majority minority.’ Also, a number of directors saw that the future of theatre was multicultural.”
One of those directors was Sharon Ott, who assumed the leadership of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1984, bringing with her a strong interest in Asian theatre. During her time there, she nurtured the work of Gotanda, producing four of his plays, and staged eight other Asian or Asian-American plays by writers such as Alice Tuan and Jessica Hagedorn and the composer Tan Dun. Ott made an especially big splash with her production of The Woman Warrior, adapted by Deborah Rogin from Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel, which broke attendance records and toured several cities. Ott’s innovative vision led to Berkeley Rep winning the regional theatre Tony in 1997.
During the last three years of her tenure, from 1994 to 1997, the theatre was buoyed by a $1.5-million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund to build Asian-American audiences. The grant underwrote several of the company’s Asian-American plays and enabled it to operate outreach programs. It also made AATC a producing partner, giving the smaller company a tiny portion of the funds and employing its actors. But ultimately the funding was too small and covered too short a time frame to instigate long-lasting change in programming or opportunities for Asian-American artists.
Ironically, when Asian-American theatre in the Bay Area should have been at the height of its development, the market suddenly took a step backward. As the Wallace grant ended, Ott left Berkeley Rep to helm Seattle Repertory Theatre, taking her Asian sensibility with her. In the decade-plus since her departure, Berkeley Rep has produced only two plays by Asians or Asian Americans.
Still, managing director Susan Medak insists, “Berkeley Rep has not in any way stopped producing or lost interest in Asian or Asian-American artists. In fact, this March, we’re premiering a new play by Naomi lizuka [Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West] that we commissioned.” But, she admits, “We stopped aggressively looking for Asian-themed work, mostly because Sharon was leaving. [Current artistic director] Tony Taccone does not have the same long-standing collaborations with Asian-American artists that drove our programming in the past. We stopped investing as heavily in Asian audience development because we found we were attracting more Asian audiences by simply concentrating on younger audiences. I don’t feel we’ve abandoned Asian audiences, though. They are coming more, but that’s not because we’re doing Asian work.”
The idea that Asian-American audiences will support non-ethnically Asian work as much if not more than their own is not a new one, as filmmaker Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) discovered at a Hollywood studio marketing meeting. “They had pie charts, and I saw slices labeled African-American, Caucasian and Latino. When I asked, ‘Where are the Asian Americans?’ one executive said, ‘Look, Asian-American spending patterns are white, so we consider them Caucasian.'”
But most people in the Asian-American theatre community argue that Asian-American audiences will indeed grow if they see themselves represented. “Audiences who are largely Asian won’t go to the theatre when they don’t see their own people on stage,” maintains Narasaki. “Look how many more Asian Americans are now in commercials. Madison Avenue executives know they have to pay Asian actors to be in commercials because there’s an audience—they know that Asian Americans spend money.”
“The fact that the Bay Area is 30 percent Asian is something theatre companies in the Bay Area have not capitalized on,” adds Nishikawa.
Japanese-American Kathy Oda has witnessed Narasaki’s theory firsthand. Her daughter Sophie played the redheaded lead role in Annie for a small San Francisco company. “When she first came out as Annie, you could hear the parents and kids gasp,” she says. “But after she sang the first song, she was Annie.” Oda adds that as the play’s run continued, an increasing percentage of Asian Americans showed up in the audience.
Most large houses in the Bay Area hold track records similar to Berkeley Rep’s. The Magic Theatre did a flurry of Asian-American programming between 1988 and 1992, including an Asian American Playwright’s Festival, and then nothing until last year’s production of Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap [see American Theatre, Dec. ’09], which artistic director Loretta Greco chose for her first, season at the theatre—a hopeful sign for the future.
ACT has produced only two Asian-American works on its main stage—Hwang’s Golden Child and Gotanda’s After the War, which artistic director Carey Perloff commissioned. In 2003, ACT produced Gotanda’s Yohen on its second stage and is presently developing his latest piece, I Dream of Chang and Eng, as well as Ping Chong’s new work The Bright Eye of the Moon.
The late 1990s also brought hard times to AATC. In 1996, it was forced to leave its building. Like many other midsize arts organizations, the company was affected by rising costs, diminishing government funding and the disappearance of state multicultural programs. Since then, it has become a primarily non-Equity house and gone into semi-hibernation. It is now trying to rebuild, mounting its first full season since 2006. At its height, AATC had a budget of $850,000; now it stands at a meager $75,000.
Back in 1994, only large theatres were eligible to apply for the Lila Wallace grant, but Narasaki believes that the funding would have benefited AATC much more. “Berkeley Rep can exist without Asian-American audiences, but AATC needs them,” he postulates. “As a medium-sized house, AATC could have used foundation money to jump to the next level. Instead, Berkeley Rep spent its money on big Asian-American shows and then dropped the ball. As tough as the regional theatres have had it, it’s the ethnic theatres that have largely fallen by the wayside in the 1990s and 2000s.”
Color-blind casting also fell out of fashion in the late 1990s, which Dewi Yee believes has something to do with changing politics. “Everyone has gone back into their corners: Asian plays are for Asians; black plays are for blacks. It’s not the mixing of the milieu anymore. When I was doing my grad work at San Francisco State, there was such a hunger among white students to be involved with multicultural theatres. But that’s not happening anymore. It’s a very conservative era politically, compared to the 70s and ’80s.”
3. The New Millennium
The two big houses in the South Bay, San Jose Repertory Theatre and Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks, have a better record of presenting Asian-American work over the past decade. In fact, many Bay Area-based Asian-American actors name TheatreWorks as their favorite theatre because of its commitment to multicultural programming and non-traditional casting—as opposed to color-blind casting.
“Color-blind casting as a phrase is reductive—it implies that someone’s cultural context can be set aside,” asserts Leslie Martinson, TheatreWorks’s casting director and associate artist. “Culture is part of the richness of who we are as human beings. It’s usually important to actors in a hundred different ways—why would that not be important on stage? Our commitment is to have the conversation about what role ethnicity plays in a particular production. Sometimes it moves up in import, sometimes down. We’re rigorous in examining our assumptions, and I push directors to examine their own.
“We want to do theatre that looks like the Bay Area, so it’s obvious that that would have a huge Asian-American presence,” she continues. “Culturally we live together, so artistically we also live together. When we did Pacific Overtures in 1988, we met actors who became part of our core group of artists, and that changed what TheatreWorks was.”
One of those actors is Francis Jue. He has appeared in a number of nontraditional roles at TheatreWorks, including that of Peter in Peter Pan, Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman and even Mozart in Amadeus. “When I look to cast a role,” says Martinson, “there might be a list of 10 qualities we want that role to have. For Mozart, only one of those 10 is his ethnicity. When Francis is a good match for the rest, it takes no leap at all to say we won’t match ethnicity on this one. And knowing he’s so beloved by our audiences, we weren’t concerned that they wouldn’t go along with the journey. And they did.”
Despite the increased willingness of mainstream theatre companies to hire actors of color, frustrations remain, especially when a play that has no racial references excludes ethnic Asians. Aidan Park and Emily King founded their own theatre company, Asian American Actors Ensemble, because they wanted to produce and star in David Marshall Grant’s play Snakebit. “When anyone casts that show, it’s cast white, even though nothing in the script demands it. Why is that?” Park wonders rhetorically. “If the play were Raisin in the Sun, that would be a different story—but there are any number of plays that are just cast white because it’s the status quo.”
Musical theatre writer Jay Kuo understands the issue all too well. He writes both Asian-themed musicals (Worlds Apart, Allegiance) and non-race-specific shows (Insignificant Others). “We have this color-creative casting that is supposed to be going on, and it is creating some opportunities for creme de la creme actors. But I don’t think it opens doors sufficiently for Asian actors, because producers don’t want to ‘over-Asia-fy’ a show.”
What’s even more frustrating is when ethnically Asian actors don’t even have access to their own roles, as when Cameron Mackintosh famously sparked ire among Asian-American actors when he cast Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer in Broadway’s Miss Saigon. More recently, in the theatre production Jukebox Stories at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, Thai-American writer and performer Prince Gomolvilas called out Hollywood producers for using Caucasian actors in 21, the film based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, even though the real protagonists are Asian American.
Whether it’s film, TV or theatre, Asian Americans today speak about the future of the market with skeptical optimism. Almost all admit opportunities have improved since the days of the Chop Suey Circuit, but there’s still a long way to go.
“To me it’s changed radically since I started writing plays in the late ’70s,” says Gotanda. “AATC is revived; the Magic did American Hwangap; TheatreWorks did Yellow Face; Berkeley Rep is doing a Naomi Iizuka play. And the fact that artistic directors and writers are creating these works—it’s totally different, in the best possible sense.”
Actor Leon Goertzen, who grew up in the generation after Gotanda, is more restrained in his assessment. “There seem to be more roles for Asian actors on camera than there are in theatre. Theatres assume that if their audiences are white, they don’t need to produce Asian-themed shows.” He adds facetiously, “Their audiences like Asian food, why wouldn’t they like Asian theatre?”
Duy Nguyen, co-artistic director of AATC, asserts that even on-camera opportunities are limited. “One week I looked at the five top-grossing films, and there were three with Asian leads—Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and John Cho and Kal Penn,” he remarks. “That would have never happened 10 years ago. That’s a huge sign of some sort of penetration.” However, he adds, “Generally there are Asian ‘imports’ who make it. Otherwise, even though it’s okay to put Asian Americans in the supporting cast to fill out a multi-ethnic background, in terms of leads, there is a glass ceiling.”
“It’s great to see some Asian-American faces on primetime TV—B.D. Wong on ‘Law and Order,’ Sandra Oh on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and the guys on ‘Lost’—but really, how many of them are there?” argues Nishikawa. “So many talented Asian-American actors who could win an audience just don’t have those chances.”
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” surmises Narasaki. “Hollywood is star-driven, so you can’t get in the game. But if you’re not in the game, you can’t become a star.”
The situation is even worse for Bay Area stage actors. While out-of-town casting agents once frequented San Francisco to find Asian-American actors, now the opposite is true. Since the mid-’90s, the few Asian-American shows that have come through town are often cast with out-of-towners. “If I see a Caucasian play on a Bay Area stage, there’s usually one actor from New York out of the whole cast,” says Goertzen, who is ethnically half-Chinese and half-German. “But if I see a play that’s all-Asian, the whole show is cast out of New York.” Adds Bonnie Akimoto, who has acted in the Bay Area since 1991: “It’s hard in the Bay Area for mainstream actors, too. But it hurts more for the smaller pool of Asian-American actors, since there are so few roles.”
Such factors have driven many local actors to move to the more active entertainment centers—both Aidan Park and Sophie Oda, for example, relocated to L.A. last year—and this compounds the problem. “The producers use the excuse that there isn’t enough good Asian talent here, so they won’t do Asian shows,” surmises actor and Grant Ave Casting owner Michael Ching, whose father was crooner Larry Ching.
Asian-American actors face particular challenges in a time of recession. “In times of economic constriction, anyone who sits behind the margins has a harder time,” reasons ACT’s Perloff. In such a climate, they may feel pressed to accept stereotypical roles. “I was struck by the dilemma many actors have—they don’t have a wide range of roles to choose from, and the roles they’re offered are often limiting and demeaning,” muses Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender and the producer of the documentary The Slanted Screen.
4. The Next Generation
For the next generation of Asian-American actors, now in their teens and twenties, the fight for opportunity is less political but just as passionate. While conscious of the challenges they still face, some have started to look at their ethnicity as an asset in an increasingly global environment.
“There are so many Caucasian actors,” says Park, who is 24. “If you’re ethnic it makes you stand out a bit, and most of the projects that I’ve done have incorporated color-blind casting. PCPA Theaterfest [in Santa Maria, Calif.] cast me as Bobby Strong in Urinetown—I didn’t think that would happen. But then you look at Playbill for the Broadway shows, and the Asian people are always in the chorus.”
Sophie Oda is only 18, but she already comprehends the benefits and challenges of her ethnicity. After building her career in the Bay Area, she landed the part of Barbara Brownstein in Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” even though the character is Jewish. She plays the sidekick girl, a role she often lands after attending auditions on what she jokingly refers to as “ethnic day.” She explains, “I don’t go in for the lead—every time I do I don’t get as far as I would if I were auditioning for the ‘friend.’ The studios have some diversity quotient they’re trying to fill. At the end of the callback, there will be three girls left—one Asian American, one African American and one Latino American. It usually doesn’t go to the Asian girl.”
In the theatre, though, Oda, like Francis Jue, has managed to land roles not usually played by Asian Americans—including a Von Trapp in American Musical Theatre of San Jose’s production of The Sound of Music. “As Asian Americans, we put limitations on ourselves,” she believes. “We have to open our minds; then others will, too. Rather than all-Asian shows like Miss Saigon or The King and I, I like to audition for ensemble shows.” Although Oda embraces her culture, she has the presence of mind to understand what Asian Americans are truly up against. “There are more opportunities for Caucasian actors, but they have more competition, too. There are fewer roles for us, so it’s tough either way. But their challenge is personal—it’s working toward being a good actor. For us, it’s more than that. We have to change the way others view us. We have to change the whole industry, basically.”
How to do that is the question. While African-American and Latino-American actors still face casting challenges, many Asian Americans feel they are decades behind those two groups. One solution is to grow awareness at the mainstream theatres. “When Ed Hastings helped establish AATW, that was one rare instance of a big theatre doing the right thing,” insists former AATC executive director Eric Hayashi. “We had an enlightened guy at the helm of the biggest theatre in the Bay Area.” Goertzen sees that as something theatres should do today. “Once the directors of the Equity houses arc aware of the problem, maybe they’ll become more proactive when they pick their seasons and casting directors,” says Goertzen. “In L. A., there’s an initiative to get more Asian actors in TV and film. Theatres need to take that same initiative.”
Omi agrees, but adds that the Asian-American community must also embrace its share of the responsibility. “Three things will change the playing field,” she explains. “Someone has to notice that there’s money to be made in scooping up the Asian audience. Second, there have to be great plays and great actors, so that theatres will have to figure out a way to get these people on board. Third, we have to become more self-reliant. Creating our own work has done more than what we could have ever imagined doing nontraditional roles at white theatre companies.”
“A lot of Asian Americans are writing and producing their own works,” confirms Dang. “That’s where we’ll see the largest growth in Asian-American visibility. We can ask mainstream theatres to do more Asian-American plays and protest all we want when they don’t. But unless the almighty dollar speaks, we have to make change ourselves.”
As the rare Asian-American casting director in the Bay Area, Grant Ave Casting’s Michael Ching is a good example of someone trying to instigate change from within. “I encourage my clients to use people of color, not just four shades of white,” he insists. In fact, it is casting directors who have in many ways defined what the term “Asian American” means in the theatre: When casting notices call for Asian-American stage actors, they usually refer to actors who look East Asian, whether they’re from China or the Philippines. But now, Asian Americans themselves are redefining what the term means.
“The community is changing,” Dang elaborates. “If you look at early East West Players and early AATC, the shows featured Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and a smattering of Filipinos. Now we’re including performers from Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East. There are many more multicultural voices of people who are half-Asian, half-white, and we have to do programming that speaks to their experience as well. For the newer generations of Asian-Americans, theatre is not Chinese or Japan it’s, it’s diverse urban activities [Editor’s note: For a story about the activities of one Bay Area company devoted to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities, see page 44.]
Uniting that diverse audience could be an ongoing challenge. While Latino communities share a common language, and African-American communities share a clear cultural and political history, ethnic groups that define themselves as Asian-American often share neither.
AATC co-artistic director Alan Quismorio declares that in revivifying a theatre that aims to represent no less than a third of the Bay Area, he is trying to embrace the universality of that (actions, evolving population. “The productions we put out have to address how we, the Asian-American community, fit into a global community—both how we are unique and not-so-unique. We feel the same things that others do. We want the same things. We are free and oppressed in the same ways. To most people, this generation may look Asian, but they’re not that at all—they’re American.”
RELATED ARTICLE: A Conversation with Francis Jue
It’s a warm August afternoon in the Bay Area, and actor Francis Jue is relaxing outside the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts waiting for his interview about Asian-American actors. Ironically, he’s in town for the TheatreWorks production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, a show all about Asian-American actors. The Obie-winning play (for which Jue also won a personal Obie) addresses race in casting, starting with Hwang’s real opposition to Jonathan Pryce’s turn as the Eurasian Engineer in Broadway’s Miss Saigon and humorously following Hwang’s fictional and accidental casting of a white man in an Asian role in his show Face Value.
The production is a homecoming for Jue, who lives in New York City. Born and raised in San Francisco, the 46-year-old actor first caught the theatre bug after seeing The King and I as a child. His parents said they would disown him for studying theatre in college, so he was at Yale University studying English when he was cast in the 1984 Off-Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures. After graduating, he returned to the Bay Area to work at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He was doing theatre on the side at regional houses, including TheatreWorks, when he landed the role of B.D. Wong’s understudy in M. Butterfly on Broadway—a job that turned him into a full-time actor.
LILY TUNG CRYSTAL: What does being an Asian-American actor mean to you?
FRANCIS JUE: These days I want to be known as an Asian-American actor—not that I want to be pigeonholed, I want people to know that Asian Americans are human, too. I want them to know that we are capable of living up to the challenges that any actor is asked to meet. It’s given me a real purpose that is not just ego-based. Part of the reason I am a performer is political and spiritual, because I’m not just playing a particular role on stage. I’m representing the humanity of a people whose humanity is often denied. So often people don’t hear us. All they see are the images they grew up with.
You’re often cast in roles that aren’t traditionally cast Asian. Do you think color-creative casting is improving for Asian-American actors?
I do think of myself as an exception. I know a lot of Asian-American performers, and I don’t see that many getting to work nontraditionally. I don’t see many getting to play leads and carry shows, and that experience is invaluable to learning one’s craft, to exploring one’s own humanity, so that when you can audition you’re ready and confident.
It is unfathomable now to imagine blackface on an American stage, and yet there are still examples of Asian roles being played by non-Asians that seem not to bother theatre companies or audiences. We haven’t reached the point yet where we have equal opportunities even to play ourselves, let alone be considered in the vast talent pool. Also, on an aesthetic and artistic level, we haven’t achieved parity in terms of human experience. Our very bodies are still an issue, and that is a limitation that others don’t have to face.
I’ve had artistic homes, like TheatreWorks here and the Public Theater in New York. I see more attempts to cast Asian Americans in classical work than I ever have before. I’ve seen a lot of progress, but I still do not see the same amount of opportunities for Asian-American performers as other performers.
Have you seen an improvement in the programming of Asian-American-themed work?
I can’t deny that it has gotten better. The longer that playwrights like Philip Gotanda and Chay Yew and David Henry Hwang are around, more will proliferate. Still, Asian-American-themed plays are considered separate from the canon, so theatre companies will produce one per season or one every few years and will have fulfilled in their hearts a certain artistic need or obligation. We’re ghettoized, instead of being seen as part of the talent pool, part of the world we five in. Suddenly, if you have two or three yellow people on stage, you worry about it saying something. Look at Yellow Face. There are more Caucasians in the play than Asians, but how many theatre companies consider it an American play, the way that Our Town is an American play? I wonder when we’ll arrive at a day that it can be both an Asian-American play and an American play. I don’t think we’ve had our Raisin in the Sun yet.
TheatreWorks is a rare example of a theatre company whose explicit mission is cultural diversity. But there’s a goal that I see even beyond what the Public and TheatreWorks have been able to do—which is to see beyond race as an issue and to see it as part of a complete American cultural life.
What advice would you give young Asian-American theatre artists?
We have to be as good as we say we are. We have to be diligent. We have to take ourselves seriously, as actors and institutions. We have to create opportunities for ourselves. I would say to Asian-American actors: Work every day. You don’t have to have a job as an actor to be focused on roles that you want to play, or roles that you never imagined playing. Read plays; read books; study from other people; take class; observe humanity. And persevere.
San Francisco-based author and actress Lily Tung Crystal is a recipient of an American Theatre Bay Area Commissioning Fund grant, with support from the Hewlett Foundation.
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