Grandmas diving for seafood while immigrants wrestle with identity. Scrambling for self-worth in the face of suicide. Rock music in the face of fear. A noir murder mystery. Musings on death.
This lineup of Asian Pacific Islander (API) theatre works—including Celine Song’s Endlings at New York Theatre Workshop, Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage, Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Signature Theatre, Christopher Chen‘s Headlands at Lincoln Center, and Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest at A.R.T./New York—were all unique in perspective, and celebrated API art, pride, culture, and talent. All coincidentally slated for the same season, this winter/spring New York City offering of API theatre was nothing less than a moment.
Now, as the theatre community faces uncharted territory caused by COVID-19, there have been questions about what the future of theatre will look like—or whether theatre even has a future. But so far many of those asking these questions have neglected to consider that theatre is not a monolith, nor is it as inclusive as many would like to pretend. Preexisting discrimination has only been heightened by this pandemic.
“As with natural disasters or epidemics of this scale, the populations that will get hit the hardest are communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups,” says Soriya Chum, the executive director of the Consortium of Asian American Theatres and Artists. “We’ll see this to be true in our own field.”
According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s latest report, Asian American performers made up only 7.3 percent of performers onstage in New York City, and only 1.5 percent of shows were written by Asian Americans. This makes the early closure of five NYC-based API shows and the uncertain future of other upcoming API shows especially heartbreaking for the API community. Mia Katigbak, co-founder and artistic director of the National Asian American Theatre Company, was performing in Christopher Chen’s The Headlands, and “was good-naturedly complaining about how challenging it was to figure out how to schedule the celebration of all these shows written by Asian Americans when what I now call ‘Bloody Thursday’ happened.” She continued, “ I recall telling a friend how we just couldn’t catch a break. Our labors were bearing abundant fruit, and this blight of a virus comes along, compounded by reports of xenophobic attacks.”
That this disruption is caused by a pandemic that the president and other prominent politicians have referred to as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” only adds insult to injury. ( The president did not apologize for his use of the racist name for the virus, but did respond to the criticism.) Meanwhile house members have introduced legislation to officially blame COVID-19 on China, further linking Chinese people with the spread of the virus. Growing xenophobia directed at Asian Americans, specifically those who people assume are Chinese, is only adding to the list of concerns. Just ask award-winning stage and screen actor Daniel Dae Kim, who recently came forward with his diagnosis of COVID-19. Even in the midst of wrestling with the reality of his situation, he felt it necessary to address the xenophobic and racist attacks on Asian Americans. Being harrassed and physically assaulted is an increasing reality of living as an Asian American in the time of coronavirus.
For decades, Asian American theatremakers have sought to take control of their own narrative and respond to anti-Asian racism through their activism and art. Four years ago, several NYC arts service organizations came together to host Beyond Orientalism, a national initiative that hosted town halls, forums, and panels to combat yellowface and brownface, and to promote racial equity in theatre. In conjunction with that movement, a hashtag tore through Twitter: #MyYellowFaceStory. This hashtag was a concentrated effort by Asian and Asian American people in theatre and film to voice the discrimination and barriers they have faced due to racism.
Now with a new bout of coronavirus-related discrimination, Asian American theatre practitioners are again fighting racism with a hashtag: #RacismIsAVirus. Diane Phelan, performer, director, and founder of the Broadway Diversity Project; actor and editor-in-chief of Hapa magazine, Alex Chester; and actor Viveca Chow have been discussing how they could respond to the new wave of harassment. Phelan was inspired to see young Asian women publicly expressing their anger in a way that she believes would not have happened only a generation ago.
“I can say that my Chinese and Filipino cultures taught me that it’s not worth it to fight,” says Phelan. “There are many reasons that you are told to tamp down anger and keep going. [In Chinese culture] it’s all about honor and saving face…[The Philippines] went through two colonizations. If you spoke up, you got killed. In America, it’s culturally necessary to speak up and defend yourself. I’ve personally been toggling these lines of being Asian and American and trying to figure out where my own boundary lines of anger are, and figuring out that if I want to be a contributing member of American art I need to speak up.”
Phelan hopes that #RacismIsAVirus will bring attention to the increased acts of violence and verbal harassment that API, and specifically East Asians, are experiencing as a direct response to this virus. #RacismIsAVirus has been sporadically used in response to varying racist incidents over the past few years, including to promote the March Against Racism, a reaction to COVID-19-related xenophobia in London. Ariel Estrada of Leviathan Lab and Theatre Communication Group’s Rising Leaders of Color program discussed the choice to use the hashtag.
“It was important to point out that the power of Trump’s bully pulpit, and his ability to rapidly incite hatred against the Asian community both nationally and globally, had a clear similarity to the insidious virulence of COVID-19,” said Estrada. “Though the hashtag had been used previously, it was the perfect hashtag to reflect the anger and urgency of the moment.”
Reflecting the diversity of Asian American cultures, several other hashtags have also been created or revived to combat the disinformation and hatred currently being spread. #WashtheHate was created in direct response to the current rise in xenophobia. Telly Wong of IW Group, a marketing firm, partnered with several people, including stage and film actor Tzi Ma, to give a voice to those being attacked. The campaign encourages people to post a video telling their story while washing their hands. Tzi Ma, with all the stern swagger of a dad, uses his video to urge Americans to remove racism from their daily quarantine schedules. “Acts of violence against Asian Americans will not stop the spread of this virus,” Ma points out. “So, the next time you wash your hands, wash out the hate you may have for your fellow Americans. Hate will get you sick. Even if the virus doesn’t.”
While this campaign has been most visibly supported by television, film, and internet stars thus far, supporters should use whichever hashtag they prefer. “It doesn’t matter what hashtag you use—just stand up and say something,” urges Phelan. “Let your voice be heard and your face be seen.”
While #RacismIsAVirus and #WashTheHate aren’t the first instances of Asian American artists using social media to organize, it’s certainly an appropriate and timely tactic. With escalating restrictions on in-person contact as the country tries to “flatten the curve,” the internet is now the most effective and far-reaching way to unify people around a cause. And what these two hashtags are doing is only a chapter in the arc of Asian American theatre activism.
“What I was hoping to ignite in everyone,” says Phelan, “is that this [hashtag] is a campaign, not a movement. It feels like there’s a movement coming, there’s motion happening because people are angry and want to do something with that anger. The hashtag campaign is only a portion of that.”
It’s important to remember that while the racism resulting from COVID-19 is having a deeper impact on API people and theatremakers, it is not the only reason that the disruption is devastating. Racism is a virus, but of course the virus did not invent racism, neither in the wider landscape of this country nor within the theatre community. The symptoms may have been overlooked, but racism has always afflicted API and other marginalized theatres and artists through underfunding and underrepresentation. In the coming weeks, we may face further devastation in the potential loss of artists and elders who hold the history of theatres that were created specifically to serve those communities. While the concerns circulating about the art form are valid, it’s important to remember that at the heart of this profession are people.
“As we ask, ‘How will our theatres recover from this?’ we should also be asking how we’ll continue to treat one another with kindness, lift each other up, and celebrate our diversity,” says Chum. “Progress was happening in our theatres. Positive representation was taking place. We have to keep that momentum.”
Outside of theatre, Asian and Asian American grassroots organizations have taken steps to alleviate the pain within the Asian American community during this pandemic. This Saturday, March 28, 3pm-5pm PST/6pm-8pm EST, the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation will present “A Virtual Townhall on Anti-Asian Racism: Race, Struggle and Solidarity in the Time of A Global Pandemic.” You can register here.
Below are just a few of the community grassroots organizations and resources available:
- Community Care During COVID-19: A Message To and From AAPIs
- COVID-19 Resources List (Bay Area, Calif.)
- Asian Americans Report Coronavirus-related Racism
- Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council
- Chinese for Affirmative Action
- CAAV Organizing Asian Communities
- Asian Americans For Equality
Ciara Diane is a New York-based freelance writer, performer, and social justice advocate. She is a Sagittarius, intersectional feminist/womanist, afrofuturist and, above all, a storytelling experience. Sarah Machiko Haber is a mixed, third culture kid, and a Cancer (happy Ciara?). She believes in the power of storytelling, community, and warm chocolate chip cookies to help build a more just and liberated world. Ciara Diane and Sarah Machiko Haber are part of TCG’s Department of ED&I Initiatives.