Asian theater comes into its own in New York

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/2 18:23:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The story goes like this: In an ancient Chinese dynasty, an honest young man was forced to get involved in a cheating scandal. Then one thing led to another. Tempted by worldly success and pleasure, he didn't only gradually lose his integrity, but also took his family and friends down with him.

It may be easy to picture the story unfolding on the stage of a theater in China. It may indeed be launched there someday. But before that, the drama, Where Is My Maple Town, will have its world premiere at Theatre Row, an off-Broadway theater in Manhattan, in August, with the dialogue completely in English.

The play's director Teng Xiaopeng, a doctoral student of Shanghai Theatre Academy and visiting scholar at City College in New York, has directed and acted in many theatrical productions in China, including the multimedia hit The Three-body Problem. But in New York, she said she found Asian actors have very few opportunities in the theater world. She attributed it mainly to the low number of Asian stories that have been written for theater rather than overt racial bias, which local Asian talent tends to allege.

When Teng met He Yuting, a graduate student at Shanghai Theatre Academy and an exchange student at Columbia University, the two immediately agreed to translate a play He wrote three years ago in Chinese into English and put it on stage in New York. Their plan was supported by their alma mater, which provides funding for the production. All the actors and actresses are Asian and professional or amateur performers.

"We thought if other people don't give us opportunities, we can create our own," Teng told me.

Dramas like this - an Asian story written, directed and cast by Asians - are still rare on the stages of Broadway and off Broadway. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, only 4 percent of all roles on stage in New York went to Asian performers though Asians make up 13 percent of the city's population.

But the signs of change forming on the horizon have been getting clearer in recent years, thanks to the emergence of some young and fearless Asian theater talent.

In late July, I watched Comfort Women at the off-Broadway Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The musical by Korean director Dimo Hyun Jun Kim - he wrote it while studying at City College - told the stories of a few Korean women who were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. It debuted in New York's St. Clements in 2015 and received broad acclaim.

Like Where Is My Maple Town, the cast is all Asian, including Chinese actresses who have been in the US for less than five years and at least one Japanese actor.

The show failed to get the full support of Korean society. Kim said his team tried to raise funds from major Korean corporations for the show's production cost but got little from them because the companies didn't want to hurt their market in Japan.

"Our older generation is somewhat cowardly. That's why we young people need to take the responsibility to tell these stories," Kim told me.

In 2016, an off-Broadway play called Vietgone, a story about the life of Vietnamese refugees in a US relocation camp, shocked even many Asian audience members by having all Vietnamese characters speak fluent English and behave with confidence and aplomb. On the other hand, American characters spoke broken English and behaved awkwardly - a theatrical device used by second generation Vietnamese playwright Qui Nguyen to show the audience whose story this was.

And of course, there was also the 2017 Broadway reproduction of Chinese-American playwright, David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning M. Butterfly, and the 2015 Broadway debut of Allegiance, a musical about the internment of Japanese in the US in World War II, written by Jay Kuo and starring George Takei.

These shows may not always be commercially successful, and their audiences are mainly Asians. But the good news is that the Asian audience has been growing stronger and is now big enough to independently support some productions so that their own stories can be told. And, the best thing is that young Asians are hopeful. They believe they are able to take New York theater to a new era.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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