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Orientalism and the Portrayal of Asian Americans in Musicals

‘Soft Power’ Community Conversation Unpacks Representation in Theatre


(L-R) Actress and playwright Esther Chae and UC Riverside Assistant Professor of Theatre Donatella Gallela.

Brian Feinzimer/Capture Imaging.

Theatre makers around the country are grappling with cultural appropriation and nontraditional casting right now. But the Asian American speakers at a recent Community Conversation are also coming to terms with their own “internal crisis” about beloved (but problematic) classics like Miss Saigon and The King and I.

The March 15, 2018 event, titled “Orientalism and the Portrayal of Asian Americans in Musicals” and co-hosted by Center Theatre Group and East West Players, is part of an ongoing series leading up to the World premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre May 3 – June 10, 2018.

Questions surrounding identity—particularly the kind of American identity portrayed in musicals—sat at the crux of conversation. UC Riverside Assistant Professor of Theatre Donatella Galella explained America’s long history of labeling Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner, an identity that dates back to various racial exclusion laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that set immigration quotas or prohibited specific Asian nationalities from immigrating to America at all. These laws weren’t dismantled until basically 1965 with the Immigration Act, she said.

One effect of these laws and other forms of institutionalized discrimination is a misrepresentation of Asians in theatre—with playwrights often drawing stereotypical caricatures of Asian people and setting them outside of US boundaries. These stories constantly place Asians in Asia or make-believe places, Galella said, which also relates to Orientalism and thinking about Asians as make-believe people.

Marie-Reine Velez, a founding member and producing artistic leader of the Los Angeles theatre collective Artists at Play, elaborated on the danger of such stories in society. They create a hostile attitude toward people, and not just from the people who are not from that culture—not just white Americans thinking about Asian Americans—but how Asian Americans can think about themselves, she said. By contrast, stories about richly drawn Asian Americans are a validation of who we are and that we exist in American society.

Although iconic musicals like The King and I have been known to infantilize and exoticize Asian communities, Esther Chae, a Korean American actress (NCIS, Law and Order) and playwright (So the Arrow Flies), is grateful that they were conceived in the first place. I’m personally glad that that canon of musical theatre exists, even with the problems, Chae admitted. If we don’t even have those stories or characters, we [Asian Americans] don’t get to work. We don’t get to exist. We don’t get to have the dialogue. These shows, she added, are a starting place for representation to evolve and improve.

Velez pointed out that the question of whether or not to love these shows is a relatable crisis for many Asian Americans, including those on the panel. I think that’s where the conflict lies, right? she said. These shows exist. They’re problematic, but they hire our friends, and they hire our colleagues. I’m so happy that people are getting work and that some folks are also being recognized even, winning Tonys or other awards for their performances and helping launch careers, but they’re also perpetuating stereotypes and just a reduction of who we are as people.

How can theatre companies help evolve representation? One suggestion was not only implementing nontraditional casting—where companies cast actors without considering their ethnicity or skin color, particularly for roles that have traditionally gone to white artists—but also ensuring the creative team behind the production is as diverse as the cast. Another idea was for theatre companies to showcase a range of stories throughout the course of the season rather than featuring one large cultural show annually.

It’s about not just having this one show that [companies] feel like is their diversity show, panel moderator and actress Stefanée Martin (The Get Down) said, so they go to their diversity marketing people and their diversity center in their city one time, and then they feel like, ‘Oh, we’ve done our diversity.’

Playwright and panelist Lauren Yee (whose King of the Yees played the Douglas in 2017) said that theatre artists can also make an impact. You have to do your legwork far in advance, she explained. When Yee was first writing her new musical Cambodian Rock Band a few years ago, she kept hearing that the roles of six Asian American actors who also play specific rock band instruments were impossible to cast. Undeterred, Yee reached out to her fellow theatre friends and colleagues for talent and soon realized that it was the easiest thing [to cast] in the world.

I actually keep a spreadsheet, Yee said. I have probably around 500 or 600 Asian American actors across the country that I pull from to be like, ‘OK, you need a male actor in Seattle non-equity? Here’s 30 names.’ Yee stressed the importance of creating and maintaining databases such as these, especially for companies who claim Asian Americans don’t show up to their castings or regularly depend on Asian American communities to provide names when productions call for more diversity.

Chae added that the job requires effort from everyone involved in theatre—not just Asian Americans. It just reminds me of still so much work that we have to do, she said, but not just doing the work, but making sure that the work actually stays in there and that [companies] get responsible for doing their outreach and the work that they should be doing.

Although there is still much to do in improving representation in American theatre, all the panelists remain hopeful. Many of them spoke about the 2015 Broadway musical Allegiance, which follows a Japanese American family after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and places Asian Americans at the forefront both onstage and off-stage. Shows such as this—and Soft Power—help dispel the myth surrounding the elusiveness of Asian American talent. As Yee aptly said, They’re not unicorns. They’re horses, and they’re right there.

Listen to the full Community Conversation.

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