A Season to Celebrate Asian-American Theater Is Lost to Pandemic


The solid and crew of “Wolf Play” had been on their third day of tech rehearsals at Soho Rep in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were doing this complicated boxing scene, and we had the smog machine and the costumes, and it looked awesome,” stated Hansol Jung, who wrote the play.

It was simply days earlier than the opening, and because the scene ended, the corporate’s three creative administrators got here in and introduced the manufacturing was closing. “They were crying as they told us,” Jung stated. “It felt so weird saying goodbye to something that didn’t yet exist.”

As a Korean-American poet and essayist, I have witnessed a thrilling renaissance of Asian-American literature in the last few years that has kicked aside conventional tales in favor of stranger, more uncharted narratives. When I began writing in the early 2000s, the publishing industry mostly seemed to look at Asian stories as if they were testimonials of tragic immigrant lives. We were condescended to or treated like content farms.

Now I’m reading books by Asian-American authors that are as varied in style as much as content, and I was eager to see how this experimentation has spread to theater. But because of Covid-19, I didn’t have a chance to see any of these productions. I had to make do with their scripts.

Jung told me in a phone interview that she was used to a scarcity model. If a major theater programmed a play by an Asian-American, she used to joke that her chances were shot for a production there the next season. What a dream then that for a few weeks in 2020 so many Asian-American plays were up.

“I think a lot of playwrights who want to get into the meat of racial issues use experimental theater to get underneath reality,” said Chen, whose noir-inspired play delves into the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco.

Sometimes, just as the audience identifies with characters, the playwright unmasks them, exposing the scaffolding of the plot. The goal is not to please, or to entertain, but to provoke.

An influential playwright who uses avant-garde techniques to explode racial myths is Young Jean Lee. Following on the heels of Reza Abdoh and Suzan-Lori Parks, Lee projects her own prickly unease about her race onto her audience through scathing satire and bait-and-switch plotlines.

“In purely naturalistic theater you’re not supposed to break the fourth wall, and the main tool at your disposal is audience identification with the characters,” Lee said to me recently. “In experimental theater, you can use a wide range of techniques and tricks to have an emotional impact on the audience.”

“Growing up in the U.S., stereotypes were handed to me,” Lee said in an interview, “and my conflict has been fulfilling those stereotypes to survive and actively pushing them away — but not knowing what I’m pushing them away into.”

“When we had our first conversation, I could tell she understood the bones of the play and the simultaneity of Americanness and Japanese aesthetic,” Lee said. “That felt like a revelation.”

But casting was easy because there were many actresses of Asian descent in New York who had struggled in their youth to find jobs. “During their time, white women were taking their roles and doing yellow face,” said Song, 31, who grew up in South Korea and Canada.

The play also features a character named Ha Young who is the stand-in for the playwright. Ha Young is ambivalently ambitious, confessing her desires to take over “great white theater” while simultaneously chastising herself for wanting to “sell out.” As she berates her audience, she might as well be berating herself for internalizing the white gaze: “Aren’t you excited to tell your friends? How you saw a weird play about weird old diving women from Korea?”

In Jung’s “Wolf Play,” co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, a Korean boy is adopted by a white couple in Arizona. When the wife becomes pregnant, they decide they no longer want the child. Through a chat room, the couple illegally “rehomes” the boy with a family in San Francisco. Traumatized and dissociated, the child believes he’s a wolf, and he is represented by a puppet, a stark reminder that he has no control over his fate.

Since the pandemic has kept the writers holed up at home, Jung, Song and Chen said they were writing for TV, and Young Jean Lee is involved in several theatrical projects.

Most are hopeful about the wellspring of Asian-American voices, except for Song who was cautious about this moment in theater: “I don’t want to tell people there is a lot of Asian theater because then there will be a backlash. Theater will get complacent and stop programming Asian voices.”

Jung said she wasn’t sure what kind of stories people would want after the pandemic. Still, she was galvanized by her Asian-American peers. “We’re not just in the people of color slot anymore,” she said. “We have something to say to the world and not just to other Asians. When we come back, we’ll just have to double down.”

Cathy Park Hong is a poet and the author of the essay collection “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning.”



Source link Nytimes.com

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