Lee, Josephine. “Critical Strategies for Reading Asian American Drama.” Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia, Temple UP, 1997. 1-33. Print.
In her essay Lee acknowledges that her focused examination of Asian American theater may contribute to a form of “racial separatism” (4). She notes that this critique has been historically raised against multicultural studies because group specific angles can potentially “promote[e] insiderism and fragmentation” (5). Lee emphasizes, however, that the study of marginalized groups should not be treated as simply “add-ons to an existing canon” just to ensure superficial “political representation” (5). She suggests that this can also force minority subjects to assume the “awkward position of speaking for others” (5). Yet the usage of neutral aesthetics through a complete rejection of the political can no longer suffice in our increasingly diverse, multicultural, transnational world. Lee concedes that Asian America encompasses a very diverse group of peoples that is always changing in light of new waves of immigration and that to presuppose such a thing as “Asian American theatre” suggests a homogeneous coherent whole that can be very reductive of internal differences. Lee maintains, however, that Asian American theatre powerfully “reflect[s], if not an easily understood ‘us’ in terms of a homogenous community of ordinary Asian Americans, then at the very least an intensely imagined communality shared by a number of diverse individuals and social groups” (9-10). She further notes that Asian American theatre was deeply tied to the larger Asian American civil rights movement of the 1960s, which encouraged pan-Asian solidarity over intra-group differences.
Lee ultimately calls for a new discursive theoretical framework that examines race and ethnicity in theatre and dramatic art forms. In her essay she discusses how the Orientalist representation of Asian Americans in theatre have been accepted as true to life. She emtions, for example, the popular practice of “yellow face,” where white actors would consult makeup manuals that offered them step-by-step guidelines as to how to appear and perform as an “authentic Oriental” (12). Instead of viewing drama as an imitation or mirror of reality, Lee accentuates the need to examine how “race is constructed and contested by theatrical presentation” (6). She asserts that as a live art form, theatre wields the remarkable potential to provoke “an immediate visceral response to the physicality of race,” forcing audiences to recognize their own implication in the process of racialization (7).
Lee notes that while some Asian Americans did receive wide critical acclaim for their performances, this success was largely achieved by playing into stereotypes that were especially hard to challenge due to casting discrimination and sheer financial need. In resistance to the Orientalizing practices of mainstream theater companies, however, Asian Americans began to establish their own companies where they featured works of “Asian American playwrights…actors, directors, and designers” (15). Lee notes how these theatrical production worked to especially spread awareness about the “history of Asians in the United States, a history marked distinctively by naturalization policy, land laws, and immigration restrictions” (16). Lee asserts that these companies were deeply attuned to community issues and employed practices such as “Pan-Asian casting” to rework the stereotype of all Asians look the same by promoting a new pan-Asian identity in the spirit of the larger civil rights movement (16).
Lee emphasizes that while the plays she examines in her book differ on many levels, they are all heavily invested in exploring “questions raised about performing race and ethnicity” (20). She also recognizes the flaws of her own study, which mostly examines dramatic works by Chinese and Japanese Americans and are even more limited with her specific reliance on play texts. Lee asserts that the publication process reveals another exclusionary measure in contemporary American theatre. The works generally favored for literary reproduction are those written by authors with a strong command of the English language and rely on language rather than performance such as dance or music in their works. Those theatrical productions that have successfully “gained mainstream recognition” are also more likely to be published (25). Lee concludes her essay by emphasizing that her study attempts to shift critical consideration of what it means to “be” an Asian American to what it means to perform Asian American identity on stage, calling attention to the constructed nature of this label.