Ars Nova's recent immersive show KPOP was that rare thing in New York City theater: a stage production with a nearly all-Asian cast in a show that tackled questions about the experience of being an Asian in America. The last time New York had seen anything quite like it was Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical based on star George Takei's own experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. While that musical caused less of a stir than one would have hoped, closing after a mere 111 performances and 37 previews, it is reappearing on the big screen December 7, it will make its Los Angeles premiere in February (with Takei once again playing the lead role). Allegiance may have a second life as a regional repertory staple.
Regional theater could be where most of the adventurous Asian-American theater is being produced. Certainly, David Henry Hwang thinks so. "In general, Broadway continues to be not inclusive in a way that represents the population," Hwang recently told the New York Times. But, he continued, "there's been a big explosion of Asian-American playwrights and talent Off Broadway and in the regions."
One look at the theatrical landscape across the United States suggests the truth of Hwang's contention, especially with companies like the Ma-Yi Theater Company (coproducers of off-Broadway's KPOP), Chicago's Silk Road Rising, and Los Angeles's East West Players remaining consistently active in producing Asian-American theater. With Hwang currently represented on Broadway with a retooled version of M. Butterfly, and with the popularity of television shows like ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, perhaps the time for a greater Asian presence in the arts (especially in theater) has finally come.
With Asian-American theater off to a fairly strong start in 2017, we put together a list of the productions (from New York to Los Angeles and places in between) to look for throughout the rest of the 2017-18 season.
Office Hour (October 17-December 3)
Julia Cho's new play, currently running at the Public Theater, may be about a teacher trying to get to know a student who she fears is a potential shooter in waiting, but there is a cultural specificity to Office Hour that takes it beyond the realm of simply a two-character psychological standoff. Both the teacher, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), and the student, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), are Korean; both discuss, among other things, their problems navigating the disapproval of their respective immigrant parents. Cho was reportedly took the idea for the play from Seung-Hui Cho's massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. The fact that Office Hour arrives in light of the recent shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, adds an extra layer of chilling topical relevance.
Yohen (October 27-November 19)
The Los Angeles-based East West Players have a whole season of Asian-American-centric fare planned in 2017-18. Currently onstage at the David Henry Hwang Theater is this revival of Philip Kan Gotanda's play, starring Danny Glover (who was in the original world-premiere Los Angeles production back in 1999) and June Angela. The pair play elderly couple James and Sumi Washington, who confront long-standing tensions in their 37-year marriage after James retires from the U.S. army, and Sumi throws him out of the house and forces him to court her all over again. Its focus on an aging interracial relationship gives it even more interest beyond Glover's star power.
MLCG (My Little China Girl) (November 3-18)
Actor-performer Soomi Kim has been exploring her Asian-American heritage for a while now, particularly through her trilogy of theater pieces Chang(e), Dictee: Bells Fall a Peal to Sky, and Lee/gendary. For her latest work, a solo show called MLCG (My Little China Girl), Kim investigates her own coming-of-age as a first-generation Korean American in a piece partially inspired by David Bowie's video for "China Girl." With its mix of theater, dance, and video, this production at Dixon Place on New York's Lower East Side promises a fascinating multidisciplinary experience with a deeply personal bent.
Wild Boar (November 9-December 17)
The first major production of Chicago-based theater company Silk Road Rising's 2017-18 season is the U.S. premiere of a Chinese play: Wild Boar, a 2012 work by Candace Chong, a highly celebrated playwright in Hong Kong. The work, translated from Chinese by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, is being presented in an adaptation by David Henry Hwang. It's the subject matter that may be the most enticing aspect here. Chong wrote her play in response to what she saw as the rise of the Hong Kong government's suppression of freedom of the press, making Wild Boar's arrival in the U.S. even more timely.
Hold These Truths (December 3-20)
Hang a Tale Theater Company revives Jeanne Sakata's 2007 solo docudrama at New York's Sheen Center. The play focuses on Gordon Hirabayashi — the Japanese-American sociologist who famously became one of three people who refused to accept internment during World War II — and stars The Man in the High Castle's Joel de la Fuente. Any work that brings a greater awareness to the injustice of the U.S.'s forced relocations of thousands of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor is a worthy one, and the revival of Sakata's play is especially welcome with de la Fuente reprising his Drama Desk-nominated performance. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is concurrently staging a Hold These Truths production of its own from December 1-31, one that will include three additional performers that are said to be inspired by Kabuki theatrical traditions.
No-No Boy (February 5-25, 2018)
New York-based Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is reviving Ken Narasaki's 2010 stage adaptation of John Okada's 1957 novel about the struggles of a Japanese-American man to readjust to civilian life after spending four years in various forms of imprisonment during World War II for refusing to fight for the U.S. When the play premiered, there was much dispute about the way Narasaki reworked the ending of Okada's novel into something more conventionally uplifting; this upcoming production offers audiences another opportunity to judge for themselves.
Allegiance (February 21-April 2, 2018)
You have two opportunities to see the 2015 Broadway musical that explores the experience of Japanese-Americans in World War II and that starred George Takei and Lea Salonga. First up is its Los Angeles premiere at Aratani Theatre February 21-April 1, 2018, with Takei reprising the role he played on Broadway. Then there's a more scaled-down production May 4-June 2, 2018, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Vietgone (February 21-April 22, 2018)
Qui Nguyen's comic chronicle of two Vietnam War refugees falling in love and resettling in middle America won praise when it made its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. Soon, the American Conservatory Theater will bring this play with anachronistic hip-hop music to San Francisco in a new production directed by Jaime Castañeda, thus giving audiences outside New York (and Costa Mesa, California, where it made its world premiere) an opportunity to see this irreverent, inventive, and insightful new work, that offers a unique perspective on the Vietnam War that is likely unfamiliar to most Americans.
The Great Leap (May 23-June 17, 2018)
Recently awarded the 2017 Kesselring Prize, Lauren Yee has built up an impressive body of work with plays like In a Word, The Hatmaker's Wife, and King of the Yees. Her latest play, which will have its world premiere at the Denver Center and Seattle Rep before coming to New York through the Atlantic Theater Company, will provide a similarly incisive look at cultural clashes, with a plot involving a San Francisco-based local high school basketball celebrity traveling to Beijing in the spring of 1989.
Soft Power (May 3-June 10, 2018)
A world premiere musical by David Henry Hwang that features music by Fun Home's Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori! Thanks to Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group and the East West Players, such a spectacle is indeed coming to the Ahmanson Theatre next year. The show is described as being "inspired by the West's often ridiculously inauthentic portrayals of Asia." The creative team also includes such heavy hitters as director Leigh Silverman and Tony-nominated choreographer Sam Pinkleton. That talent combination alone is enough to get us excited about what could possibly be one of the biggest musical bids for mainstream acceptance of stories about the Asian-American experience.
Hollow/Wave (May 17-27, 2018)
Let's not forget about South Asian performers, though, especially with the likes of Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn breaking into the mainstream. This world premiere solo show written and performed by Chicago-based Anu Bhatt and produced by Silk Road Rising follows Bhatt's sometimes harrowing experiences negotiating her own cultural identity while trying to make a name for herself as a working actor. This has the potential to offer the kind of eye-opening perspective that could more broadly highlight the struggles of Asian performers in general to make a dent in the entertainment landscape.
- George Takei
- Jeanine Tesori
- David Henry Hwang
- East West Players
- Silk Road Rising
- Qui Nguyen
- Lauren Yee
- Soomi Kim
- Ma-Yi Theater Company
- Joel de la Fuente
- Julia Cho
- Jeanne Sakata
- Philip Kan Gotanda
- Candace Chong
- Hang a Tale Theater Company
- Ken Narasaki
- Anu Bhatt
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