As we round out AAPI Heritage month, we’re going to spotlight some key theatre companies that have changed the face of American theatre.
What is Asian American theatre?
Asian American theatre is theatre created by Asian American writers, directors, actors, designers, and producers. Until the 1960s, Asian and Asian American representation in the arts was pretty abysmal (Think “yellowface” 🙁…Breakfast at Tiffany’s, anyone?). In an effort to combat racist stereotypes on stage and screen, prominent Asian and Asian American creatives got together and formed four theatre companies:
East West Players in LA, 1965-present
Northwest Asian American Theatre (FKA Theatrical Ensemble of Asians in Seattle), 1972-2004
Asian American Theatre Workshop (later renamed Asian American Theater Company) in SF, 1973-present
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in NYC, 1977-present
Over the next half-century, these four companies produced works that elevated the voices of AAPI creatives. According to trusty Wikipedia, they “helped integrate Asian-Americans into many popular theatre companies by normalizing Asian actors…Asian-American actors have used Asian-American theatre companies as their artistic bases while pursuing careers in the mainstream theatre, film and television.”
These companies worked so diligently that by the end of the 1990s, there were over forty Asian American theatre companies and performance groups in the US. Initially, Asian American theatre mostly featured creatives of East Asian descent. But by the 1990s, artists of South Asian and Southeast Asian backgrounds started to join the community, making Asian-American theatre one of the fastest growing and changing sectors in American theatre” (Wikipedia). How exciting!!
Let’s look at some highlights from each of these companies.
East West Players, Founded in 1965 The Nation’s Largest and Longest Running Asian American Theater
“Since 1965, East West Players has been a home for deeply authentic Asian American stories and creativity. Founded by nine pioneering actors and theater artists breaking away from the narrow scope of roles in 1960’s Hollywood, our theater has endured as a haven for artists of color to create without limits.”
By Fay & Michael Kanin, based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa Directed by Norman Gerard
Premiered on April 3, 1965 at the Bovard Auditorium at USC through the Asian Studies Program
June Kim & Mako
Rashomon marked East West Players’ first production. The production toured to the University of Judaism, Hollywood, beginning May 15, 1965, then the Warner Playhouse on La Cienega Blvd., performing from July to August 1965.
East West Players would go on to stage two more revivals of Rashomon during the 1970 season and 1985-86 season.
By Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman
Directed by Snehal Desai with music direction by Marc Macalintal, this production was originally set to premiere in March of 2020. The original production performed its invited final dress rehearsal before having to be postponed due to the pandemic. Assassins made its return two years later, premiering March 17, 2022 and safely closing April 2.
Northwest Asian American Theatre, Active 1972-2004
Founders: students of the University of Washington
Website: Video archives
Here’s a 9-min video aka the company’s “demo tape”
According to Wikipedia, “In 1972, a group of students on the campus of the University of Washington started a theatre group called the Theatrical Ensemble of Asians. It was founded by a teacher named Stanley Asis in the school’s Ethnic Cultural Center, with its original members including students of Asian and Hispanic descent] Even in its humble beginnings, the theatre gave students an opportunity to explore their heritage and perform plays written by other Asian Americans; those who were not Asian American had an opportunity to be involved in a diverse group and celebrate other’s culture. In a later reflection by Judith Nihei, who would become the creative director for the group, “Asians weren’t being cast in mainstream productions. So we figured we’d better do our own productions.”
Though the company had to close its doors in 2004, some of Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT)’s work has been preserved thanks to the efforts of the Wing Luke Museum and a grant from 4Culture to be a part of Seattle’s Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound (MIPoPS) project. You can watch NWAAT’s productions from the 1980s and 1990 on the MIPoPS video archives page.
Asian American Theatre Company, Active 1973-present
Founder: Frank Chin
According to their website, “Asian American Theater Company (AATC) was founded in 1973 as a playwrights' workshop by Chinese American playwright Frank Chin and sponsored by the American Conservatory Theater. In 1975, the workshop became a professional theater company dedicated to the production of plays by Asian Pacific Islander American dramatists and the development and support of Asian Pacific Islander American actors, designers and technicians.”
David Henry Hwang's F.O.B. performed by The Asian American Theatre Company, 1983
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Founded in 1977 The Nation’s Largest and Longest Running Asian American Theater
Founder & Current Artistic Director: Tisa Chang
Tisa Chang established the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre as a resident company at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1977, with the intention of popularizing Asian-American theater. Mel Gussow of the NY Times observed that "Before Pan Asian Rep, Asian Americans had severely limited opportunities in the theater… [now] heartened by Ms. Chang's example, similar companies have sprung up around the United States.” (Wikipedia)
Roseanne Ma and the Yojos in Shogun Macbeth, 2008
“A cultural transmutation, SHOGUN MACBETH channels Shakespeare's tragic tale of power and greed to the feudal military dictatorship of 12th century Japan (Kamakura Period), a time of warring clans. The three witches are "Yojo's," creatures with spiritual and supernatural powers. While incorporating the classical Japanese art forms of Noh and Kyogen, SHOGUN MACBETH retains Shakespeare's language and historical medieval period” (Broadway World).