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Uphill Fight for Asian American Plays

September 15, 1997|VELINA HASU HOUSTON | Velina Hasu Houston is an author of plays, screenplays, essays, poetry and anthologies. She is an associate professor, resident playwright and director of the playwriting program at USC's School of Theatre

Recently, Laurie Winer reviewed "But Still, Like Air, I'll Rise: New Asian American Plays," a volume I edited ("A Collection With Much Missing," Calendar, Aug. 31). In it, I note the racial subjectivity of U.S. history, a perspective that Winer indicated should not include Asian Americans, whom she feels are highly successful, especially in literature.

Winer, however, conflates Asian American prose with Asian American plays--two very different worlds. With prose, those interested merely have to buy a book. With plays, they'd rather see them and usually at large regional theaters, which rarely produce Asian American plays.

The one playwright Winer mentioned prominently was David Henry Hwang. But his case is an exceptional one and does not stand as a barometer for measuring the success of Asian American dramatic literature overall. (Witness Don Shirley's article about East West Players' grave financial status on the same page as Winer's review.)

Obviously, Asian American theaters produce Asian American plays. In the arena of large regional theaters, however, full production of such plays remains a token effort. Winer mentioned three such productions last year on the West Coast--not an impressive figure when one considers the area's nearly 30 regional theaters that collectively produce 150-plus plays a year.

Is Winer suggesting that such plays are absent because they are not good enough? Perhaps, because, otherwise, I could see a Wakako Yamauchi or Kia Corthron play on the Taper stage, or an Endesha Holland or Chay Yew play at South Coast Repertory. Or a Luis Alfaro or Adrienne Kennedy play at Seattle Rep. I'm not holding my breath.

In fact, mainstream theater's already minimal interest in such plays is fading--because funding is fading. A Southern California theater's artistic director recently told one of my associates that since nobody was paying him anymore to produce "those kinds" of plays, he was free to ignore them. Yet another artistic director said he no longer had to "go slumming."

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Many agents bemoan the fact that theaters now have a "been there, done that" attitude about such plays. Winer mentions Philip Gotanda's play "The Ballad of Yachiyo" and its South Coast Rep production. Even with that credential, the playwright was unable to secure a production at a large mainstream Los Angeles theater. A non-Equity community theater will produce the L.A. premiere of his play.

My anthology is not just about plays as art but as reflections of often-omitted American histories. Even in the Asian American community, we too often focus upon those of us who are of Japanese, Chinese or Korean heritage, forgetting that being "Asian American" is much more ethnically diverse. We also forget we have a poverty rate twice as high as that of non-Latino whites or that not all of us are bright enough to attend top colleges. Reflecting the diversity of Asian America was a priority for the book.

In my book, I quote George Wolfe, artistic director of New York's Public Theatre, who said theaters shouldn't call themselves American theaters if they're not telling the stories of all the different kinds of people in the United States. Such theaters "are elitist white institutions and should hang a banner outside calling [themselves] that," he opined. Wolfe sees himself as a "rare creature," being a person of color with power in the American theater, and views his rarity as "a reflection of how rigid the systems are and how much more rigid they are becoming." Despite his success, Wolfe, being an African American male, still has trouble getting a cab in New York.

Despite persistent challenges on the basis of my color and multi-race, I am surviving nicely in our society. Others are not, however, and it is not for lack of talent or courage. That is why I accepted my publisher's challenge to create an anthology based on a sociopolitical mandate.

I live in a Pacific Rim region that boasts six regional theaters, and yet I rarely see women's lives or the lives of people of color represented on their stages. This is disturbing, not only for playwrights and audiences but also for the overall state of race and gender relations in the United States.

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