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If not Broadway, where?

Long shut out of the Great White Way, Asian American work thrives on smaller stages, especially in the West.

October 13, 2002|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

When David Henry Hwang's version of "Flower Drum Song" opens in New York this week, it will be the first musical about Asian Americans on Broadway since, well, "Flower Drum Song."

No one doubts that Asian Americans have had trouble reaching the Great White Way. Hwang is the only writer to have made it, with three plays and two musicals including his "re-imagination" of Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1958 tale about San Francisco's Chinatown. A handful of artists have carved out distinguished careers, and chorus lines are becoming more integrated. Too often, however, roles have been limited to the niche nicknamed "geishas, gangsters and gooks" or to the dozen or so shows set in Asia, the foreign having more audience appeal than the domestic.

"Broadway is a wasteland for us," New York playwright Alvin Eng says. The fact that this doesn't bother more of his colleagues says a lot about what has and hasn't changed in the past half-century of Asian American theater.

For one thing, Broadway no longer has the cultural clout it did when the original "Flower Drum Song" debuted. Nor is it considered to be the creative center of the country's theatrical universe. High costs have pushed producers to embrace commercially safe fare. Off-Broadway and the nonprofit regional stages -- the incubators of the most important and challenging works -- are widely seen as a truer testing ground of artistic mettle and the ability of Asian American plays to cross into the mainstream.

So, if not to Broadway, where is Asian American theater heading? Since the 1960s, nearly 100 companies have sprouted, from the Sierra to New England, fueled by increasing and increasingly diverse immigration. The old guard of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino writers has been joined by newer generations and by Vietnamese, Indians and other South Asians.

"You can see these waves of change," says Tim Dang, producing artistic director of Los Angeles' East West Players, at 37 the granddaddy of Asian American theaters. He counts Frank Chin and Wakako Yamauchi among a first generation of playwrights who confronted identity conflicts. Then came Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, both of whom straddle old and new worlds and thus are popular with national companies.

Dang's "1.5 generation," a term usually used for the Americanized children of Asian immigrants, includes Chay Yew, Prince Gomolvilas and Diana Son (who has noted her predecessors felt a responsibility to say, "We are here," while her peers say, "We are weird").

Younger groups like the local Lodestone ensemble follow their own rules, while the writers are re-asking the question "Who am I?" as immigrants again outnumber American-born Asians.

Asian American artists often do not set their sights on Broadway because "they are too busy looking for a way to tell their own stories," Dang says. "They are still more interested in seeking validation from their own communities, and in some cases, their families."

This mosaic of voices has inspired the blossoming of Asian American theater, as well as a new surge in fiction, another art form in which it's easier for personal vision to outweigh popular appeal. However, the narrow focus of many Asian American plays can make them feel inaccessible to broader audiences, mainstream theaters say. By their nature, many Asian American works fit better -- physically or politically -- in smaller spaces.

"Broadway is a shining beacon," says Yew, who runs the Mark Taper Forum's Asian Theatre Workshop. "But it's mythic. I'd rather make sure a play is in the right home."

Asian Americans have begun building bridges to other theater worlds. Adaptations are in vogue. After reinterpreting "The House of Bernarda Alba," Yew is planning to take on another Federico Garcia Lorca play for San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. (ACT also has commissioned an original Asian American musical, "Chinese Hell.") Gotanda's "The Wind Cries Mary," his version of "Hedda Gabler," is opening this month at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

The New York-based National Asian American Theatre Company inverts the usual formula, performing Western plays with Asian-ancestry casts. This gives actors the chance to perform roles usually denied them, says co-founder Mia Katigbak. The group also wants to get producers to "throw out preconceived notions about what this [Asian-looking] face might be."

Some fear the boom in Asian-specific theaters reduces the chances of showing non-Asian producers and audiences new ideas and new faces. Actors are more inclined to believe employment and experience (i.e., working on mainstream stages) trump empowerment.

"Both kinds of theater need to go hand in hand," says Christine Toy Johnson, who has won non-Asian roles in Broadway productions, including the recent revival of "The Music Man." "We won't change people's views of us as artists unless we get wider exposure."

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