11 Asian-American Playwrights Recommend 11 Asian-American Plays

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[Haunani Minn, Yuki Shimoda, Jim Ishida, and Josie Pepito Kim
in "And the Soul Shall Dance," East West Players, 1974
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has come to a close—but for me, every month is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! And in order to help you, my dear friends, continue celebrating, I've compiled a list of classic (know your history!) and contemporary (know your peers!) stage plays to stimulate your intellect and satisfy your innate need for drama.

But instead of me just machine-gunning you with my opinions like I normally do, this time I opted for a more democratic approach. I reached out to a handful of Asian-American playwrights (is it hyperbole to call them rock stars?) and asked them, "What Asian-American play, past or present, are you excited to recommend right now?"

I received a bunch of terrific answers from the likes of Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, and more!—complete with personal commentary to explain their choices.


And of course I tossed my own recommendation into the mix (free from my typical unhinged ranting!).

None of the playwrights I asked knew which plays the others were choosing, so I'm pleasantly surprised by the diverse array of different work that was recommended—which should suggest to you the breadth and depth of Asian-American theatre if you don't already know.

One person who definitely knows this is Roger Tang, "The Godfather of Asian American Theatre." I'm basically picking up where he left off, as he recently highlighted "31 Asian American Plays in 31 Days" over at the stalwart Asian American Theatre Revue. He covers a lot of ground, past and present, so mad props to him. (Does anyone say "mad props" any more? I can't keep up!)

Most of the plays on the following list have been published. You can buy the books online or at your local theatre bookshop if you have one near you. (Please support these playwrights' work by buying their plays and not grabbing some copyright-infringing PDF online.... This has been a public service announcement.... My name is Prince Gomolvilas, and I approve this message.)

And you are fortunate enough that you live in a time when a few of these plays are either currently running (see them live right now!) or may be coming to city near you soon (see them live eventually!).

Okay, let's do this....

1. And the Soul Shall Dance by Wakako Yamauchi



Wakako Yamauchi; photo courtesy of Densho

Velina Hasu Houston, author of Tea, recommends this play. Velina writes: "The potency of the themes of this play—immigration, acculturation or a lack thereof, sociopolitical challenges, and society's (mis)perceptions of Asian Americans—remains strong today, despite the fact that it was written about forty years ago. Wakako Yamauchi unflinchingly and deeply explores the struggle of a young Japanese American girl and her parents to live in a country mired in overt ethnic and economic strife. Her characters are drawn with genuineness and integrity that allow audiences of all backgrounds to understand the dimensions of their labors and achievements in the context of a U.S. culture that never has been and never will be monolithic."

2. The Birds of Empathy by Clarence Coo



Birds of America, Plate 76, by John James Audubon, photo courtesy of RestoredPrints.com

Jiehae Park, author of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo (currently running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), recommends this play. Jiehae writes: "Clarence's writing is the living embodiment of 'Still waters run deep.' I've encountered this play in several of its incarnations (from its beginnings, with Clarence at a table alone reading off notecards, to a full, beautifully realized multi-character world of memory and humans and birds). Each time, I'm amazed at the balance of delicacy and deep emotion in the play, which is full of compassion and tiny miracles."

3. Caught by Christopher Chen

Louis Ozawa Changchien in “Caught,” La MaMa, 2016; photo by Carol Rosegg

David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly, recommends this play. David writes: "Is this a play about Asian Americans, or Chinese nationals? Does it explore censorship in China, or liberal guilt in America? Does it portray political dissidents as courageous victims or shameless self-promoters? Is it really even a play at all, or more of an art installation? The answer in Christopher Chen's endlessly inventive challenge to our expectations is almost always: all of the above. This is a stunning investigation of our truth-challenged times, a show which continually blurs all the lines."

4. Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee


Dennis Yen, Arthur Keng, Aidan Park, Cindy Im, and Lisa Kang in "Ching Chong Chinaman," Impact Theatre, 2008; photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Jeannie Barroga, author of Banyan, recommends this play. Jeannie writes: "Matching the times' reflection on race over the past ten years, this gut-bust funny play is just refreshing. Blithely mirroring that taboo kitchen table, family-drama syndrome, Lauren's words surprise us with their go-lightly edginess and her identifiably ludicrous cultural traits. She challenges viewers to deny that the portrayals are as universal and iconographic as Miss American pie, consumerism, dismissiveness, filmic breaks-into-dance, and pursuits of status. Mix parody with drama? Can do."

5. Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery by Lloyd Suh


Jeffrey Omura and Jennifer Ikeda in "Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery," NAATCO, 2015

Kimber Lee, author of brownsville song (b-side for tray) (currently running at Shotgun Players), recommends this play. Kimber writes: "Ambitious, hilarious, full of rage, barely contained within a stylistically bold structure, Lloyd confronts the systemic racism faced by Asian Americans in a way I've never seen before. With his trademark intelligence and craft, he dismantles the racist imagery of Asians in film and theatre, using laugh-out-loud humor without softening the razor-edge critique of a culture in which Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. Completely unapologetic, brutally truthful, howlingly funny, and AsAm AF."

6. Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park


Jessica Ko, Eunice Hong, Paul Juhn, Amy Kim Waschke, Sean Jones, Cindy Im in "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo," Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2017; photo by Jenny Graham

Jeanne Sakata, author of Hold These Truths (currently running at the Pasadena Playhouse), recommends this play. Jeanne writes: "The mythical beginnings of Korea involving a tiger and a bear, a grandmother who commits suicide by jumping off a roof into the North Korean side of the DMZ, a rock band wannabe, a magical forest with the ghost of Kim Jong-Il, a mysterious stone in a bottle for Hannah, and an emotionally fraught trip 'back home' to Korea for her family. Jiehae Park's play tackles not only the intimate dynamics of a cross-generational immigrant family, but epic international themes as well—about social and national displacement, war, and alienation. A remarkable, whimsical, wholly original play."

7. Hatefuck by Rehana Lew Mirza



Leah Nanako Winkler, author of Two Mile Hollow (premiering at Artists at Play next season), recommends this play. Leah writes: "This is a very exciting new play that simultaneously critiques the representation of Muslim Americans in mainstream media while telling a crazy story about an intense and complex love affair that feels frighteningly universal. Rehana lets us into a severely entertaining sexual affair and  serves us with gut punches as soon as we get comfortable. The way she spits truth is incredibly nuanced, and I honestly learned a lot. She's an important voice who makes you laugh, examine, and pay the fuck attention."

8. A Language of Their Own by Chay Yew


"A Language of Their Own," Checkpoint Theatre, 2006

Elizabeth Wong, author Kimchee & Chitlins, recommends this play. Elizabeth writes: "I've taught this play in a gender and sexuality theatre class. A relationship play that untangles the mysteries of the fragile yet resilient heart, via a breakup between two men; their heartbreaking vulnerability and the poetry of their healing told with wit and insight. It's an AIDS play about sexuality that opened my eyes to the largess, the breadth, of the human experience, in searching for love and acceptance against the odds. Plus the play's choral structure makes this intimate play highly theatrical."

9. Muthaland by Minita Gandhi


Minita Gandhi in "Muthaland"

Nathan Ramos, author of As We Babble On (premiering at East West Players next season), recommends this play. Nathan writes: "A young boy asks his father how a spider could possibly weave a web between two trees flanking opposite sides of a dusty road. The father responds that the spider doesn’t intend to straddle the road, but simply leaps into the wind, trusting that its delicate footing will once again be found. Minita Gandhi plays this spider with vulnerability, triumph, candor, and aplomb in her one-woman show, Muthaland. Gandhi’s script straddles a multitude of worlds, each time pulling back the curtain to reveal the constructed wizards. Her journey asks questions of entrenched spirituality, the confluence of culture, and the clash of bestowed identity vs. the Frankenstein'd identity that every child of an immigrant faces in today's ever-changing winds of society. Seeing the woven spider silk tapestry that Gandhi’s Muthaland weaves is quite the marvel."

10. Yankee Dawg You Die by Philip Kan Gotanda


Stan Egi and Sab Shimono in "Yankee Dawg You Die," Playwrights Horizons, 1989

Prince Gomolvilas, author of The Brothers Paranormal, recommends this play. Prince writes: "Though it was written more than 25 years ago, this play is remarkably relevant today. Philip treats the hot-button issue of Asian-American representation in the media with equal parts careful analysis and intentional provocation. He expertly grounds his arguments in flesh-and-blood characters—grizzled screen veteran Vincent Chang and wide-eyed up-and-comer Bradley Yamashita—whose big struggles and small triumphs will move you deeply."

11. Any Play by Christopher Chen

Michael Uy Kelly, Michelle Talgarow, Matthew Lai, and Patricia Austin in "Mutt," Impact Theatre, 2014; photo: Cheshire Isaacs

Philip Kan Gotanda, author of Yankee Dawg You Die, recommends any play Christopher Chen. Philip writes: "If there is one writer who I am very impressed by it's Christopher Chen. I've been following his work for a while now and find it exceedingly smart, brave in a way only other playwrights would get, and dramaturgically ambitious. Yet always writing within himself. (Forgive my sports terminology.) Each work I've seen is different, at times radically so, and, even when he is less than successful, you can see his reach growing, the relentless intellectual and aesthetic curiosity that brought him to that point. Chris is at early to mid-point of what will be a long and impactful career. He is also a very decent human being."

Isn't that a fantastic list? Yes? Yes! You're welcome.

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BAMBOO NATION: 11 Asian-American Playwrights Recommend 11 Asian-American Plays
11 Asian-American Playwrights Recommend 11 Asian-American Plays
Which contemporary and classic plays do these Asian-American playwrights recommend? [THEATRE ROUNDUP]
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