(Cathy Park Hong’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/21; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
The cast and crew of “Wolf Play” were on their third day of tech rehearsals at Soho Rep in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were doing this complicated boxing scene, and we had the smog machine and the costumes, and it looked awesome,” said Hansol Jung, who wrote the play.
It was just days before the opening, and as the scene ended, the company’s three artistic directors came in and announced the production was closing. “They were crying as they told us,” Jung said. “It felt so weird saying goodbye to something that didn’t yet exist.”
Jung’s “Wolf Play” was one of eight productions of works by playwrights of Asian descent that were cut short or canceled in New York City this spring because of Covid-19. Just as these playwrights were finally ascendant in downtown theater, the pandemic not only aborted their moment but unleashed a wave of anti-Asian discrimination across the country.
As a Korean-American poet and essayist, I have witnessed a thrilling renaissance of Asian-American literature in the last few years that has kicked aside conventional tales in favor of stranger, more uncharted narratives. When I began writing in the early 2000s, the publishing industry mostly seemed to look at Asian stories as if they were testimonials of tragic immigrant lives. We were condescended to or treated like content farms.
Now I’m reading books by Asian-American authors that are as varied in style as much as content, and I was eager to see how this experimentation has spread to theater. But because of Covid-19, I didn’t have a chance to see any of these productions. I had to make do with their scripts.
Jung told me in a phone interview that she was used to a scarcity model. If a major theater programmed a play by an Asian-American, she used to joke that her chances were shot for a production there the next season. What a dream then that for a few weeks in 2020 so many Asian-American plays were up.
Subjects ranged from a Cambodian band to Korean divers; from international adoption to a Hitchcockian murder mystery. The plays are bold and often outrageous (I detected Young Jean Lee’s acerbic influence in a few scripts). From noir to porn to rock musical, these playwrights deploy genre to pickax their way into the nebulous inner lives of characters traumatized by migration, racism or genocide.
Favoring Brechtian devices over conventional realism, many of these playwrights write Asian-American characters with a self-conscious knowingness that they’re centering Asian bodies before a white audience. Often, they break the fourth wall or use multimedia — like Christopher Chen’s LCT3 production “The Headlands” — to unseat any preconceived notions thYESe audience may have of the Asian race.
“I think a lot of playwrights who want to get into the meat of racial issues use experimental theater to get underneath reality,” said Chen, whose noir-inspired play delves into the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco.
Sometimes, just as the audience identifies with characters, the playwright unmasks them, exposing the scaffolding of the plot. The goal is not to please, or to entertain, but to provoke.
An influential playwright who uses avant-garde techniques to explode racial myths is Young Jean Lee. Following on the heels of Reza Abdoh and Suzan-Lori Parks, Lee projects her own prickly unease about her race onto her audience through scathing satire and bait-and-switch plotlines.