May is a month to celebrate the history, culture and accomplishments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In 1978, the U.S. government proclaimed the seven-day period starting on May 4 as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week,” in honor of two historic events that occurred during this time: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States in May 1843 and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869, which involved many Chinese workers. Then in 1990, President George H.W. Bush expanded the weeklong celebration to a month, dedicating all of May to be “Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.”
But May is also a time to recognize the challenges that Asian Americans face. One important yet often overlooked issue in the Asian American community is the dearth of Asian Americans in the performing arts. The issue first entered the American consciousness about 50 years ago, when theater companies such as East West Players and Asian American Theater Workshop were created in the 1960s and 1970s with the specific aim of promoting Asian American representation in theater in response to the racial discrimination that Asian Americans faced in the performing arts. There were few roles designated for actors of Asian descent, and extant Asian roles were often very racist and stereotypical. In addition, Asian roles were often given to white actors who would wear make-up that accentuated stereotypical Asian features, a technique called “yellowface.” This phenomena elicited controversies in major productions and films, such Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon and The Good Earth.
Despite the progress that Asian Americans have made in their visibility in the performance arts, lack of Asian American representation in theater still remains a topic of concern. For example, the casting of the 2012 production “Nightingale” in Southern California elicited controversy, with critics pointing out that only two Asian Americans were cast in a play specifically set in ancient China. This recent controversy demonstrates the continuance of the discriminatory phenomena “yellowface.” Meanwhile, the disproportionate underrepresentation of Asian Americans cast in theater productions in New York, even in comparison with other minorities, continues to be a point of dispute.
Several Harvard undergraduates are tackling this issue by creating a new Asian American theater group on campus called “The Dis-ORIENT Players,” whose mission is to “encourage more Asian American participation in the performing arts, as well as to “[spark] dialogue on broader issues of cultural awareness.” The name of the organization possesses much symbolic meaning. According to Karoline Xu, the founder and director of the organization, the hyphen signifies the “hyphenated lives of Asian Americans,” in which Americans of Asian descent are never considered fully American. Meanwhile, the word “dis-ORIENT” has two meanings: a play on the word “oriental,” a term considered offensive by many Asian Americans, as well as a reference to the idea that Asian Americans’ “double lives” can be disorienting.
Xu first conceived of the idea for the theater group last semester when she became involved in Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and learned about theater groups on campus that focused on specific cultures, including Black Community and Theater (BlackC.A.S.T.) and Harvard College TEATRO!. “I realized that there was no outlet for Asian-American specific performances,” Xu told the HPR. “There is so much talent in the Harvard community and I really wanted to harness that into an organization that promotes Asian American culture through theater and give performance opportunities to interested students without previous experience.”
The organization plans to become officially recognized by Harvard College in the upcoming fall semester. Their first production, called “The Secret to Raising Successful Children,” will focus on modern issues that affect Asian Americans, such as family and cultural tensions and societal expectations. After this production, the organization will continue to hold different productions that address Asian American historical and cultural issues each semester. All students, not just Asian Americans, are welcome to join the staff or audition for roles in productions.
Just as a theater group for black Americans and Latino Americans are important on campus, a theater group tailored to Asian Americans also proves necessary. The Dis-ORIENT Players will provide a much-needed space in which students can open up dialogue about issues that affect the Asian American community, share Asian American experiences and help Asian Americans shape their own identity and image. Such discourse will help challenge the discriminatory “oriental” image often imposed upon them by society, defying the racial stereotypes that hyper-sexualize Asian women, emasculate Asian men and portray all Asians as subservient.
Moreover, encouraging Asian American students to become involved in theater will help break down potential barriers for participation and ultimately help increase visibility of Asian Americans in the performing arts. Even at Harvard, lack of Asian American actors in student productions is evident. The casting for productions is usually very white-dominated, particularly for major roles, and very few minority actors, let alone Asian American actors, can be seen. The exact source of this underrepresentation of Asian Americans in theater is unclear. It could be attributed to lack of Asian Americans who audition, perhaps due to discouragement in Asian families or culture to join theater, the lack of Asian American actors on stage who can serve as role models or the inherent belief that Asian Americans will not be cast in major roles. It could also be attributed to inherent bias on the parts of casting directors who refuse to cast Asians, not only for roles that are specifically designated for Asians, but also for non-race specific roles or roles in which race is specified but does not inherently matter, a decision that may be influenced by audience perception. Most likely, it is a combination of both. Either way, it is important to encourage Asian American participation and help break the cycle of Asian American underrepresentation in theater.
The establishment of an Asian American theater group at Harvard symbolizes a step forward for Asian Americans in achieving racial equity in theater. By serving as a venue for Asian Americans in theater, The Dis-ORIENT Players will help foster diversity and promote cultural awareness in the Cambridge community. Harvard undergraduates, whether of Asian descent or not, should join the organization in the fall as a staff member or audition to be a performer. By doing so, they can support the effort to increase minority involvement in theater.
Photo credit: Audrey Magazine