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If not Broadway, where?

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.

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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.

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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.”

‘Opportunities are paltry’

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Ask a dozen mainstream producers about Asian American theater, and nearly all say the same two things: “I don’t know much” and “What I do know is David Henry Hwang.” After a pause, they add that the outlook for cracking the general theater scene is bleak.

“Opportunities are paltry,” says Margo Lion, whose credits include the current hit “Hairspray.” “I’m interested in creating a more representative theater, but many other producers don’t see it that way.” Instead, they concentrate on bottom lines and say they haven’t found enough good plays or performers to cast in them, while acknowledging that writers and actors cannot hone their craft without chances to work.

Not many people believe there is a viable audience base, outside of the West Coast, either of Asian Americans or others who will attend Asian American plays. (The League of American Theatres and Producers estimates that 4% of Broadway audiences are Asian Americans.)

Artistic directors and producers face hard questions when it comes to bringing Asian American shows to larger venues, says Gordon Davidson of the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum. “There only are so many spots and while there’s a lot more work being done and a lot more actors, there’s only so much out there ... and you want to resist the idea of doing one thing from each ethnic group just to do it.”

Having grown up in the era of diversity subsidies, the middle generation of playwrights jokes about who gets what they call “the chink slot” at various major houses each year, claiming quality can get lost in the politics of correctness.

“I say thank God for ‘the chink slot,’ ” says Yew, ever the contrarian. “I wish we could get more organic, but I’m just glad anybody wants to do the work.”

He says Asian Americans “tend to assimilate well. We don’t support our own theater. Someone will say, ‘I want to see ‘Mamma Mia!’ but if you mention a playwright like Alice Tuan they’ll say, ‘Uh, will that be something serious?’ and turn away.”

While the Public Theater in New York and a few other off-Broadway institutions have championed Asian Americans, regional companies are seen as the biggest hopes for change, especially with the emergence of artistic directors who view Asian Americans as a natural part of their theater’s life.

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The Taper and its Asian workshop, for instance, have presented more than three dozen readings, workshops and plays, including the world premiere of the new “Flower Drum Song,” and offer content to small companies that lack the resources to develop their own material.

Asian American stage artists also name Hwang as their most powerful influence and cite his ability to excel artistically and commercially -- most with admiration, a few with arched eyebrows.

A dream deferred

The man who wrote the novel “Flower Drum Song” really had wanted to write a play. C.Y. Lee fled war-torn China in the 1940s and enrolled at Yale drama school, but an agent told him: “Forget that Chinese stuff. It won’t sell in the American theater.” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II turned Lee’s 1957 book into a Broadway musical, which was the first mainstream theater attempt to portray Asian Americans as other than exotica.

“Flower Drum Song” ran for nearly two years, became a splashy Universal movie and then fell into oblivion, a victim of protests about cultural caricatures and worries about casting.

Hwang credits a risk-taking producer with helping him end Asian America’s Broadway drought in 1988 with “M. Butterfly,” his story about a Frenchman’s affair with a Chinese transvestite. The play was a surprise hit, won a Tony, and “I suddenly became a ‘proven’ Broadway writer,” Hwang says.

Nonetheless, it took a decade for his Chinese family history “Golden Child” to open in New York. (His other play closed in previews.) Then it took six years to convince backers that his new “Flower Drum Song” could sell tickets.

Another milestone came in the early ‘90s with “Miss Saigon,” but not because of the show, which was criticized for its stereotypes. Its star, Lea Salonga, won a Tony, and the firestorm sparked by the casting of a white actor as a Eurasian pimp was a rare rebellion led by a historically quiet community.

Hwang’s sharper “Flower Drum Song” is Asian America’s best chance for Broadway success, an important prospect because, as Eng says, “we’re finally getting to be seen as Americans, but we’re not part of Americana.” Whatever its flaws, Broadway is Americana.

“If you keep being the barbarian at the gate, you have to keep waiting for someone to open the gate for you,” Yew says. “That’s why I love Asian American theater. You don’t have to keep pounding on the doors. You just keep creating new work.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dire ‘Drum Song’

“Ever since Marco Polo, the Orient has exerted a steady and growing influence on the Western imagination. I need only mention the names of Stevenson, Gauguin, Lafcadio Hern, Sax Rohmer and W.C Fields to indicate how much our civilization owes to the ancient cultures of the East. Our debt was increased last week by the arrival at the St. James Theatre of ‘Flower Drum Song,’ the new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein II. In this case, I fear, what we owe is not gratitude but an apology.... Perhaps as a riposte to Joshua Logan’s ‘The World of Suzie Wong,’ Rodgers and Hammerstein have given us what, if I had any self control at all, I would refrain from describing as a world of woozy song.”

-- Kenneth Tynan, the New Yorker, Dec. 13, 1958

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Different artists, different concerns

Asian American theater artists fall roughly into three waves, each with its own thematic concerns.

First Wave

Writers: Frank Chin,

Wakako Yamauchi

Plays: “The Chickencoop Chinaman,” “The Year of the Dragon,” “The Music Lessons,” “And the Soul Shall Dance”

Themes: The politics of ethnic identity.

Second Wave

Writers: David Henry Hwang,

Philip Kan Gotanda

Plays: “F.O.B.,” “M. Butterfly,” “Sisters Matsumoto,” “A Song for a Nisei Fisherman,” “Yankee Dawg You Die”

Themes: Bridging the old world and the new world.

Third Wave

Writers: Chay Yew, Prince Gomolvilas, Diana Son

Plays: “Red,” “A Language of Their Own,” “Wonderland,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Big Hunk O Burnin’ Love,” “Boy,” “Stop Kiss,” “Fishes”

Themes: Asian-ness becomes a subtheme.


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