Asian-American Theater Artists Speak Out

Pun Bandhu of AAPAC

In response to the killing last week of six Asian-American women in Atlanta and a rise in anti-Asian violence, AAPAC, the advocacy group for Asian-American performers, released a statement today that argues for a connection between these atrocities and “the systemic exclusion and the dehumanization” of Asian-Americans, including in the theater industry:  “Theaters cannot stand by and continue to be complicit in this violence. “

I asked Pun Bandhu of AAPAC what they hope the statement will accomplish.

” We hope to bring awareness that too often, Asian Americans are never part of the diversity conversation in this country. We want theater companies as well as individual artists, producers and administrators to become more aware of how our invisibility is really the product of a system that excludes us.”

I asked for examples of what the statement calls “the perpetuation of hideous and inaccurate stereotypes.”

“When you look at stereotypes such as Asian prostitutes in Miss Saigon or a people that need to be tamed by western mores in The King and I, or the Asian coolies in Anything Goes…the list goes on and on,” Bandhu replied. “We are always the Perpetual Foreigner and that creates an othering process. Our invisibility perpetuates negative stereotypes. We are very rarely the heroes of the story or role models and when we are cast, it’s very rarely in lead roles. Our upcoming report of the 18-19 season shows that in all of Broadway, there was only one Asian American cast in a leading role the entire season.”

The statement cites other preliminary statistics for under-representation during the 2018-2019 New York theater season. “Asian American actors were cast in just 6.3% of all available roles; Asian American playwrights, composers, librettists and lyricists made up just 4.9% of all writers produced and Asian American directors helmed only 4.5% of all productions.”

Statement below:

“We, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, stand in solidarity with our fellow artists and AAPI organizations and the rest of the world to mourn the loss of 8 lives on March 16th, 6 belonging to women of Asian descent.  We say their names to honor their lives and emblazon their memory in our minds.

                                             Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33

                                             Daoyou Feng, 44

                                             Xiaojie Emily Tan, 49

                                             Hyun Jung Grant, 51

                                             Paul Andre Michels, 54

                                             Yong Ae Yue, 63

                                             Sun Cha Kim, 69

                                             Soon Chung Park, 74

We also honor

      Pak Ho, 75

      Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84

      Noel Quintana, 61

They are but the latest victims in an alarming rise in violence against Asian Americans, particularly Asian women, over the last year. As an arts advocacy organization, we recognize that harm to anyone in our community affects us all. We also watch as the media continues to center the narrative of the shooter over the stories of the victims whose lives were so tragically ended. On March 17th, Atlanta Cherokee County Sheriff insisted that racism had not been proven in association with these crimes. We resoundingly reject this notion, given that all three spas targeted were owned by Asian women.  The burden of proof should not be placed on the victim nor should our community have to demonstrate how the targeting of immigrants and the hyper-sexualization of Asian women has led to this tragedy. 

In our own industry, we have witnessed this same white supremacist narrative in the form of the exotification, dehumanization and erasure of Asian men and women on America’s stages.  Words matter. Representation matters.  The perpetuation of hideous and inaccurate stereotypes, only seeing our stories via a White lens, and removing us from the American narrative through exclusion are all directly connected and have their ramifications. They dehumanize us to the point that some believe we are expendable enough to further erase with cold blooded murder. History is remembered by the stories that we tell and if our stories are silenced, so are we.

Our work at AAPAC has shown that our narratives are consistently minimized and overlooked. The victims of this tragedy were all at work, trying to earn a living during a time of duress and take care of their families who relied on them, but American storytelling rarely depicts Asian women as working members of our society, if they depict Asian women at all. Our stories rarely make it to the stage at all. Preliminary findings from our upcoming Visibility Report show that in the 2018-19 New York season, Asian American actors were cast in just 6.3% of all available roles; Asian American playwrights, composers, librettists and lyricists made up just 4.9% of all writers produced and Asian American directors helmed only 4.5% of all productions.  The Asian American theatre companies who have consistently been nurturing API artists, telling the stories that uplift and empower us and have been centers of healing and community are vastly underfunded in comparison to the larger, predominantly White theatre companies.

Theaters cannot stand by and continue to be complicit in this violence.  We know all too well that statements are empty without action, so we ask the following of all NYC theaters: How does your theater erase Asian stories? How does your theater contribute to problematic narratives that add to a culture of violence against the Asian community? How will you commit to the Asian community, not as a reflex in a state of emergency, but as foundational to the work of dismantling white supremacy? What will you do?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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