Asian American Theater in Seattle

The recent census data reveals that Seattle is one of the “whitest big cities” in the country. Sixty-six percent of the people who completed the census here specified they were White. Interestingly enough, Seattle also has the most diverse zip code in the country. Fifty-nine different languages are spoken in South Seattle’s 98118 zip code. This is the interesting dichotomy that is Seattle and our theatre scene reflects that same duality. The majority of plays being produced by the majority of companies in Seattle are still predominantly “White,” yet we have a number of small companies, many working together in various ways, that represent a very diverse segment of our local population.

As someone who grew up in Seattle, I can personally attest to how whitewashed it is. Even after four years of being very active in my high school’s drama program at Nathan Hale, and having gone regularly to see the productions at Roosevelt and Ballard (the two premiere theatre programs in the city), my exposure to theatre was very broad, but also incredibly white. I still shake my head remembering how, upon entering college, my goal as an Asian American actor was to be in the top Asian American plays— Flower Drum Song, Teahouse of the August Moon, The King & I and South Pacific. The fact that these were all musicals or plays written by dead white guys didn’t even raise a question mark in my head back then—because this was the only exposure I’d ever had to anything diverse in the way of theatre.

So, imagine my surprise when I entered the University of Washington (UW) and joined an Asian American theatre troupe called Asian Students in Action Now (ASIAN) where we wrote and developed our own theatrical pieces to address a lot of the political issues of the day from an Asian American perspective and performed them at political rallies throughout the city; got involved with the Seattle Group Theatre, which was housed at the UW’s Ethnic Cultural Theatre; and got cast in the world-premiere of an  Asian American musical produced by the Northwest Asian American Theatre that was going to be the first show opening up the Theatre Off Jackson in Seattle’s International District. Wow. My mind was blown. For the first time in my life I was learning about the experiences and history of Asian Americans in this country, about issues that had a huge impact on me, and most importantly, playing roles that finally made sense and were relevant. It was a huge culture shock—learning that as a woman of color, I actually had a history and heritage that was not white or Asian, but Asian American.

or the first time in my life I was learning about the experiences and history of Asian Americans in this country, about issues that had a huge impact on me, and most importantly, playing roles that finally made sense and were relevant.

And what was most exciting was that, while there were quite a few Asian American Theatre classics such as FOB by David Henry Hwang or And the Soul Shall Dance by Wakako Yamauchi that I had the opportunity to perform in, the majority of plays I got to work on were new. In college, through The Group, I remember how thrilling it was to meet some of the “hottest” playwrights in the country. Each year, The Group hosted a Multicultural Playwrights Festival and I got to work on scripts by José Cruz González , Velina Hasu Houston and Alvin Eng and actually meet and work with these writers. These were stories by and about people of color, people who saw the world through a lens that I could identify with.

I eventually landed a job as the only paid staff person for the Northwest Asian American Theatre and during my time there, what I was most proud of was helping to develop a season that not only showcased Asian American “classics” but also new work by emerging playwrights (solicited through an annual playwrights contest) and commissioned work. And it was during this time that my career as an “accidental” playwright came into being.

Even though Asian Americans comprise the largest people of color community in Seattle, for a variety of reasons, we simply don’t have a lot of people in the community writing plays. Gee—could it be because we rarely, if ever see any plays by people of color, let alone Asian Americans on most of the local stages in the area? If people think it’s tough making it as a playwright in general, try making it as an Asian American playwright. What happened was, we would brainstorm ideas of what plays we wanted to see, but the challenging part was finding someone actually willing to write them. Besides our playwriting contests, I begged local writers (we actually do have a decent local community of Asian American novelists and poets), I set-up playwriting workshops with playwrights such as David Henry Hwang and Chay Yew, and finally out of desperation I actually wrote a play myself.

It wasn’t great, but it got decent reviews (I had to use my strength as a director to camouflage my weaknesses as a playwright). And that’s when I discovered that sometimes you can’t just wait for someone else to write your story. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

Over the years, I was blessed with getting to work on new scripts (mostly at the Seattle Rep during Sharon Ott’s tenure, who I must say did a lot to support Asian American playwrights not only at the Rep, but also at the Berkeley Rep) written by David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda, Chay Yew and Julia Cho. Even though I was an actor in those script development workshops, it was probably some of the best training as a writer I could have ever received.

Eventually, I would create my own company, SIS Productions, with a group of other Asian American women. We started the company because we wanted to create a new theatrical series about Asian American women in relationships. One of the things we realized was that in 2000, when we started SIS, while there were a lot of scripts couched in Asian American history or about Asian American families or even Asian folk and fairytales, there were very few scripts about the contemporary Asian American experience—about what Asian American friendships or dating or marriage was like. And while most people might get these stories on TV as opposed to on stage, the reality is that even now in 2012, there is yet to be an on-going TV show where the main characters are Asian American, so why not put it on stage first? So we did and Sex in Seattle was born. Currently celebrating its 20th episode to full houses, it’s a theatrical series that speaks to Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans because it offers cultural nuances specific to Asian Americans that most plays in Seattle simply do not provide.

So what needs to be done to provide more of these opportunities? While we are lucky to have a number of script development programs or playwright-centric groups in the area, more needs to be done to reach out and encourage more diverse voices to participate in these opportunities. SIS does have a writers group and several of the writers have gotten their scripts produced locally and nationally. One of the original writers in the group, Kimber Lee, is even participating in this year’s Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival. Several of the race-specific groups like SIS Productions, eSe Teatro and New Voices Ensemble Theatre provide opportunities for local writers of color but to truly grow and develop their skills, these artists need more professional opportunities to work with experienced mentors and dramaturgs. This year The Hansberry Project is hosting eSe Teatro, Pratidhwani and SIS Productions at ACT for a 2nd year for Represent! A Multicultural Playwrights Festival (inspired by the original ones The Group had). This cross-pollination of theatre companies to develop new work by multicultural playwrights in a professional setting is a perfect next step towards introducing new voices to ACT’s patrons.

If “all the world’s a stage” then isn’t it about time we saw more of the world on our local stages?

Seattle may only be thirty-four percent multicultural but one third of a population is a lot of new audience worth reaching out to and the first step towards reaching them is to offer plays that speak to them. And to do that, we need to be more pro-active about developing the playwrights that represent these communities. If “all the world’s a stage” then isn’t it about time we saw more of the world on our local stages?

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Love that this blog entry was written by a first-timer to the show:"the feel of SIS is completely different and unique. “Sex in Seattle” is a dynamic and bold play . . . creating a far more realistic description of life as an Asian-American" http://www.to-kill-a-bloggi...

Great Article Kathy, what an inspiration. Its also good to know The Hansberry Project is hosting Represent again. I look forward to it. Our stories are American Stories and yes this means truly apart of this country, not a guest in the living room admired like a museum piece. Americas real history tells that story. As I look at my children and the changes in our country and the world, the train of change is on the track, and moving to a new place.

Nice piece, Kathy, and congrats on SIS's latest.

The Hansberry Project is thrilled to be able to host REPRESENT! again and we hope to be able to make it happen for many years to some. It is an investment that will pay off with more stories entering the public square for all audiences to share. It is important the companies like ours and artists like us insure that the AMERICAN-ness that Roger speaks of includes us and doesn't become simply the new euphemism for the old "universal".

"...sometimes you can’t just wait for someone else to write your story. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself."

Amen! Seattle is richer for your work.

I think part of what needs to happen is for white theaters to realize that they're white. Most white people I know -- and I used to be one of them -- thought there was this general culture that everyone shared, and then there were these "exotic" sub-culture enclaves.

Do you remember that playwrights and directors forum at Seattle U some years ago? How someone high up in a large theater here (I won't use names) said he didn't understand why more people of color didn't come to his theater, because "theater is universal?" I was so glad you were there to point out that *theater* is universal, but particular plays speak to particular communities.

I think the thing to remember is that these are AMERICAN stories. They aren't stories of marginalized people, or quaint exotic stories that have nothing to say to audiences. You find the universal with specific details. ANY theatre can tell these stories---if they think about it and if they want to.

As a surveyor of Asian American theatre across the country (www.aatrevue.com), I'm seeing all sorts of successes and stories told both within and without Asian specific theaters. People (not just ethnic specific people) are hungry for those stories, and, as we've all seen with shows like "Girls", they're apparently only found on the stage.