Recently my friend took me to a performance by the National Asian American Theater Company. The group puts on shows that are “not for or about Asian Americans, but realized with an all Asian American cast”. We went to see Leah’s Train, which is about three generations of Russian Jewish women dealing with intergenerational family issues. Needless to say, there were no other 24 year old males in the audience.
Because this isn’t a review, I won’t go into details about the quality of acting (somewhat mixed) or the plot (except to say that there’s kind of a twist halfway through the show that has enormous metaphysical implications and creates a number of weird time paradoxes, but the author is sadly uninterested in exploring those issues.) What I am concerned with, and what I kept thinking about during the show, is the question of why. Why put on a show about Russian Jews and cast Asian people? What value is there, either artistically or or otherwise, in doing this?
Artistically, if there was some purpose in using Asians to tell the story of Leah’s Train, I missed it. Having never seen a NAATCO performance before, I came with the expectation that the director would use the juxtaposition of “non Asian play/Asian cast” to make some sort of statement. There was a bit of that, when I caught myself thinking that one of the characters really resembled a lot of yuppie Asian people that I know, and realized that the qualities I associate with yuppie Asians are actually true of all yuppies. But somehow I don’t think that was the intended message of the show. In fact, after looking through some of their other performances (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Our Town, Othello – one wonders how they put that one on) I don’t think they intended for this juxtaposition to send any message at all.
Even without any artistic benefit, I think there’s some social value in what NAATCO does; we always hear about how there aren’t enough Asian Americans in the media, and judging from the fact that the theater is located on the third floor of an obscure building, I’m not naive to think that an obscure and not particularly well funded theater group is going to change that. But I do think that NAATCO, by its very existence, encourages Asian people to participate in the arts. At one level I mean this literally, in that NAATCO gives Asian actors another stage to perform on.
But I’m also saying something bigger than that; when I was growing up, all the Asian adults I ever met were doctors, or scientists, or engineers. This created a belief in my head that only those career paths were open to me, and things like theater and the arts were for other people. Then I stumbled upon the Stanford Asian American Theater Project, a theater group on campus founded by David Henry Hwang that, like NAATCO, put on shows with mostly Asian cast members. It was a revelation to me because it made me realize that art is created by and for Asian Americans, and that it’s vital to the health of the Asian American community. This is a message that I think gets lost, or underappreciated, and NAATCO’s doing its part to put it back on the forefront.