Josephine Lee (left) is a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Lee edited the new book, "Milestones in Asian American Theatre" (right). Credit: Josephine Lee and Routledge

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This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

In September, MPR News aired a story about theater in the Twin Cities, which was offering an unusually wide selection of Asian-centered plays. 

Now there is a new book on the history of Asian American theater. The project, which features chapters written by 10 different scholars, was edited and lead by University of Minnesota professor Josephine Lee. Arts reporter Jacob Aloi sat down with Lee to discuss the book.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was your role in the book, and how did it come together? 

I was asked by Routledge, which is a press in England, to be part of a series that they are making on what they call “accessible textbooks.” They approached me and asked me to do one on Asian American history, of Asian American theater history. 

I was asked to bring together a number of scholars. They didn’t want just a monograph by one author, they wanted a variety of viewpoints and so I went out and found contributors.  

A number of us, years ago, had gotten together and wanted to create a resource for students using the materials that we teach in our courses all the time, centered around Asian American performance and theater history. 

So, this was something that we’d been talking about but didn’t really have an opportunity to think about as a coherent kind of project until now. 

In the book, it’s much more of a “here are historical events that have happened, that have affected Asian communities in America. And therefore, it influences the kind of work that they create.” Why was that the direction that you went in?  

We settled on the idea of a kind of question of how does Asian American theatre map onto Asian American history and vice versa. We did that, because we assume that the people reading this might not necessarily be doing it because they were immediately kind of interested in Asian American theater. 

We wanted to give a lot of different people an entry point into this. And I think we all had this kind of interest in why in Asian American culture, meaning literature, theatre arts and more generally, why is history so important? 

Was it a concerted effort for you in writing this and contacting contributors, that you wanted to get a more broad version of Asian American theatre and Asian American history? 

Absolutely, I think that’s a great point. I think with “Asian American,” just as a category, that one applies to identities.

You know, all of us who are Asian American realize that, in some ways, we don’t necessarily identify first as a racial group. I think it’s a term that sometimes fractures even as you try to use it. And we’re very aware, I think, that the ways in which it came into being as a term are also not all the same.  

The book includes different milestones that have to do with different ways in which people came to the United States from different parts of Asia. And that includes not just East Asia, which one often assumes as a kind of major point of Asian America, but also Southeast Asia, also South Asia. There is a chapter on post 9/11 about Asian American and Arab American playwrights. 

I think we wanted to acknowledge, again, that Asian Americans are a very diverse—but also constantly changing—group of people. 

I’m curious what the book has shown you that the future of Asian American theater might be, keeping in mind everything that’s happened throughout history, but even more recently with COVID. 

I think it shows, in some ways, two things: one is a cycle of marginalization that unfortunately continues. So, in the chapters on post 9/11 Islamophobia that Dan Bacalzo wrote, and then Christine Mok’s chapter on COVID-era theatre and what does that mean for Asian Americans, I think there is an awareness of certain kinds of typecasting of Asians in the United States as the yellow peril, as the unwanted unassimilable foreigner. That typecasting still persists, right? And we see it in anti-Asian violence, which unfortunately, has resurged again, under COVID conditions.  

But I think the other side of it is, for me, an idea of resilience and inventiveness. These chapters are both about the historical moments in which these concerns arise about racism, but also the ways in which playwrights respond to them creatively. I don’t think you can have acknowledged one without also acknowledging the power of the other. 

What are your hopes, in readership? Who are you looking for, to pick up this book, and read it and begin the journey of learning more about Asian American theater? 

Well, I think it would be wonderful for people to just browse through. I hope it’s accessible. I hope it’s something that people would just want to pick up, even if they’re not a student in a class.  

And I feel that way, because I think we’re still at the beginning of Asian American studies as an academic field—and as a young field, I think it’s exciting because it’s pretty new, and there’s a lot of opportunity for people to come in and be part of it. 

The book, “Milestones in Asian American Theater,” is available through Routledge.  

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Jacob Aloi

Jacob Aloi is an arts reporter for MPR News. He was previously involved in the performing arts, podcasting and community radio before coming to MPR News.