Shows by Asian-American and Middle Eastern playwrights to see in New York
In early 2020, New York theatre was doing something unprecedented: producing nine plays by Asian American playwrights. The New York Times even made note of the momentous occasion, which was unfortunately cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a theatre lover of Asian descent, I was afraid that once the theatre reopened, that moment would be forgotten and not replicated, especially because the presence of Asian-American theatre is more important now than ever.
Conrad Ricamora, an Asian-American actor currently starring in Little Shop of Horrors off Broadway, was part of this 2019 movement when he performed in Soft Power at The Public Theater. “Can you imagine if we were doing Soft Power right now, with the uptick in the Asian hate crimes that have been happening?” he said. “I always had this sense when we were doing it that the audience didn’t fully feel the impact of David Henry Hwang getting stabbed while grocery shopping [an incident that happens in Soft Power but also happened to Hwang in real life].
“I always got the sense that the audience was just like, this is bad, but it’s just one person. Like, it’s not that bad for Asian Americans. And now we see yes, it fucking is. It is really bad for all of us to be walking around in these bodies, in this culture, in this country, because of the hate that we receive. It’s just been exacerbated in the last two and a half years.”
Though this problem persists, my fears that Asian theatre would be forgotten have luckily not come to fruition. This spring, there are seven plays by Asian-American and Middle-Eastern writers premiering in New York, after a fall season featuring notable plays such as Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play and Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul.
This spring’s plays run the gamut from small, quirky works to big-budget historical epics. And many of these playwrights are newcomers to New York theatre.
“I think historically, as Asian Americans, our parents seem to have told us to just keep our heads down and work hard, and don’t make a fuss,” Ricamora said. “But … We do need to speak up and have our voices heard.”
With multiple plays speaking to the Asian experience, New York theatre is now allowing that to happen. The month of May is known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but Off-Broadway theatre is showing us that celebrating Asian heritage is something that you should devote an entire season to.
The Chinese Lady
Lloyd Suh’s play has been extended at The Public Theater until April 10, and for good reason. The show is about the first Chinese woman to set foot in America and is also about America’s history of marginalizing and violating Asian bodies. But it’s not a bummer of a play; the luminous Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac (of Showtime’s Billions) keep the mood light and inviting with their banter. But beware, The Chinese Lady starts off like a friendly history lesson but will leave you breathless by the end.
The Vagrant Trilogy
The Vagrant Trilogy was supposed to premiere in 2020 at The Public Theater, but then Covid-19 happened. But I’m glad the Public was committed to premiering this epic three-and-a-half-hour play by Mona Mansour. I saw a version of The Vagrant Trilogy a decade ago, and I was so drawn in by the story of a Palestinian scholar who goes to London and, when war breaks out at home, must decide whether to stay in London as a refugee or go home. The Vagrant Trilogy expands past the play I saw and presents the consequences of both decisions, If/Then-style. It’s an ingenious concept, spanning four decades with eight actors playing 19 roles. The Vagrant Trilogy runs from April 8 to May 8.
Snow in Midsummer
Classic Stage Company is known for reviving Western dramas, but its Eastern portfolio has been lacking. But this play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig promises to change that. Snow in Midsummer is based on a well-known Chinese play by Guan Hanqing about a young Chinese woman who is wrongfully executed. As she prepares to die, she places a curse on the town that she lives in, which in Cowhig’s retelling bears similarities to climate change. I’ve loved this play since I read it years ago and have followed its trajectory from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Fun fact: Katie Leung (Cho Chang from the Harry Potter series) played the vengeful ghost Dou Yi in London, so Snow in Midsummer is witch-approved! Snow in Midsummer runs May 19 to July 9.
Wish You Were Here
Iranian-American Sanaz Toossi made a splash in February with her Off-Broadway debut play, English, at Atlantic Theater Company. The show drew rave reviews for its touching and complex portrayals of Iranians. This makes Toossi’s other big play this season, Wish You Were Here, even more anticipated. Wish You Were Here is about the lives of five Iranian women living through the Iranian Revolution in the 1980s, and Tossi says it’s is a love letter to her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. Western representations of the Middle East and its women tend to be one-dimensional, regressive, and exoticized. Toossi’s work, at Playwrights Horizons from April 13 to May 22, promises to change that.
Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King is more well-known abroad than in New York; she’s worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London, and her play Golden Shield premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company. Now, Golden Shield marks her New York debut. The play takes its title from the Chinese firewall and surveillance system, which blocks websites like Google and YouTube from being viewed in China.
The ambitious story, presented at Manhattan Theatre Club’s biggest Off-Broadway stage from April 26 to June 12, is about an Asian-American lawyer filing a lawsuit against an American company working with the Chinese government’s Golden Shield. It’s a heady concept, but it’s structured as a family drama, with the lawyer having to overcome her past differences with her sister when she hires her as a translator.
What You Are Now
Sam Chanse’s work was already featured twice this season, in Out of Time at the Public Theater and P.S. at Ars Nova, so she’s an up-and-comer to watch. What You Are Now is about a young woman trying to help her mother process her traumatic memories of the Khmer Rouge. The play is also an exploration of generational trauma and how memory can be unreliable. It may seem like a big topic, but Ensemble Studio Theatre specializes in getting younger writers to explore messy topics, usually to thrilling results. What You Are Now runs through April 3.
The invitation I received for this new play came with this line: “Fearing danger to their family in China, and charges of subversion, the author of the play is forced to remain anonymous.” I’m assuming the playwright is Asian, and my interest is piqued. Tiananmen Requiem is about a gay couple living during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and its ramifications on their family. The playwright is risking their life to get this play produced, which means attention must be paid. The Players Theatre is mounting this show through March 27.