Category Archives: .Drama/Theater

The Year of the Baby and The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Year of the Baby and Year of the Fortune Cookie

When I read Andrea Cheng‘s The Year of the Book almost two years ago, I had no clue it would turn out to be a series! Such staying power bodes well that later printings of Book have been fully corrected; click on The Year of the Book post for details. And although original illustrator Abigail Halpin is missing from these subsequent two titles, Patrice Barton‘s similar style is just as whimsically entrancing.

In the second of the series, The Year of the Baby (2013) – the paperback edition pubs today! – Anna Wang is a year older and in the fifth grade. Her best friends are still Laura and Camille. She continues with her Chinese school, but Laura is now taking classes, too, even though “[s]he’s the only one in the whole school who’s not at least half Chinese.”

The biggest change in Anna’s life is the eponymous ‘baby’: Kaylee is Anna’s new sister, recently adopted from China. As adorable as she is, Kaylee is also stubborn – and getting her to eat is especially difficult. Even the doctors are worried that she’s not thriving, so Grandma arrives from San Francisco to help. Anna “[s]eems to have the magic” and, with Camille’s help, she figures out how to combine science and song to get Kaylee to open wide.

Next hitting shelves – in May – is The Year of the Fortune Cookie, in which Anna starts middle school (already!) as a sixth-grader. Laura’s moved to a nearby private school, leaving Anna convinced that Camille is her “only friend.” While Anna adjusts to the new year, her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sylvester – who was so thrilled and inspired to meet Kaylee in Baby – calls to say that she and her husband have been approved to pick up their new daughter in China. Although Anna and her mother had initially planned to join the Sylvesters together, Mrs. Wang’s schedule and finances don’t allow for the trip; instead the Sylvesters arrange to take just Anna as their cultural and conversational helper.

Anna arrives in Beijing with a “perfect” empty journal to fill from Camille, and 12 paper fortune cookies – to be opened each day she’s away from home – from her new buddy Andee. Between exploring Beijing with the Sylvesters, Anna makes a new Chinese friend and at visit’s end, miraculously visits the orphanage where Kaylee once lived. She also experiences defining moments in better understanding and appreciating her hybrid identity. Like the fortune cookie, she might be considered Chinese, but she’s actually an all-American multicultural creation.

Although all three Anna Wang titles thus far celebrate girl-powered fun, Fortune Cookie presents some challenges with basic plausibility: that the Sylvesters would choose an 11-year-old with limited Chinese proficiency to be their cultural emissary seems far-fetched (fluent Camille would have been the better choice); that Anna – herself a first-time visitor to China – seems to have so much freedom to roam the hotel, visit her brand-new, older friend’s family alone, not to mention to wander the streets without any supervision, feels fictional at best, downright irresponsible in reality. That Cheng’s younger readers might choose to emulate such adventures in any new city seems a reckless and dangerous possibility.

Potential overreactions aside, Anna has plenty of tween insight to share about friendships, siblings, school, and negotiating new experiences, both far away and closer to home. She – and the series – have plenty of room to grow. We’ll definitely keep watching … and reading!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013, 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Drama/Theater, Chinese American

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

Drama by Raina Telgemeier, with color by Gurihiru

Just so you have a little warning, tomorrow (September 1) is #DRAMADAY. That means veteran comics-maker Raina Telgemeier‘s latest book hits shelves tomorrow … and she embarks on her latest tour this weekend. Here’s the final word, now: Drama is even better than Smile, which won Telgemeier the 2011 Eisner for “Best Publication for Teens.” That’s like winning the Oscar already!

Need more to convince you to read? Meet Callie: energetic drama queen with purple locks who can’t take center stage because she can’t really sing, but she can make that stage as the middle school drama department’s premier set designer. This year’s musical is Moon Over Mississippi and presents as much drama off stage as on … maybe more!

Callie’s crushing on Greg, who kisses her one afternoon, then ignores her the next day. MEN! He’s on and off again with Bonnie, who gets the female lead in the show. Ugh. Thank goodness Callie’s got great buddies backstage, including her BFF Liz who’s in charge of costumes. New friends, the twins Justin and Jesse (last name Mendocino, café au lait-tinted on the page, hints that Daddy might be a bit Tigerish with academic expectations … implications might suggest that they are … Filipino American?), take to the stage (one on, the other off), and bring even more delicious drama to Callie’s already complicated life.

Telgemeier pulls off a supreme performance, filled with middle school angst, questions of identity, hidden feelings, and oh so much delightful humor. Through all that emotional roller-coasting, Callie manages to present a rather superb production herself – we’re talking fireworks! Literally. Standing ovation, please!

Tidbit: From Raina Telgemeier herself (and with her permission): ” … good eye – Jesse and Justin are, indeed, Filipino! Based on two of my very best friends. And their lovably crazy dad.  :) .” I done did some accurate sleuthing!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Nonethnic-specific

Asian American Plays for a New Generation edited by Josephine Lee, Don Eitel, and R.A. Shiomi

This is not your parents’ (or your grandparents’) Asian American theater. That I can even say that is proof of massive progress. What a difference a few decades makes … you won’t find any Japanese American internees or migrant farm laborers here, no Gold Mountain gold rushers or transcontinental railroad workers (although Charlie Crocker does get a sly mention).

Truly, these are indeed “plays for a new generation” – we’re talking 9/11 in Zaraawar Mistry’s Indian Cowboy, transracial adoption in Kurt Miyashiro, Rick Shiomi, and Sundraya Kase’s Walleye Kid: The Musical, Hong Kong handover in Aurorae Khoo’s Happy Valley, an APA Oscar nomination in Sun Mee Chomet’s Asiamnesia, the voiceless-no-more Hmong in May Lee-Yang’s Sia(b), a new kind of inter-Asian colonialism in Clarence Coo’s Bahala Na (Let It Go), and the over-the-top reclamation of just about every stereotype in Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman.

But before you let out that “WOW!” here’s another unprecedented fact about these plays to marvel over, as co-editor Rick Shiomi, the co-founder and artistic director of Minneapolis/St.Paul-based Mu Performing Arts, writes in his “Afterword”: “Mu Performing Arts participated in the development and produced the world premieres of all but one of the plays in this anthology. The question that comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this happen?’”

How, indeed! Really, we’re not talking either coast where most APA theater participants and experts tend to congregate – or at least we think they do. Even Shiomi confesses to his own initial concerns about the (very) few APA artists trying to “survive without an Asian American community” while “buried deep in the hinterland of the Midwest.” And yet, somehow, Shiomi’s Mu Performing Arts, founded in 1992, has grown into the second largest pan-Asian performing arts organization across the country. This marvelous book is irrefutable testimony to its not-so-quiet powerhouse status. The drama continues … hopefully for decades to come.

Tidbit: Come meet Rick Shiomi today at the Library of Congress! Click here for details.

For those of you who missed the event, his fellow panelist Lia Chang shares some of her photographic memories. Click here to view!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Migritude by Shailja Patel

Given the sheer number of books that arrive in the mailbox, I rarely pick up a title and start reading immediately. But something about Migritude (debuting from fabulous indie publisher Kaya Press: ‘Smokin’ Hot Books’!!) demanded ‘read me NOW!’ Once opened, I could hardly put it down.

Shailja Patel defies easy check-it boxes. She’s not quite African because even after multiple generations in Kenya where she was born and raised, ‘brown’ people can’t feel safe as they watch their Ugandan neighbors violently expelled during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. She’s not at all Indian as she’s never lived there in spite of Gujarati relatives. She’s definitely not British in spite of her UK college education. And she’s not quite American as real Americans are never made to wait a frightening four hours for parents to emerge through customs after they have been held without cause.

Her artist’s life, too, is not easily defined. She’s a poet, storyteller, performance artist, activist … and her first book reflects her hybrid, morphing creativity: “A battered red suitcase holds my trousseau – 18 saris collected by my mother, to give to me when I married,” Patel begins. “Migritude is the mantra that unlocks the suitcase, releases the stories.” She’s a peripatetic migrant with attitude to spare … welcome to Patel’s unique Migritude.

Those once hidden stories debuted to live audiences in 2006 and became a globe-trotting performance that combines the price of colonial history, family chronicles, mother/daughter exchanges, personal journey, and voices of women from around the world who dared speak out. From the imperialist commodification of Kashmiri into cashmere, mosuleen into muslin, ambi into paisley, the rebirth of chai as “a beverage invented in California,” Patel breaks open violent, destructive history, both distant and far too near.

To her performance recorded in ink and paper comprising the book’s first quarter, Patel adds a companion “Shadow Book,” which she describes as “an extended debrief with an old friend: an accounting of behind-the-scenes and after-the-fact stories, memories, and associations … to illuminate Migritude by offering context.”

In the third section, Patel includes the “poems [that] are the soil in which Migritude germinated” – from “What We Keep” that gives voice to a fragile elderly aunt teaching her to make “good puris,” to “Eater of Death” in which a desperate Afghani mother mourns her husband and seven children murdered by American bombs.

In the final, shortest section, Patel includes an “idiosyncratic” chronology of political and personal history, and ends with two interviews because “[a] good interview, like a good poem, throws up surprises and discoveries for its participant as well as for its readers.”

Lucky readers are certainly in for ‘surprises and discoveries’ here. Close the book and your first reaction most likely will be ‘I WANT TO SEE!’ Stay tuned: her skeletal website as of this writing is still under construction, but surely a tour schedule will be included … see you at the theater!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Indian African, Indian American, South Asian American

I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World by Eve Ensler, foreword by Carol Gilligan

As the mother of a teenage girl (and too-soon-to-be-teenage son, too, egads!), I vacillate constantly between nervous fear and proud elation. My daughter is a miracle in so many ways … as soon as she was able to speak (full sentences by 11 months, this wonderchild), the one reply I taught her early was “and I’m smart and strong, too!” for every time someone told her how cute, adorable, pretty, gorgeous she was (and, and of course, still is). And the words were made true. She is all of the above – and then some. She is, after all, an emotional creature …

Eve Ensler became an international force by giving voice to – no other way to say it – vaginas. Her defining one-woman show, The Vagina Monologues, was vaginal empowerment personified. She created V-Day, “a global movement to end violence against women and girls,” and has raised more than $70 million towards that cause.

In her latest creation, Ensler takes on the emotional lives of girls all over the world. “You are one of our greatest natural resources,” she directly addresses the ‘dear emotional creatures.’ “You possess a necessary agency and energy that if unleashed could transform, inspire, and heal the world.” What a rallying peace-cry!

With her signature frankness, Ensler gives voice to the nervous wannabe who doesn’t know what true friendship means, the pregnant teenager who doesn’t know how to tell her mother, a young girl discovering she’s not gay-not straight-she’s “Stephanied,” and a battered fan begging Rihanna to take back her Chris who still loves her even “after one bad thing.”

Out in the world beyond status symbol allure and privileged starvation and self-mutilation, Ensler finds a hopeless prostitute who is nothing more than “only flesh,” a kidnapped rape victim who will take her baby when she flees “because deep down you know she is yours,” a would-be suicide bomber who turns away from making “more missing pieces,” a factory worker mechanically assembling Barbie dolls who reveals that Barbie “feels bad about all the girls who are starved to make her and are starving to be like her,” and a village girl who refuses to be sold to an old man for “five cows and a calf.”

Ensler opens with a disturbingly questioning “You Tell Me How to Be a Girl in 2010,” and ends with a galvanizing and empowering “Epilogue: Manifesta to Young Women and Girls,” that clearly outlines “Here’s What You Will Be Told:” and answers with a defying “Here’s What I’m Telling You.” Girls – and their mothers – need to listen … and then be heard.

This summer, Ensler heads to Poughkeepsie for the Powerhouse theater festival (brought to you by Vassar and NY Stage and Film) to give livetime voice to her emotional creatures. Her work culminates with a free reading the weekend of July 30 to August 1 … mark your calendars. We should all be so lucky to bear witness …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Fiction, .Poetry

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, foreword by Frank Rich

Surely, I have never been part of a more raucous audience than when I saw David Henry Hwang’s latest play, Yellow Face, at New York’s Public Theater in December 2007. The man at the end of the row in front of us LITERALLY FELL OUT OF HIS SEAT from guffawing too energetically. I know you won’t dare ask, but you’re thinking it anyway … no, he wasn’t APA … he was as pale as pale could be. No one went unskewered, least of all DHH himself, who comes to life on stage as a character of the same initials. Two years later, reading the script thankfully proves almost as fun …

As rollicking as it is, Yellow Face is ultimately a multi-layered, mind-bending, assumption-busting theatrical accomplishment. It’s also true American theater at its best. “Though inevitably labeled an Asian American playwright,” writes New York Times former chief theater critic now major op-ed columnist, “Hwang has actually been among the quintessential American playwrights, period, of his time.”

The character-known-as-DHH begins the play at the tail end of a scandal: DHH’s leading man, Marcus Gee, has been outed as completely non-Asian. And, oh gasp, Gee’s yellowface posturing was orchestrated by none other than DHH himself: “… As for my own role in the story, some Asian Americans noticed, but they chose to forgive me for my mistakes,” DHH insists. Well, not exactly ALL: “David Henry Hwang is a white racist asshole,” perennial bad-boy Frank Chin‘s voice proclaims a mere few minutes into the opening. And thus the play unfolds …

Following the Tony Award-winning success of gender-bender M. Butterfly, DHH’s next Broadway effort proved an utter failure … written in protest against the 1990s yellowfacing of British actor Jonathan Pryce in the lead Eurasian pimp role of the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon, DHH’s Face Value closed before even making it out of previews. In a moment of supreme irony, NYT critic/introduction writer Frank Rich even has a moment of Yellow Face-fame as he defends “Jonathan Pryce’s brilliant performance … as essential to Miss Saigon.

In this revisionist history, DHH casts a certain Marcus G. Dahlman, not only putting Dahlman in yellowface, but baptizing him as a newly mixed-race Siberian-fathered Chinese American actor named Marcus Gee. Face Value closes but Marcus Gee becomes an Asian American hero, and almost immediately lands the part of the King in a spectacular-revival-with-finally-a-real-Asian-in-the-lead-role of The King and I which brings Gee fame and fortune, not unlike another yellowfaced actor named Yul Brynner who will forever be associated with the celluloid rendition.

Interwoven with the dramatic scandal is DHH’s touching immigrant father/American-born son relationship with his own father, Henry Hwang, captured here as HYH, a staunch believer in the American Dream even after he is wrongly maligned for political wrongdoing. The real-life elder Hwang’s story is not unlike that of Wen Ho Lee, whose mistreatment is also presented alongside HYH’s struggles, as two Chinese Americans with foreign faces who desperately try to clear their seemingly unAmerican names.

Through it all, the character-known-as-DHH continues to reexamine his own self, his own face – beyond labels, eschewing limits. He promises to try and write Marcus a happy ending, and as the play ends, he himself remains searching, “And I go back to work, searching for my own face.”

To read other posts on this blog about Hwang, click here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, Chinese American

The Silence of God and Other Plays by Catherine Filloux

Silence of GodPlaywright Catherine (pronounced Ka-treen) Filloux has built her dramatic reputation on giving voice to lost, overlooked souls.

In Lemkin’s House, Filloux presents the struggle of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish American lawyer whom she refers to as her “historical soulmate,” a man who coined the term “genocide” – as in “race-murder” – in the 1940s and risked all to have it recognized as an international crime. In The Beauty Inside, a Harvard-trained lawyer returns to her native Turkey to try and save the life of a 14-year-old ‘honor killing’ survivor.

Cambodia’s history of atrocity looms large in both Eyes of the Heart and The Silence of God. In the former, a newly arrived Cambodian immigrant suffering from psychosomatic blindness caused by witnessing the atrocities of the “killing fields,” helps her American eye doctor as much – if not more – to “see” as they come to share their lives with each other. In the title play, an American journalist travels to Cambodia to interview Pol Pot and learns too much about her own country’s complicity with the monstrous despot.

In the collection’s final play, Mary and Myra, Mary Todd Lincoln speaks from an insane asylum – a far cry from the White House – where she’s been shuttled off by her only surviving son. Lincoln’s friend, Myra Bradwell (reported by some to be the first woman lawyer in the U.S., although Arabella Mansfield apparently was granted permission to practice law in 1869, years before Bradwell was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1892) comes to her rescue to try and gain Lincoln’s freedom. Who has more sanity in that asylum is a question up for grabs …

This first, and overdue, compilation of Filloux’s signature plays hit earlier this year, offering a diverse mix of backgrounds and cultures contained within … and in her deft writing, characters who are silent no more.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, Cambodian, Jewish, Nonethnic-specific, Southeast Asian, Turkish

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays by Young Jean Lee

Songs of the DragonsYoung Jean Lee has made quite the career of being the bad-child darling of the theater world. Founder and director of her very own Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, Lee never hesitates in making her audiences squirm. No one is safe on her stage, including herself. Her debut play collection isn’t any different – the cover alone makes you cringe and then some.

The eponymous play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, is Lee’s signature piece. [And I'm still kicking myself for having missed its various incarnations. I have made it a point not to miss her other shows since, and am eagerly awaiting the script for The Shipment – quite the memorable experience in New York's Dixon Place earlier this season – which will be out in September. Watch this space.] 

Songs begins with Young Jean herself on video, getting slapped, reacting, and fixing her hair afterwards. She’s being filmed (in the projected video – layers abound in Lee’s work) and has to do it over and over again to get it just right. Then the actual show begins … and the first words from the first character on stage, a nameless “Korean-American” who is “looking cute in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers,”  begin in monologue: “Have you ever noticed most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents?” And it gets ever more outrageous from there.  

In the collection’s other pieces, Lee exposes religious leaders and followers in Church, self-helpers in Pullman, WA, English poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron in The Appeal, stereotypes of Asian villains (Fu Manchu and his daughter!) and overprivileged white people in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, and the one-man-showman without any answers in the very short Yaggoo. What did I say about no one being safe? All that discomfort has a reason, I’m convinced, even beyond shock value. Because, you can’t turn away, you can’t laugh it off … by curtain call (and beyond), Lee has really, really made you think … whether you want to or not. 

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under .Drama/Theater, Korean American

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature edited by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel

columbia-anthology-of-modern-japanese-literature

Volume 1: From Restoration to Occupation, 1868-1945
Volume 2: From 1945 to the Present

The two volumes together offer the most comprehensive overview of modern Japanese literature available in translation. Capturing the most turbulent period of Japan – from the opening of Japan to the Western world through two world wars to the post-World War II reconstruction and reinvention of the late 20th-century Japanese psyche – this anthology offers representative fiction, poetry, drama, and essays that portray a vast landscape of change, conflict, and innovation.

Review: “Windows: Asian Literature in Translation: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2007

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005, 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Fiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, .Translation, Japanese