Asian American theater began as a sub-group of a tradition that includes two larger genres of minority theater, African American and Latino theater. Like Latino and African-American theater, Asian-American theater had its roots in the cultural moment of the 1060s. Asian Americans, frustrated with anti-Asian feeling during the Vietnam War, wanted to combat the War's perceived racist basis and its negative impact on the self-perception of all persons of Asian descent. Mirroring the intellectual and political labor of African Americans activities of that period, Asian American began their own politicization of identity. Asian American took academia as their focus. They began strikes at institutions such as San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley, seeking the creation of Ethnic Studies departments and the decentralization of administrative power (Kurahashi 10).
Unlike African-American and Latino theater, however, "Asian American theater began not only as a form of social critique, but also as the means to serve a somewhat less exalted and pragmatic need: the desire by Asian American actors to perform in non-stereotypical roles. Asian American theater cannot be separated from its beginning as creative outlets for actors frustrated with their treatment by the television and film industries"(Esther Lee 23). Although Asian American playwrights were creating works for the stage from the beginning of establishment of Asian American theater-houses, leading forces behind the creation of an established Asian American theater tradition were neither playwrights nor directors; they were actors. "Acting and performance, thus, play a key part in the establishment of Asian American theater, inviting a consideration of performance, rather than the text, as the foundational "primal scene" for its inception. From the very beginning, as they theorized their own identity and status within the larger social realm, Asian Americans thought of performances as an important element of counter-Orientalism"( 155).
Compared to other minority theatrical traditions, American theater did not emerge as a recognizable genre until relatively late. During the 1970s and 1980s, the output from Asian American playwrights was limited and small. Its two most representative playwrights Frank Chin and Wakako Yamauchi achieved some success, and great attention, but Asian American plays were considered from a mostly "anthropological" perspective, as windows into a large and powerful Asian culture and community (Lee 176). Lisa Lowe in Immigrant Arts reveals that the production of plays was still largely driven by actors searching for material, and these small regional theaters' reliance on arts grants and community funding encouraged works that had more social purpose than aesthetic ambition (170). It was not until the late '80s, with the work of David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, which Asian American theater began to be perceived as an artistically coherent and commercially known to the other world.
Philip Kan Gotanda (1951- ) a playwright whose historical importance, aesthetic contribution, and body of work merit larger attention and consideration from the critical community. According to Michael Omi, Gotanda plays "reveal a deep appreciation for both history and biography, and for the complex and intimate connection between the two" (introduction xi). Playwright Tony Kushner writes that Gotanda's work is "graceful, elegant, open-hearted and economical. His intentions are serious, his ambitions are worthy, and his observations about human nature are particularly acute" (qtd in Gotanda Cherry Blossoms 29). Gotanda's plays, however, remain grossly underexamined. Part of the reason lies with the plays' themselves, which feature some problematic representations of women even as the playwright claims to combat such misogynistic perceptions. The other reason is that Gotanda was famous and known by his forays into independent film writing and directing, as well as his large output (at the expense, perhaps, of the quality of each individual play). Nevertheless, Gotanda's body of work remains impressive, not just due to the large of subjects he has tackled (the Japanese American internment camps, the late '60s student protests, interracial relationships, internalized racism in the minority family, Asian American actors fighting against stereotypes, sexual politics, gender politics, race), but also the sheer ambition of his manipulation style and character as reflected in his most important work Fish Head Soup (1991).
The aim of this study is to highlight Gotanda's insights into the nature of the minority family, and more importantly, his use of acting and performance as a central to understand the question of race and Asian American subjectivity. Gotanda was fascinated by the notion of performance, engaging with the question of what it means to perform an Asian American identity onstage. In his works, Gotanda applies Shakespeare's notion that "all the world's a stage and all men and women merely players" to issues of minority identity, questioning how men and women are "merely players" when race is taken into account. This coincides with, as Harry Elam notes, a notable trend in recent times where scholarship on race has appropriated theories of performance and performativity: "Scholars, some even as they denigrate and deny the social power of theatrical performance, have considered whether and how race is performed. Outside as well as inside the theatrical arena, the application of performance theory to the subject of race raises awareness to the contingency of race and the ways in which race is cited, embodied, and enacted" (131). Gotanda concerns over the representation of people of color suggests an example of what Anna Deveare Smith refers to as stepping out of one's "safe house of identity" (125). This is reflected on Fish Head Soup which is a painful examination of the fears and anxieties circulating within the minority family. The play draws some tension from that pull between accepting the role offered by society, and challenging it; between performing race in the expected manner, and destroying it; between accepting alienation, and demanding connection. The characters in the play must make a choice in the end, one that determines their own future performance of race.