• Creatively Asian

Asian American Theatre


The Start of Asian-American Theatre - Starting in the 1960s, young Asians started taking charge against the stereotypes and racism found in the entertainment industry, especially with Broadway theatre roles. A group of actors, led by the Japanese-American actor Mako, founded the first Asian-American theatre company known as the East West Players. Their success was followed by actor Frank Chin’s Asian American Theatre Workshop which worked to promote Asian-American playwrights and create more roles for actors of Asian descent. Groups like the Theatrical Ensemble of Asians, Northwest Asian American Theatre, and the Ma-Yi Theatre Company worked to sponsor more Asian-American theatrical styles which helped so many aspiring Asian American actors during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.


Asian American Actor Movements and Protests - Many Asian American actors struggled to get employed by big playwrights, as many plays included a predominant white cast. More white actors were cast to play Oriental roles than Orientals themselves which caused a backlash among many Asians in the industry. For example, controversy spread when a British actor was chosen to play the role of a half Vietnamese engineer in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. Activist groups such as Oriental Actors of America and the East West Players surfaced along with many protests led by Asian representatives like BD Wong, Tisa Chang, and David Henry Hwang. Although the fight to gain more Asian American representation in the theatre business was a long and hard one, the movement was so important in gaining equal rights for aspiring Asian actors and playwrights in the years to come.


Famous Asian-American Plays and Playwrights:

  • The Chickencoop Chinaman by Frank Chin (1972) - This was the first ever play written by an Asian American to gain major production in New York City. It’s about Tam Lum, a Chinese filmmaker, who’s working on a documentary about an African American boxer named Ovaltine. He meets with the boxer’s father, Charley Popcorn, in Pittsburgh to talk about his son, and in the meantime, stays with his Japanese friend, Kenji. He meets many difficulties along the way with his friend’s personal life, but this play aimed to erase any negative stereotypes about Chinese Americans, portraying Tam Lum as a hero in the face of adversity.

  • M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (1988) - This was the first ever Asian American play to become a Broadway production in New York City. This story was connected to the opera Madama Butterfly, and focused on the connections between Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat, and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking opera singer. It opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre and gained lots of recognition in the late 1980s, winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988.

  • Allegiance by Jay Kuo (2012) - This musical was composed and lyricized by Jay Kuo and was based on the book by Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione. It takes place during World War II, focusing on the Japanese American internment and personal experience of George Takei. It follows the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and narrates the experience of the Kimura family as they’re relocated to California and, later, Wyoming. This play first premiered in California in 2012, and later played on Broadway from 2015-2016.

  • Straight White Men by Jean Lee (2014) - This play focuses on the social views of straight, white men that were collected by Jean Lee. She held a workshop where she questioned minority groups such as women, African Americans, Hispanics, and the LGBTQ community about how they viewed this specific majority group. The general opinion she gained was that most straight, white men were aggressive, opinionated, and unaware of the prevalent social issues. Lee decided to make a play on this topic which centered around the interactions of three American men who came back to their family home during the Christmas holidays. The play made its Broadway premiere in 2018 at the Hayes Theatre.

Asian American Actors on Broadway:

  • Jin Ha (2017 Broadway revival of M. Butterfly)

  • Phillipa Soo (2016-2017 production of Amélie)

  • Ali Ewoldt (first Asian American women to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera)

  • Eva Noblezada (West End revival of Miss Saigon)

  • Diana Huey (played Ariel in the 2017 version of The Little Mermaid)

  • Telly Leung and Adam Jacobs (2017 production of Aladdin)

  • Conrad Ricamora and Jon Viktor Corpuz (2017 production of The King and I)

  • Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon - 1991 and Allegiance - 2012)

Tony Award Winning Asian-American Plays, Actors, and Playwrights

  • 1988 Best Play (M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang)

  • 2013 Best Musical (Kinky Boots produced by Yasuhiro Kawana)

  • 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award (Ming Cho Lee - scenic design)

  • 2004, 2011 Best Original Score and Best Musical Book (Avenue and Book of Mormon - Robert Lopez)

  • 2015 Best Musical Performance by an Actress (The King and I - Ruthie Ann Miles)

  • 2017 Best Musical Producer (Dear Evan Hansen - Raymond Poliquit)

  • 1991 Best Actress in a Musical (Miss Saigon - Lea Salonga)

  • 2014, 2014, 2013 Best Musical, Best Revival of a Play, Best Play (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, A Raisin in the Sun, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike - Jhett Tolentino)

  • 1988 Best Featured Actor in a Play (M. Butterfly - BD Wong)

  • 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award (Baayork Lee)


Originally created and posted on Instagram by Meera Nair. Click to go to the original post!