Through research and writing about theater, Dr. Esther Kim Lee uncovers largely untold stories of Asian American history.
“In theater, we have to talk about representation, how we see each other, about perceptions, how stereotypes exist as well as this long history of anti-Asian violence,” said Lee, who is professor of theater studies, international comparative studies and history as well as director of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies Program at Duke University.
“My class dealing with history, it’s much more real,” she continued. “Theater is a communal experience. It also has a very therapeutic element to it. Theater in many ways can be a healing place too. I hope the students who study with me don’t just stop at learning about the violence, but what we can do to support each other. What can the arts do to heal and help us see a better future?”
As an undergraduate at the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, Lee was a computer science major. She needed one more general education course to graduate, and wound up taking dramatic structure, a complex course with Dr. Bert O. States, a well-known theater theorist. It changed her life, and she told States that she wanted to continue studying with him, which she did, earning a master’s degree in dramatic arts from UC Santa Barbara and then a Ph.D. in theater history from The Ohio State University.
“General education courses are very valuable,” said Lee. “They expose students to different fields.”
Lee said that she has been blessed with amazing mentors. In addition to States, she mentions her doctoral advisor, Dr. Thomas Postlewait, a renowned theater historian. He made extensive comments on her writing, and she credits him with teaching her how to be a good writer and thinker as well as a theater historian.
“I do my best to write very clearly; I try to avoid jargon if I can,” she said. “I try to explain in the most clear way.”
Theater is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses art, literature, history, design and more, Lee notes. She loved the flexibility, and it was clear that theater history allowed her to study Asian American history. To this day, she always finds new areas to explore and examine.
Stepping into a scholarship void
In graduate school, realizing there were virtually no books on Asian American theater history, she began interviewing Asian American theater artists around the U.S. Her research became based on their stories. For her first book, A History of Asian American Theatre (2006), she interviewed over 70 people.
“Especially early playwrights, in the 1960s and 70s, they wrote about Asian American history because Asian American history is still not taught in most of our public schools,” Lee said. “Starting with Japanese-American internment camps to the transcontinental railroad built by Chinese laborers, the Chinese Exclusion Act, there are so many moments in Asian American history that are not dramatized. Asian American theater has dramatized and shown people on stage telling the stories that should be told in their communities.”
Also, because laws excluded people from becoming naturalized citizens, Asian Americans were excluded from the imagination of what the U.S. should be, Lee notes. Cultural representation, film, television and theater were filled with stereotypes, and characters were often played by white actors in yellowface. This led to an exclusion of actual Asian American experiences in dramatic representation, which she details in her most recent book, Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era (2022).
“What theater allows is to really showcase the actual Asian American experience with actual bodies on stage,” Lee said. “That is something so radical if you look at the history of the U.S. That is why it’s so powerful.”
While Asian Studies have existed at colleges and universities for decades, Asian American Studies is an emerging field over the past decade. Lee joined the faculty at Duke University in 2018 and is pleased to report that Duke recently established a minor in Asian American Studies.
She studies Korean diaspora theater, investigating people who left Korea and went elsewhere, particularly the U.S. and Canada. Lee edited a collection of plays from the Korean diaspora in the Americas, and discovered that many playwrights who are dramatizing those experiences are still haunted by Japanese imperialism in Korea, the Korean War in the 1950s and other traumatic experiences of Koreans in the 20th century, even though they are second and third-generation Americans or Canadians.
“This younger generation is still dealing with that sense of loss, sense of being displaced, sense of not knowing who they are,” Lee said. “There’s something really particular about the Korean experience that I was surprised to find. I’m very interested in discovering in more detail what those experiences are."
Lee further notes that successful contemporary playwrights focused on the Korean/North American experience also explore the lack of belonging — existing in a subliminal state between Korea and the U.S.
As a theater historian, she does archival research, interviews and attends plays. Lee tries to write from her Korean American/Asian American perspective. She examines historical topics, which are generally the focus of her books (five to date), and contemporary topics, about which she has written many articles, including her thoughts on the premature closing of the “KPOP” musical on Broadway, which, as she personally witnessed, brought in a young and diverse audience.
Theater critics and diversity
American theater is often driven by what critics say, especially in New York City, such as with the “KPOP” musical. Lee found the harsh comments about the show lacking in context and cultural insight. Lee notes that the majority of theater critics are heterosexual white men, and she often disagrees with their reviews. Some of her articles argue against reviews and provide what she considers corrections.
“I’m interested in thinking about how to decolonize theater history,” she said. “How to write theater history not from a Eurocentric and kind of urban centric point of view about what it means to write it from the perspective of those who are immigrants, not living in urban areas, not professionals, who may be amateurs in community theater. There are alternative ways to look at theater.”
However, despite the obstacles, there are champions of Asian American theater who are receiving attention. At the recent Academy Awards, actor James Hong, 94, whose more than 150 film and 250 television credits date back decades, was in attendance as part of the cast of the film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” In 1965, Hong co-founded East West Players in Los Angeles to increase Asian American representation. It is the first Asian American theater company and the longest continuously running minority theater in the U.S. In the 1970s and 80s they presented multiple Japanese internment camp plays.
“Theater is live; you are in a space with everyone,” said Lee. “To experience a new world that you’re seeing on stage in real time and to laugh or cry together, that communal experience is incredibly powerful. To me, it’s the best way to promote empathy. It makes us see the humanity in each other.
“Stereotypes dehumanize people,” she continued. “It reduces humans to two-dimensional things. What theater can do, especially when you have characters that are real and nuanced and feel authentic to the audience, it humanizes people in a really powerful way. Students come to my class and read plays in which they’re represented in [the] most nuanced and humanistic way. They see themselves in these plays. … As a teacher, that’s something incredible to hear from students. Those are the moments I live for.”