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Making the Connection: AANPI and Theatre Ed

Look by Kristin Kouke - Smithsonian

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. First celebrated in 1979, it has evolved into an opportunity to be inspired by the culture and highlight the people and groups making a positive difference for broader representation in the world.

To celebrate, we’re shining a light on theatre makers and resources increasing representation in theatre and arts.

A Quick History: AANHPI Began as a Week

1977, U.S. House Representatives Frank Horton (New York) and Norman Mineta (California) introduced a resolution to institute Asian Pacific Heritage Week. Simultaneously, Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga (Hawaii) proposed the same in the Senate, which was then signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

We celebrate in May for two reasons: May 7, 1843, marks the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the U.S., Nakahama Manjirō. Also, May 10, 1869, marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S., which would not have been built without the many Chinese laborers who drove the spikes.

In 2021, the now monthlong celebration was renamed Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI).

Connecting AANHPI & Theatre Education

As educators, finding opportunities to draw connections between cultural celebrations and your theatre curriculum can be challenging. However, it often comes down to recognizing the work you’re already doing and finding new places where you can expand and create opportunities for Thespians.

Theatre Educators Empower Future Leaders

The Federal Asian Pacific American Council’s 2024 theme for AANHPI Heritage Month is “Advancing Leadership through Innovation,” and for many theatre educators out there, they’re already contributing to this goal.

Rosanna Gao is a Chinese American Thespian, advocate, and entrepreneur who served as an International Thespian Officer (ITO) during the 2021-2022 school year and is forever a proud member of Thespian Troupe 7486 (Great Neck South High School, NY). She now attends Yale University and serves on the Yale College Council’s Executive Board.

“I vividly remember practicing with my fellow ITOs to present in front of thousands of students at the International Thespian Festival. Learning to speak publicly and collaborate effectively is crucial in my business director role with YCC, where these abilities enable me to manage and guide our business team effectively,” she says. “As business director, I’ve led our team to develop new strategies that enhance the student body’s experience. One example is the creation of an incubator program to support and reward student entrepreneurs at Yale.” 

Revisit Gao’s feature written when she served as ITO about fighting against stereotypes in theatre. Gao also interviewed producer Emma (Yaya) Wang and wrote about Wang’s experiences producing theatre both in China and the U.S.

Check Out This New Playwright Festival

The Contemporary Asian Theater Scene (CATS), in collaboration with award-winning director and playwright Jeffrey Lo, announces the launch of its inaugural Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Playwright Festival. This one-day event (scheduled for July 27, 2024) offers workshops for writers, directors, actors, stagehands, and other theatre talent.

Lo is a Filipino-American who also works as an educator and advocate for issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. To see more authentic characters and stories that reflect a genuine experience of AANHPI peoples, we need playwrights of these communities equipped to tell their powerful stories.

Ke Huy Quan - Oscar winner an AANHPI Icon

Review the Gold House A100 List

This list recognizes the “100 Asian Pacific leaders who have most significantly impacted American culture and society in the last year.” It’s not just a list of actors, although Dev Patel and Keanu Reeves are among AANHPI actors named to this year’s list.

Michelle Yeoh made history in 2023 at the 95th Oscars. Yeoh became the first Asian actress to win the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once, and only the second woman of color do so after Halle Berry won for 2001’s Monster’s Ball.

Key Huy Quan became only the second Asian actor to win Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Everything Everywhere All at Once, joining Haing S. Ngor who won for 1984’s The Killing Fields.

Gold House Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that describes itself as a “cultural ecosystem;” a gathering of bridge builders. “Our cultural ecosystem cross-pollinates internally and collaborates externally, harvesting new opportunities across blended industries cultures, and continents.”

One day some of those students in your theatre education classes or theatre troupe may become bridge builders, too!

The Kim Loo Sisters

Meet the Kim Loo Sisters: Broadway Stars from 1939-1945

Award-winning author and filmmaker Leslie Li shines a spotlight on her mother and three maternal aunts in the documentary  The Kim Loo Sisters. The sisters were the first Asian American act to “break through the bamboo ceiling to star in Broadway revues and share top billing” with stars like Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, and Jackie Gleason.

Theatre Mu, in Minneapolis, Minn., in partnership with History Theatre (St. Paul, Minn.) is bringing the sisters’ story to life on stage during May 2024. The show is titled “BLENDED 和 (HARMONY).”

This short YouTube video gives you a sneak peek at the show with commentary from cast members and the director.

Through the Filter of Time

AANHPI Heritage Month supports the fact we still need educating, and it often starts with the content we’ve come to love. The film industry has often been guilty of perpetuating this culture with culturally insensitive troupes, typecasting, and a lack of representation. However, they’ve also made strides to improve.

Ke Huy Quan is a great example. Entering the industry as the little kid in Temple of Doom and Goonies, which have not always aged well when viewed through today’s social-justice movements, and the lessons we’re learning as a group of humans with a wide range of heritages. Yet today, he’s continued his artistic journey and earned an Academy Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Waymond Wang in 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Continuing to understand the many histories and cultures that make up the theatre world enables more realistic characters to appear onstage and deepens the storylines, so audiences get a clearer view of worlds they don’t understand.

We’re Better Together

Racism and hate crimes against people of AANHPI heritage continue. Hate isn’t backing down without a fight, and we can fight back against hate when we band together. Here are organizations gathering strength to fight back:

  • The Asian American Foundation’s mission is to reverse the longstanding under-investment in the Asian American community and address the root causes of discrimination.
  • Stop AAPI Hate is working to document incidences of AAPI hate and to dismantle the systems that allow it to persist.
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and its partner Kaiser Permanente, “collaborated to distribute $3.6 million to 33 community-based organizations via grants to combat the surge in violence against Asian Americas and to support the rights, health, and wellness of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities.”

So whether you’re shaping the leaders of tomorrow, finding theatre opportunities aimed at inclusion, or looking at existing content as a learning opportunity, there are plenty of ways to engage and celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month

Patty Craft is a regular contributor to the Educational Theatre Association.

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