The Public Theater, New York City, NY. [Image: Billie Grace Ward / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)]

Halted by COVID-19, Asian American Theater Deserves a Moment in the Spotlight


When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered stages, it disrupted a pivotal moment for Asian Americans in theater. For just a few weeks in the spring of 2020, productions written by and starring Asian Americans seemed poised to capture the New York City stage. Nine plays by Asian American playwrights were in production, an unprecedented number in New York City theater; all were cut short or cancelled by the pandemic. Despite the immense challenges posed by COVID-19 shutdowns and rampant anti-Asian hate, Asian American playwrights and actors have returned to the stage, sharing rich performances that center themes including identity, belonging, and young adulthood.

Originally slated to open in March 2020, Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play returned to the stage in February 2022 and ran through March. At the center of the play is a cardboard and papier-mâché puppet, a simple yet dynamic form that represents the narrator, a 6-year-old boy who is adopted from South Korea by an American family and then “re-homed.” Jung, a Korean playwright, was first drawn to theater while studying abroad at New York University. Wolf Play originates from her interest in telling stories of people who are “unrooted” and lacking a strong sense of where they are from, a theme that resonates with many communities, including adoptees and immigrants.

While Wolf Play tells the story of a young boy searching for belonging, Out of Time highlights Asian American actors over the age of 60. The show consists of five monologues, which explore subjects including grief, cancellation, and adult children. This spring’s production, which concluded its run at the Public Theater in March, showcased the talents of older Asian American actors, who have often been sidelined alongside their white contemporaries.

Finally, the west coast production Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical, is distinguished as one of few musicals to focus on South Asians in the United States. The fast-paced dance musical follows a biracial college student who forms her own bhangra group. The musical’s choreography incorporates bhangra—which originated as a traditional folk dance in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan—as well as Bollywood, hip-hop, jazz and ballet. The central conflict in the musical stems from the tensions between tradition, innovation, and the complexities of biracial identity. “This show is so connected to who I am,” said lead actress Ari Afsar, whose father is from Bangladesh and whose mother is German-American. “The show is beyond the idea that representation matters—it’s to the point of: You belong.”

Through puppetry, monologues, and dance, theaters showcase the multi-faceted Asian American experience, creating opportunities on stage. In June, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), a group of AAPI theater creatives dedicated to inclusive theater, was presented the 2022 Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre. “We all hope that the visibility from this honor will only increase exponentially,” said Christine Toy Johnson, AAPAC committee member. Despite the recognition of the AAPAC, there were only two Asian Tony Nominees this year, both for lighting design. The closing of Asian-led shows, like Wolf Play or Out of Time, reflects the need to sustain visibility. As new performers take the stage, it is important to shine a spotlight on Asian American theater.

Olivia Zeiner-Morrish is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from Trinity College with a B.A. in Political Science.