New Documentary Reveals Illuminating Perspectives on Asian American Theater Over the Past 20 Years

January 15, 2022

In The First Twenty: 20 Years of Asian American Playwriting, the voices and perspectives of six Asian American theater luminaries are brought to life through a series of thoughtful and engaging interviews that move far beyond identity politics.

The First Twenty, an initiative from ALL ARTS, invites artists from diverse and traditionally underrepresented communities to create original content that reflects their insights, discoveries and hopes for the future after the shifts of the last 20 years.

A Ma-Yi Theater Company production under the direction of Ralph Peña, The First Twenty highlights the perspectives of David Henry Hwang, Young Jean Lee, Mike Lew, Rehana Lew Mirza, Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee and Chay Yew.

Insightful throughout and at times disarming, this newest documentary illuminates the evolution of Asian American theater over the last two decades.

The film examines the shift in how Asian American plays are broadly perceived, as well as the widening scope of subjects tackled by Asian American writers that move far beyond identity politics.

At a time when Asian American representation in the creative arts is more important than ever, the artists featured in the documentary are presented with an opportunity to weigh in on personal experiences with racism and to provide valuable insight into why visibility matters.

For Qui Nguyen, who wrote the screenplay for Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, a big component of his work is made with his children in mind. One of his primary goals is to create work that inspires a new generation of Asian Americans to feel empowered by their roots through visual representation of strong Asian characters.

David Henry Hwang, Tony, OBIE and Grammy Award winner, speaks about the events of the past year serving as a call to action. “If the attacks of the last year [on Asian Americans in the United States] have taught us anything, it’s that representation is not just about visibility, but it’s also a matter of life and death. When we are portrayed as less than human, then it becomes much easier to hate us, to attack us and even to kill us.”

Art has the power to heal or destroy. Incite or nurture. Young Jean Lee comments on how events of the past few years have caused her to rethink the intended purpose of her creations.

“A lot of artists, including myself, we don’t like to preach to people with our art,” said Young Jean Lee. “We don’t want a clear moral lesson that people can take away. But what if that’s what’s needed right now? And it’s hard to tell what is needed sometimes because there’s just so much anger and hurt.”

Chay Yew, another featured interviewee, speaks about how, despite the large loss of life and community spurred on by the pandemic, this unprecedented disruption has affected our lives in ways that may prove to be positive in the end.

“I’ve been telling a lot of people that this is the disruption that you’ve been praying for, and you did nothing,” he said. “So our job right now is to rebuild, reconstruct new ways of looking, living and working. So I’m hoping that once we come out a lot more people, particularly the next generation of people, are going to say, I’m going to start creating my own theater, I’m going to create work that feels right, equitable. I’m going to find homes which mean something to me instead of going back and returning to what was before.”

The First Twenty: 20 Years of Asian American Playwriting premiered nationally on November 9. The documentary, as well as other First Twenty productions, will be available to stream for free indefinitely on the ALL ARTS website at Viewers can also watch via the ALL ARTS app.

Visit the link above to hear from Tony, OBIE and Grammy Award winner and Pulitzer Prize in Drama finalist David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly,” “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida,” “Tarzan,” the Broadway musical); playwright, director and filmmaker Young Jean Lee, winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship, two OBIE Awards and a PEN Literary Award, who was the first Asian American female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway; playwright Mike Lew (“tiny father,” “Teenage Dick”), a Guggenheim Fellow and Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence at Ma-Yi; playwright Rehana Lew Mirza (“A People’s Guide to History in the Time of Here and Now,” “Soldier X”), a Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence at Ma-Yi; playwright Lauren Yee (“Cambodian Rock Band,” “The Great Leap”); and playwright and director Chay Yew (“Porcelain,” “A Language of Their Own”).

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