Asian Canadian Theatre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Asian Canadian Theatre

Asian Canadian theatre started early in the 20th century with lavish performances of traditional Cantonese operas. Today, Asian Canadian playwrights like Ins Choi address the struggles of everyday life in Canada.

Asian theatre has its roots in Canada as far back as 1933, when the Chinese United Dramatic Society began performing elaborate Cantonese operas in Toronto. At its height, the company produced two shows annually, featured lavish costumes and brought in professional actors from the United States and Hong Kong to augment the local cast of actors. Similarly, the Korean community, which immigrated to Canada only after 1965, began its activities with Kook-dan All (Theatre All) in the early 1980s, producing large-scale Korean dramas annually for its Toronto audience.

The Filipino Community

In the Filipino community, Carlos Bulosan Cultural Workshop (CBCW), founded in 1982, focused on immediate issues of life in Canada. Originally formed as the cultural wing of the CAMDI, the North America-wide Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship, CBCW was influenced by the tradition of popular theatre in the Philippines. Named in honour of a Filipino-American writer and social activist, CBCW's inaugural production, Carding (1984, 1986), dealt with the life of a Filipino immigrant in North America. Performing in both Tagalog and English, CBCW attempts to bridge the divide between the first- and second-generation members of its community.

Driven by producer Martha Ocampo, writer/director Fely Villasin and playwright Voltaire de Leon, CBCW has produced numerous shows and workshops including: If My Mother Could See Me Now/Inay Kung Alam Mo Lang, about the plight of domestic workers (1989, 1990);Home Sweet Home, about domestic violence in the Filipino community (1993); and Noong Kapanahunan Ko ... Not On My Time, about intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding (1994). CBCW has built links with popular theatre groups Ground Zero and The Company of Sirens, and was one of the few community theatres to achieve the transition to full professionalism.

The Canasian Artists Group

Outside of the Filipino community, theatre that reflects the Asian experience in Canada has developed in fits and starts. Canasian Artists Group mounted Asian Canadian Rick Shiomi's Yellow Fever (1983), and Asian American David Henry Hwang's Obie Award-winning play F.O.B.(1984). The company then went dormant, resurfacing with a production of one of Hwang's early works, The Dance and the Railroad, in 1993. In Vancouver, the Firehall Theatre has been the centre for Asian Canadian theatre, mounting several of Rick Shiomi's works including Play Ball, Rosie's Cafe and Yellow Fever, and Wen Jee's Powder Blue Chevy, to receptive audiences. In Winnipeg, Enemy Graces, by Sharon Stearns, dealing sensitively with the Japanese internment, was produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985.

The best-known Asian Canadian playwright of the 1980s, Rick Shiomi, was first produced in the United States, then remounted in Canada. Original Asian Canadian plays mounted were few: Winston Kam'sBachelor Man at Theatre Passe Muraille (1987), Wen Jee's Powder Blue Chevy at the Firehall (1990). Cahoots Theatre Projects mountedThe Phoenix Cabaret, two biting political satires by contemporary Chinese writer Xie Min (1986). Sansei North Productions presentedSong of the Nisei Fisherman by American writer Philip Kan Gotanda (1987).

In the 1990s, Hwang's Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly received mainstage productions at theatres across the country from 1991-1993. Young People's Theatre invested significantly in Asian talent with Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa. Adapted to the stage by Paula Wing, Naomi's Road played with great success, receiving four Dora nominations. With the opening of Miss Saigon in 1993, Asian actors were employed in greater numbers than ever before. Miss Saigon, however, raised heated debate within the Asian community. Protests led by the grassroots Asian ReVisions charged that Miss Saigonre cycled racial stereotypes.

New Asian Canadian Theatre

The development of new Asian Canadian works and writers was still relatively weak in the 1990s. Nightwood Theatre contributed through the development of works by Beverly Yhap, Betty Quan and Jean Yoon through its Groundswell Festivals. Workman Theatre Projects in Toronto developed and produced Terry Watada's Tale of a Mask, about the isolation, despair and suicide of a Japanese immigrant (1993). The intercultural Cahoots Theatre Projects inaugurated its annual new play development program Lift Off '93! by workshopping several works by Asian playwrights as part of its program. M.J. Kang's Noran Bang: The Yellow Room was presented as part of Cahoots's 3D festival, bringing Korean-Canadian issues to the stage in the fall of 1993.

In Lift Off '94, Cahoots developed two Asian works, Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl by Edmonton writer Marty Chan, and Mother Tongue by Betty Quan. Mom, Dad was produced in 1995 under the direction of Sally Han. Betty Quan's Mother Tongue, a drama about a family divided by language - Chinese, English and sign language - received a full production at Vancouver's Firehall Theatre in 1995. Quan's other works include Nancy Chew Enters the Dragon, produced by CBC Radio Drama, and The Dragon's Pearl, produced by YPT in the spring of 1995.

While Noran Bang, Mother Tongue and Mom, Dad each reflect different styles and concerns, they all speak to Asian Canadians who are distanced from their parents by language and personal values. A community of Asian theatre artists - director Sally Han, designer Ange Zhang, choreographer Xing Bang Fu, composer Donald Quan - have risen to the top ranks of their professions. In the 1990s, Asian Canadian theatre found its voice. In 2002 fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company was founded in Toronto. Its notable productions include Banana Boys by Leon Aureus (2005), Singkil by Catherine Hernandez (2007) and Lady in the Red Dress by David Yee (2009).

In 2011, Korean-born Toronto playwright Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience debuted at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Set in a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, the play was staged by Soulpepper Theatre in 2012, winning two Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards — one for Best Actor in a Play for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s performance and one for Best Canadian Play — and earning a nomination for Outstanding New Play from the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Published by House of Anansi Press, the play toured Canada from 2013 to 2014. In October 2016, a television series based on Kim’s Convenience premiered on CBC Television.