In 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 149 percent in 10 of the nation’s largest cities. And 58 percent of Asian Americans say they more frequently hear people express racist views about Asians since the COVID 19 outbreak.
Hate crimes against Asians unfortunately have a long history in the United States, but for many the impact is hitting closer to home during the pandemic. References to the “kung flu” and “China virus” reinforced conspiracy theories making Asian Americans targets of hateful language and violence, including random assaults on city streets and the murder of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in a killing spree at massage parlors in Georgia. A white man was charged with the latter, but no hate crime designation has been assigned to the murders.
In response to the violence, there have been frequent marches, vigils and social media blasts to #StopAAPIHate (Stop Asian American and Pacific Islanders Hate).
Many celebrities of Asian descent, including Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Mindy Kaling (Never Have I Ever creator), Gemma Chan and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) and Lana Condor (To All the Boys franchise) took to social media to condemn the violence.
“We need to stop the dehumanization of Asians. We need to stop the scapegoating of Asians for COVID. We need to unite against all forms of hate,” Chan wrote on Instagram.
Among those participating in the response is the national advocacy Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists which in March announced an initiative to combat the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence, including a video featuring “leading lights” of Asian American performing arts denouncing hate, demanding accountability and launching the #HadaBadDay hashtag to collect incidents of hate against Asians.
Several Asian American theaters also opened their buildings as spaces for healing and creation of art in response.
The anti-Asian harassment and violence also prompted Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union representing professional actors and stage managers, to release a statement condemning the anti-Asian bias.
“Equal protection under the law is a core American value, and a core value of Actors’ Equity Association. The current pandemic has revealed and compounded the systemic bias that so many vulnerable communities face in their everyday lives. … Anyone who uses the current coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to make the situation even worse and perpetuate hate against vulnerable communities should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
The rise in Asian violence in the past year also casts new light on the slow progress to fix invisibility and objectification of Asians in theater and on-screen.
According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), in the 2018-19 New York theatrical season, Asian American actors were cast in 6.3 percent of all available roles, Asian American playwrights and musical theater writers made up 4.9 percent of all writers produced and Asian American directors oversaw just 4.5 percent of all productions.
These statistics and the Georgia violence prompted this statement from the AAPAC: “In our own industry, we have witnessed this same white supremacist narrative in the form of the exotification, dehumanization, and erasure of Asian men and women on America’s stages. Words matter. Representation matters. The perpetuation of hideous and inaccurate stereotypes, only seeing our stories via a white lens, and removing us from the American narrative through exclusion are all directly connected and have their ramifications. They dehumanize us to the point that some believe we are expendable enough to further erase with cold-blooded murder.”
Popular productions, such as Miss Saigon, The King and I and Madama Butterfly have come under criticism as perpetuating the sexualization and dehumanization of Asian women.
In an ironic twist, according to an article in American Theatre, right before the pandemic theater closure, New York City was experiencing a surge in Asian American playwrights being produced on stage including Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee, The Headlands by Christopher Chen, Endlings by Celine Song and Suicide Forest by Haruna Lee.
The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, noting its organization’s past history as a predominantly white institution, has caused “real harm and trauma,” consciously or subconsciously, that impacted its students, staff and audiences.
The group said it would “strive to share stories about and told by a diversity of voices in order to open hearts and minds, to build empathy and lead to a stronger community.”
In April, more than 25 Los Angeles-area theater companies revoked their memberships in the L.A. Stage Alliance after the nonprofit group mispronounced the named of Asian actress Jully Lee and showed a photo of another Asian actress while announcing her nomination at the Ovation Awards.
Theater companies and performing arts centers around the country, including The Straz, have published mission statements recommitting to a more inclusive workplace and representation on stage.
However, many in the theater world concede that progress is too slow and remedies will take a longtime to take root.
Jeffrey Lo, a Filipino American playwright working in the San Francisco area, who has experienced prejudice and been told “to go back where he belongs,” said it is easy to feel like “perpetual foreigners and not Americans” due to onstage and onscreen portrayals that have frequently been villains or aliens. “We need to promote three-dimensional people with full lives. We as artists should be the first step in combating hate crimes and racism because we can create empathy,” he told SFGate, a San Francisco-area publication.
Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin, founders of Final Bow for Yellowface, an initiative to eliminate offensive Asian stereotypes onstage, showcased a different dance piece from a choreographer of Asian descent every day in May 2021 in 10,000 Dreams: Virtual Choreography Festival.
Pazcoguin, a soloist at New York City Ballet, said most major ballet companies have taken Final Bow’s pledge to reject orientalism and racism in their work but, she said, it’s not enough to just reject these tropes — something culturally meaningful and engaging must take their place.