Although the eight plays selected for the Refocus project this year were written in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) artists have been creating theatre for much longer. Below is an abbreviated history of AAPI theatre and a few major moments in AAPI history. This timeline focuses on the historical moments and organizations that have shaped the art we see today. Also included on the timeline are the premiere dates of all eight Refocus plays.
This is not an exhaustive timeline, and the definition of what constitutes AAPI theatre can be complex and varied. Included in the entries are links to the websites of some AAPI theatres and arts organizations that have supported and fostered numerous artists throughout the years. We encourage you to continue learning about the rich history of AAPI artists and to support the work of the theatres and art organizations by donating to them and by attending their productions.
1587 - Enslaved Filipinos ("Luzonians") arrive in Morro Bay, California on Spanish galleons.
Early 1800s – Large waves of Asian immigrants arrive in the US as a source of cheap labor working on plantations and construction projects.
1834 – Afong Moy, a “Chinese Lady” is brought to the US and put on display at the American Museum in New York City. Several plays, including Sun Mee Chomet’s Asiamnesia and Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, are inspired by Moy’s experience.
1850s – The Tong Hook Tong Dramatic Company tours the US, performing Cantonese opera to Chinese and non-Chinese audiences alike. As AAPI populations grow, ethnically specific theatres are opened in major cities.
1870s - Racist anti-Asian sentiment rises and continues to rise throughout the 1900s, resulting in widespread hostility and violence. Still, AAPI artists contribute to and thrive in American theatre and film despite the racism they face during this period.
1882 – President Chester A. Arthur signs the Chinese Exclusion Act into law which bans Chinese laborers, both “skilled and unskilled,” from entering the US. This is the first and only major US law implemented to deny entry to people of a specific national group.
1924 - President Calvin Coolidge signs the Immigration Act of 1924 into law. This act prevents immigration from Asia and places restrictions on the number of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The law governs immigration policy for the next 30 years and is not replaced until 1965.
1941 – Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, incarcerating 112,000 US citizens of Japanese ancestry in internment camps across the country. Numerous plays have been written about internment camps including Laughter and False Teeth by Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Gold Watch by Momoko Iko.
1960s – A wave of political awareness and civil rights activism brings AAPI artists together. In 1968, the term “Asian American” is coined for the first time.
1965 – President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law. This abolishes the racially discriminatory quota system for immigration that had been in place for over 30 years.
1965 - East West Players is founded by Mako, Rae Creevey, Beulah Quo, Soon-Tek Oh, James Hong, Pat Li, June Kim, Guy Lee, and Yet Lock in LA to provide a space for AAPI artists to hone their craft. Today it is the US’s largest and longest running Asian American theatre and has produced over 200 plays and musicals including several of the plays on the Refocus list.
1968 – The Oriental Actors of America (later renamed as the Theater for Asian American Performing Artists) is founded to protest the use of yellowface (white actors playing Asian characters, oftentimes with the aid of makeup and prosthetics) and pushing for greater AAPI representation.
1971 – Kumu Kahua Theatre is founded by a group of graduate students at the University of Hawai’i in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Their mission is to produce locally written works. The company has since produced more than 250 original works including plays by Edward Sakamoto, Victoria Kneubuhl, and Lee Cataluna.
1973 – The Asian American Theater Company is established in San Francisco by playwright Frank Chin. The company begins as a workshop to train AAPI actors and grows into a producing company.
1977 – Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is founded in New York City by Tisa Chang and Ernest Abuba. The company includes the term “Pan Asian” in its name to emphasize inclusion of all Asians in America and the world.
1980 – Wakako Yamauchi’s The Music Lessons premieres at The Public Theater in response to criticism surrounding the use of yellowface at The Public.
1982 – In a racially motivated attack, two white men assault and kill Vincent Chin in Michigan. The men accept a plea bargain and are given probation, a $3000 fine, and no jail time. The lenient sentence leads to an outcry from the Asian American community and sparks a larger battle for civil rights for AAPI folks.
1987– Velina Hasu Houston’s Tea premieres off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club.
1987 – Edward Sakamoto’s The Life of the Land premieres at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.
1988 – The National Asian American Theatre Company is founded in New York City by Richard Eng and Mia Katigbak. The company produces European and American classics with AAPI casts as well as new plays written by AAPI playwrights.
1988 – In the same year, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly premieres on Broadway and wins several Tony Awards. David Henry Hwang is the first Asian American playwright to have a play produced on Broadway.
1988 – Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die premieres at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It has a New York Premiere one year later in 1989 at Playwrights Horizons.
1989 – Jeannie Barroga’s Walls premieres at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco.
1989 – Ma-Yi Theater Company is founded in New York City as a Filipino American theatre by Chito Jao Garces, Ralph Pena, Margot Lloren, Ankie Frilles, Luz de Leon, Isolda Oca, Arianne Recto, Cristina Sison, and Bernie Villanueva. It has since expanded to support new work by AAPI artists of all ethnicities and origins. It is also home to the Ma-Yi Writer’s Lab, the largest resident company of AAPI playwrights in the country.
1990 - Miss Saigon opens on Broadway to much controversy about the yellowface casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian character of The Engineer.
1992 – Theater Mu is founded in Minneapolis and St. Paul by Dong-il Lee, Rick Shiomi, Martha B. Johnson, and Diane Espaldon. The theatre’s mission is to produce theatre that speaks to the Asian American experience.
1992 – May is formally designated as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. It is later renamed as AAPI Heritage Month.
1994 – Ola Nā Iwi (The Bones Live) by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl premieres at Kumu Kahua Theatre.
1998 – Big Hunk o’ Burnin’ Love by Prince Gomolvilas premieres at East West Players.
2000 – The South Asian League of Artists in America is founded in New York City.
2003 - The Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) is founded to establish a national network of theaters and artists that can support the growth and advancement of AAPI artists.
2005 – Anuvab Pal’s Chaos Theory is first performed at the ArtWallah Festival in LA.
2013 - Ayad Aktar’s Disgraced wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Akhtar is the first AAPI artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
2015 - Allegiance by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione opens and is the first musical written and directed by AAPI artists and featuring a predominantly AAPI cast to be on Broadway.
2022 - Asian American Performers Action Coalition receives a Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre for their documentation and reports on the racial inequities in casting and employment on Broadway and at non-profit theatres.
References and Additional Resources:
“Japanese American Incarceration and Japanese Internment.” Densho, 3 Apr. 2023.
Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.
Lee, Josephine, editor. Milestones in Asian American Theatre. Routledge, 2022.
Minhae, Roth Shim. “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month - Origins, Themes & Populations.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 25 Apr. 2023.
Tang, Roger. Asian American Theatre Revue. Accessed May 1, 2023.
Zia, Helen. The Vincent Chin Legacy Guide. 2022. Accessed May 1, 2023.