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The Refocus Project. LIterary Ancestry Series: Responses from Ma-Yi Writers Lab. The Refocus Project. LIterary Ancestry Series: Responses from Ma-Yi Writers Lab.

Additional Readings

Additional Readings

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In addition to readings of four plays from the Refocus Project Year Three, Roundabout is uplifting four more plays in this essay series and in partnership with Ma-Yi Theater.

Below, five members of Ma-Yi Theater Company’s Writers Lab reflect on the legacy and impact of these plays on their own writing. At the bottom of each essay is further information on the play and where to find the script.

An introductory essay by Rehana Lew Mirza:

Stories of Existence


by Wakako Yamauchi (1980)

Set in California’s Imperial Valley in the year 1935, The Music Lessons encounters Chizuko Sakata, a widowed mother of three, struggling to raise her children and make ends meet. When Chizuko hires Kaoru Kawaguchi, a young itinerant worker, to help her on the farm, his presence disrupts the family’s stasis and sparks Chizuko’s and her daughter Aki’s dreams of a better life. Wakako Yamauchi’s play transforms the people and places from her own childhood into a compelling family drama following first generation Japanese immigrants in California.

The Music Lessons was originally written as a short story entitled “In Heaven and Earth,” and was adapted into a play in 1977. It premiered at The Public Theatre in 1980 and was subsequently produced by East West Players in 1985.

To read the play: Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women edited by Roberta Uno

On The Music Lessons Essay


by Edward Sakamoto (1987)

Spencer has returned home to O’ahu, Hawai’i for a family reunion after building a successful life for himself in LA since leaving 20 years ago. The family gathers to catch him up on all that has changed and Spencer starts to wonder what he sacrificed when he decided to leave the island. Can Hawai’i ever feel like home again after so many years away?

The Life of the Land is the third play in Edward Sakamoto’s Kamiya Family Trilogy, a trilogy that follows multiple generations of the same family over 60 years. The play was first produced by Pan Asian Repertory in New York City in 1987. The play as well as Sakamoto’s other work has been seen at theatres across the country.

To read the play: Hawaii No Ka Oi: The Kamiya Family Trilogy by Edward Sakamoto

Seeing Our Lives in Sakomoto’s The Life of the Land Essay


by Philip Kan Gotanda (1988)

Vincent Chang is a Japanese American actor in his 60s, who has been working steadily for years, taking any part he can get to earn a living and increase Asian American representation onscreen. Bradley Yamashita is a Japanese American actor in his 20s who is in the early stages of his career, trying to carve out an existence for himself in roles that aren’t just stereotypes. Despite appearances, when Vincent and Bradley meet, they find that they have less in common than expected. This lively two-hander explores the industry-wide mistreatment of Asian American actors in film, TV, and theatre, showing how different generations tackle the same, complicated questions about what authentic representation really means.

The world premiere of Yankee Dawg You Die was produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1988 and moved to Los Angeles Theatre Center shortly after. Playwrights Horizons produced the New York premiere in 1989. It is one of playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s earlier works.

To read the play: Yankee Dawg You Die Acting Edition by Philip Kan Gotanda

On Yankee Dawg You Die Essay


by Jeannie Barroga (1989)

In Walls, prolific playwright Jeannie Barroga weaves a rich tapestry of stories surrounding the competition to design the Vietnam War Memorial (“The Wall”) in Washington D.C. Set in the early ‘80s, and mainly at The Wall, the piece explores the war’s legacy and the memorial’s construction – including the convergence of politics and art – from the viewpoint of a wide array of characters. How do the racial and political tensions of an inherently contentious war affect our AAPI communities and a healing nation at large?

Walls premiered at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, California, in 1989 and was subsequently awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Access to Artistic Excellence Award.

To read the play: Contact Jeannie Barroga at

Living Our Internal War on Stage Essay


by Rehana Lew Mirza

We trade in stories. We exist through stories. We love with stories. These are some stories I’ve heard.

As a newly minted playwright, I heard that a major New York institution—when asked why they didn’t produce Asian American playwrights—replied that they only produce American plays.

As an emerging playwright, I sat on a granting committee that gave funding to around 20 to 30 New York theaters, and a fellow panelist asked if there were “too many” Asian American theaters on the list.

As a now grizzled playwright, I read a rejection note from the 1980s that had been slipped into the scanned copy of a play being considered for this series. The reader had assumed that the race of the wife character was white—despite many character descriptions in stage directions and dialogue that indicated her being Japanese-American. The wife’s name was Americanized, unlike the Japanese name of her husband, so the reader mistook the race and in doing so, completely negated the play’s themes and rendered any generational immigration differences and nuance regarding their relationship non-existent.

But we exist. The Refocus Series List proves that. And to me these eight plays—with four of them being performed as readings and four being re-introduced to the world through essays (the Literary Ancestry series)—tells its own story.

One is a story of diaspora wars—how can all of Asian American history be told and represented through eight plays??? But the Refocus Series also tells the story of immigration patterns, and the Anti-Asian sentiment that molded theater into waves of protest.

The plays we read grappled with the ramifications of the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1800s, and then marched forward to the early 1900s to protest the Japanese internment and continued forward with protesting the tension in the colonialization of Hawaiian land, moving us in time towards protesting Vietnam. Later, Filipinos left out of the “Yellow Peril” movements fought for their right to be part of the conversation, (birthing my eventual home: Ma-Yi Theater Company, dedicated to giving space to Filipino voices, which eventually opened up to the larger Asian American experience.) South Asians finally came into the scene last in the late ‘80s/’90s (mostly due to the late immigration patterns that didn’t allow for the influx of young South Asian professionals to arrive until then.) 9/11 brought about a new wave of theater responses from companies like Disha, Salaam, Alter Ego, and including my sister Rohi’s and my theater company Desipina, which produced my play Barriers at HERE and in co-production with the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, as well as producing for several years  a popular Seven.11 series. (These were seven 11-minute plays all set in a convenience store, to protest a Senator’s Wife’s comment that, “They’re everywhere, every gas station and 7-11.”)

That’s a lot of fighting to be included.

And yet, so many have been left out. When curating the original list of four readings, no matter which plays we chose, all we could see was a gaping hole. So the plays of Jeannie Barroga, Philip Kan Gotanda, Edward Sakamoto, and Wakako Yamauchi became part of this Literary Ancestry Essay Series. Yet even still, these four plays represent just four missing pieces of history. In one breath, you can name dozens of playwrights who have been part of the conversation for decades: Jessica Hagedorn, Han Ong, Diana Son, David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Genny Lim, Eugenie Chan, Ravi Kapoor, and Chay Yew, to name a few (hence the even longer list included with the Refocus Series List.)

And by looking at what’s missing, we see a story as well:

So many Asian American playwrights have been writing from the very beginning and yet have been willfully left out of the conversation.

There will never be too many Asian American theaters.

Someone will always negate nuance within the Asian American experience. But we will always be fighting to be fully seen.

With The Refocus List, you get a small glimpse into that, and as you watch the four readings, and read the four essays in the Literary Ancestry Series, I hope you enjoy this celebration of our shared stories, while continuing to look for what’s missing.


The Refocus Project is made possible by the Champions for Inclusive Theatre and Roundabout’s Forward Fund. We acknowledge the generous friends who support our many efforts to increase representation and inclusion in all aspects of theatre: Elizabeth Armstrong, Bank of America, Eugene and Joann Bissell and the Lillian Lincoln Foundation, Kevin Brown, Barbara and Peter Bye, Ginger McKnight Chavers, Ford Foundation, Jill and Barry Lafer, Gina Maria Leonetti, Iva Mills, Beryl Snyder, and Denise Littlefield Sobel.