Volume IV, Number 1, Spring 2008

"The Hyphenated Identity in Contemporary Multiethnic American Drama" by Ashis Sengupta

Ashis Sengupta is Professor of English at the University of North Bengal, India. E-mail:

The term “hyphenated American” was in slang use by the late nineteenth century and assertion of such identity came to be looked upon with suspicion especially during the two world wars because it allegedly called into question the primary political loyalty of certain immigrant groups in the United States. Addressing the Knights of Columbus in New York City on 12 October 1915, Former President Theodore Roosevelt said: “When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans…. a hyphenated American is not an American at all…. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else” (“Theodore Roosevelt: Quotes, Sayings, and Aphorisms”). Who was this “good American”? American national identity had long been synonymous with a single white, male, middle-class culture – a collusion of race, gender, and class. And it is “hard not to acknowledge [in it] the shadows of … [American] national history” (Renshon 82). Various ethno-racial groups had been subjected to discriminatory treatment and had reasons to become increasingly conscious of their “hyphenated” identity as they gradually learnt to negotiate the negative experiences they had gone through over the centuries.

Especially since the turbulent 1960s such marginalized communities have asserted their group identities, and multiculturalists have contested the concept of assimilation on the grounds that it demands diverse immigrant cultures to conform to Anglo-American ideals/values and harbors “deep layers of ethnocentric pretensions” (Rumbaut, qtd. in Renshon 84). The government has also increasingly “shied away from too close an association with fostering a national identity,” and this has resulted, as alleged by some sociologists, in the loss of American identity itself (Renshon 57). September 11, 2001 might have changed the scenario to an extent, underscoring the need, in certain cases, to find “in the direction of individualism” “[t]he path to One America” (94). Yet ethnic identification remains a strong element of the identity of many Americans. American identity, viewed in this light, has long been a hyphenated entity, paring the ethnic/ancestral by a hyphen with the fluid-rather-than-fixed “mainstream” called “American.” Most of today’s style guides recommend dropping the hyphen, designating the first word that indicates ancestral origin, as an adjective for “American.” By contrast, several ethnic groups insist on retaining the hyphen, arguing that American identity is compatible with hybridity which should enrich rather than weaken the country. The epithet, hyphenated or compound, is there to stay. The relationship between the two terms, nevertheless, is in a constant state of flux: now the first prioritized over the second, now the second preferred over the first, now a more delicate balance envisioned between the two.

The multiethnic literature of the United States has addressed the identity issue most effectively, showing the difficulty of determining the “American-ness” (read: essence) of American culture itself. In his 2002 presidential address to the American Studies Association, Stephen H. Sumida significantly referred to the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission’s dropping in 1993 of the term “American studies” in favor of the term “the study of the United States” and emphasized the need, after Gunter Lenz, to reconceptualize “the national context, … national identities, … intracultural differences and conflicts of the U.S. American (multi)culture” (336-40).

The three plays under discussion here – one African-American, one Mexican-American, and one Japanese-American – would show that “American identity” is actually more hybrid and multiplex than usually thought and that ethnic literature, including drama, captures it better than so-called “great” American literature. While Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1991) by August Wilson suggests that self-authentication is not possible for African-Americans without reclaiming the African cultural legacy, The Migrant Farmworker’s Son (1994) by Silvia González S. dramatizes the clash of cultures in terms of conflict between a traditional Mexican father and his young “Americanized” son—any reconciliation being possible only when both learn to live with their hyphenated identity. Philip Kan Gotanda’s Day Standing on Its Head (1994) juxtaposes a middle-aged Japanese American’s radical past with his present privileged “model minority” status that he suddenly feels awkward about. Sean Lim, artistic director at San Francisco’s Asian American Theater Company, rightly says, that “[I]t’s the hyphenated artists that will be able to provide the stories that strike the chord of modern-day life [in America]” (qtd. in Hong 32).

The objectives of August Wilson’s rewriting of black history can be best summed up in his own words: “Let’s look at this [past] again and see where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten where we are now. I think if you know that, it helps determine how to proceed with the future” (qtd. in Hunter and White 373). In an attempt to dig out the black experience of the last hundred years in the U.S., Wilson planned a play-cycle: “I’m taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. Put them all together and you have a history” (qtd in Hunter and White 370). He seeks to reclaim the black cultural legacy and reinscribe the presence of blacks in American society from their own perspective, which had earlier been written off by the dominant culture. Centering around one of the most significant events in African-American history, the Great Migration, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG) dramatizes “the need for African-Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American” (DeVries, qtd. in Hunter and White 375). Critiquing the “melting pot” metaphor of liberal white America, Wilson tells Bill Moyers in an interview: “Blacks don’t melt in a pot… because we’re very visible minority… We have a culture.” (“August Wilson Playwright” 173).

Wilson’s work, including JTCG, embraces and explores the “African presence in America” (“American Shakespeare: An Interview with August Wilson”). By such “presence” he means the common/shared historical experiences/cultural codes that bind the “Africans” in America as one people. However, he does not essentialize black identity, chiefly for two reasons. First, four hundred years of stay in another land have made them into African-Americans, mediating/transforming their origins. Second, differences have also always existed between the blacks themselves in terms of gender, class and attitude to white America. Despite all ruptures and discontinuities at these two levels, Wilson believes: “I am an African, and I can participate in this society as an African” (“August Wilson Playwright” 173). This should not be construed as envisioning a separate black America because Wilson actually advocates building on an “amalgam of ideas and thoughts and necessity and struggle of all the various ethnic groups… that make up America” (“Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks”). He emphasizes the distinctiveness of the black identity for a fuller participation, but as African-Americans.

JTCG dramatizes the physical, psychological and spiritual vicissitudes of the African Americans on a seemingly endless journey, during the Great Migration, from the South to the North in search of a new future, a free and better life. “By 1907 many African-Americans had moved to Northern industrial cities,” says Mary L. Bogumil, “to escape the impact of [a] constitutional discrimination [Jim Crow laws] and to find work other than that of itinerant sharecroppers and docile servants” (390). Set in a boarding house in 1911 Pittsburgh, the play builds on the feelings of displacement and separation that the newly freed slaves and their family had undergone for the choice made. “While the African-Americans were now free men and women in the North,” to quote Bogumil again, “their freedom unfortunately often took the form of a self-imposed isolation, perhaps a vestige of marginalization as a culture in the antebellum South” (390). The journey was as much literal as figurative, and so was the search. Frequent references to roads and traveling feet as well as to the check-ins and check-outs at the boarding house evoke a sense of constant movement toward a destination not yet in sight. It would be reached only when the travelers would find the people they were searching for, people they had got separated from either during the days of slavery or more recently due to the persistence of the institution in newer guises. The search would come to an end only when the searchers would rediscover their true identity as humans, no less worthy and capable than those who have subjugated and tortured them ever since the Middle Passage. The past, present and future coalesce in the play, and the “characters appear as archetypes reflecting countless blacks in similar circumstances—a whole race of people somewhere out there on a pilgrimage toward self-fulfillment” (Pereira 63). Wilson infuses his play with African cosmology and mysticism to foreground the characters’ struggle to reconnect with the roots of their cultural identity.

The search for self-knowledge, inseparable – as it were – from collective cultural memory, is embodied in the figure of Herald Loomis, a former deacon who was snatched by Joe Turner’s men while in the middle of a roadside sermon and put to slavery for seven long years and thus got separated from his wife Martha and daughter Zonia. Loomis later finds Zonia, and together they set out in search of Martha and arrive at the boarding house run by Seth, a black man born and brought up in the North. The seven years of Loomis’s servitude and his later life as a wanderer allude to the continuum of black suffering and the need for a newly freed slave, to put it in Wilson’s words, to “search for a world that speaks to something about himself” as well as to “recreate the world into one that contains his image” (JTCG 216). Out on the road, Loomis identifies with his ancestors who had also been separated from their tribes during the Middle Passage and the seemingly endless auctions of slaves in the New World. Christianity provided the early slaves with a temporary refuge from the vicissitudes of daily life, but the former deacon, who was concerned about saving others’ souls, now finds it hard to retain his own faith in what Wilson calls “the white man’s God.” Wilson doubts if Christianity ever served black interests, apart from conjuring up a vision of “home” transcending harsh physical realities, and finds in it “an image of God… which is the image of the very same people who… oppressed you,… put you on the slave ships,… forced you to work” and who quoted from the Bible to justify the “ordained” subjugation (Wilson, “August Wilson Playwright” 178). Loomis finds his Christian self all the more disturbing because Martha had left him for the Evangelist church when he was serving his term as a slave. He begins to realize that his “salvation” lies in his self-empowerment by way of rediscovering his African identity.

Loomis’s crisis of identity intensifies as others at the boarding house perform the juba dance which, according to Anderson, is “an Afro-Christian ritual in which frenzied dance and ecstatic shouts mediated an experience of possession or inspiration by the Holy Ghost” (452). JTCG abounds in “folk images of Christianity” (Pereira 71), drawing on the iconography from both African and Christian traditions. African culture and Christian religion had long coexisted in the lives of the slaves. In the play we see many of the Southern blacks moving North with the Bible and a guitar in hand – symbols of an adopted faith and of spirituals waiting to be transformed into blues, respectively. Their African-ness was at once compromised and retained, giving rise to a hybrid religion, black Christianity, and forging an emergent Afro-American identity. But the battle of the African self began with Christianity as time went by. Enslavement that survived the legal banning of slavery in the South and the trauma of ghetto life in Northern cities made the “Negroes” race-conscious, with the First Black Renaissance (popularly known as the Harlem Renaissance) making a declaration of cultural independence. In the “mystical climate created by the juba,” writes Pereira, Loomis is possessed by the Holy Ghost only to be overtaken by “a more powerful, apocalyptic experience that emerges from the depths of his subconscious past—the vision of the bones” (73). These are the bones of the slaves who on their Middle passage died and got thrown into the Atlantic. Loomis sees in his frenzied vision that the bones walk over the ocean’s surface or are washed ashore and get covered with flesh and turn into a multitude of blacks who separate from each other and start walking different paths. He must relive the whole experience of his race if he were to realize himself in America. It is not a return-to-Africa movement, but rather a return to cultural roots – a backward movement in space and time that can create his identity as an African American. He must realize that slavery is his history, too, and that “despite the trauma of slavery and the subsequent degradation of the body,” as Harrison maintains, “the ancestors achieve spiritual ascendancy as they ‘walk on water’ and arrive in the New World with flesh on their bones.” “Inside the spiritual dynamism of the ancestors,” adds Harrison, “is the true song of redemption and liberation” (314). Loomis is walking too, but he must join others on the road – something he cannot do until he shines from within.

Here is the importance of the character of Bynum, a Binder endowed with the secret power to bring people together, a power which he has inherited from his ancestors. To find the Binding Song and continue as a mender of broken relationships, Bynum had to find the Shiny Man who gave him “the Secret of Life,” which consists in finding another Shiny Man among his folks who would carry his project forward. The first Shiny Man Bynum met on the road, who guided him toward his song, is, as Clara Odugbesan claims, “a mythological deity of the Ifa tradition in Yoruban Cosmology.” Odugbesan describes Ifa “not as a deity to be worshipped, but as an oracle from which people try to obtain certainty from uncertainty in any human problem…” (202). Bynum himself is not sure if the Shiny Man is “one special fellow.” He believes, “That shine would pass on to anybody. He could be anybody shining” (JTCG 212). Loomis would be Bynum’s “another” Shiny Man because the Shiny man, as Anderson says, is “also the individual who has not yet found his song, one who searches for himself” (449).

Loomis would be able to join his ancestors only when he denounced his faith in Christian promises of salvation. Declaring “I don’t need nobody to bleed for me!,” he slashes himself across the chest. “Loomis’s blasphemy and bloodletting,” writes Shannon, “represent an extreme denunciation of Christian belief by an African American and an extreme act to compensate for its loss” (qtd. in Hunter and White 385). This is Loomis’s revenge against a Christianity that oversaw the brutal oppression of African men and women, against Christians who believed that their religion authorized them to enslave the “Negroes.” “The notion of Christianity as a religion of slaves,” Genovese rightly maintains, “rose long before Nietzsche’s polemics” which must however be credited with lending a sharp edge to it (qtd. in Pereira 79). “The Christian faith, from the beginning,” Genovese quotes Nietzsche, “is…the sacrifice of all freedom [and] … subjection, self-derision, and self-mutilation” (qtd. in Pereira 79). The baptized Loomis has got nothing beyond intolerable woes. He wants freedom in this life; he does not dream of it in another world. He wants to be his own master, not someone else to be his. So he looks to himself as to a savior. He cleanses as well as resurrects himself by rubbing his blood all over his body. This bloodletting symbolizes Loomis’s “full embrace of his true identity as an African, free in the land that was once his dungeon” (Pereira 80). As the blood-stained Loomis shines, Bynum knows that he has found another Shiny Man and his search therefore has ended. Loomis becomes himself only after he has confronted the past bravely and drawn inspiration from his ancestral roots. He is reborn a strong African American, loyal to his origins and conscious of his allegiance to and rights in the land he was born in.

Loomis eventually finds Martha, but their paths divide. Martha sticks to the church which had sustained her throughout her husband’s absence. Loomis cannot give up the song that he has just found, the song that was always kicking him in the throat and enticing him to recover it. It does not bind him with his wife, but it now connects him with the larger black humanity. Loomis had to find Martha, too, because he could not go ahead on his new mission without saying “goodbye” to her and returning Zonia to her mother. This is not betrayal but the pursuit of a new goal after recovering a phase of one’s personal past, once snatched from him, that however has to be left behind following the crucial rediscovery of a broader spectrum of life. On finding Martha, Loomis says: “I just wanted to see your face to know that the world was still there. Make sure everything still in its place so I could reconnect myself together” (JTCG 284).

The conflict between Christian/American (not always made synonymous, though) and African identities reaches a different dimension in each black character. Seth has little sympathy for the Southern blacks moving North, for two opposing reasons. A Northerner not so much aware of the realities that force them out of the South, he criticizes them instead for the mass exodus. With greater social and economic stability that he enjoys as a city-bred black, he finds African rituals to be “old mumbo jumbo nonsense” and is somewhat disgusted with the Southerners’ poor knowledge of the way of life in Northern cities. On the other hand, he has his own fears and anxieties as a black man who has to face uneven competition with the other migrant groups, predominantly white, and work almost round the clock to retain his position in the power game. This compels him to bargain with his prospective boarders, people of his own race, and also makes him intolerant toward them for their alleged laziness and naivety. The Christian and African selves, however, mingle harmoniously in Seth’s wife Bertha, as Pereira observes, “providing her with a broad sense to define her actions and her self” (81). On the same Sunday morning she goes to church and comes back home to sprinkle salt all over the house to protect her family and boarders against evil spirits. Though a Christian, she remains “connected by the muscles of her heart and the blood’s memory” to her ancestral tradition (JTCG 283). She knows how to struggle for survival in a hostile climate and at the same time be kind toward others, irrespective of caste and creed.

There are “traces of Christianity” in Bynum’s “apocalyptic experiences,” says Pereira (81). Bynum, however, transforms Christian rituals into African mystical experience. He owes his mythological ancestry to the Ifa tradition in Yoruban cosmology, to repeat Odugbesan’s contention, “a system whose function is to promote orderliness in the world, one that corrects all wrongs by mediating between men and gods for good, and produces certainty where there is uncertainty” (201). But in Loomis, the African self flourishes, rejecting Christianity. As Pereira notes, “his life encapsulates and parallels the entire black experience: stolen and enslaved, forced to work on a cotton plantation, freed, separated from his family, reunited physically with his immediate past and spiritually with his distant past” (81). In the end, it is his spiritual ties with the distant past that lend him new insights into his immediate past and initiate a new journey that will redefine his African-American identity.

“Perhaps the most poignant area of concern for U.S. playwrights dealing with multicultural subjects today is that of the family: the ‘culture shock’ that happens when a family’s traditional ethnic culture and values collide and seek to merge with mainstream American society,” writes Roger Ellis in his introduction to The Migrant Farmworker’s Son (47). Silvia González S. is perhaps the most dedicated and compassionate Hispanic playwright when it comes to writing about the experience of Mexican immigrants and their children in the U.S. Gonzalez is, on her own admission, a “somewhat Chicanacentric, or Latinacentric” writer. She sees through “the eyes of a Latina” and writes “like a writer” (“Life and Death in a Boxcar”). Between other projects, González spent about sixteen years “interviewing people who had risked their lives crossing the U.S./Mexican border in pursuit of the American dream” (“Silvia González S.: Biography”). Mexican immigrants, along with their Mexican American descendants, occupy a unique place in the story of U.S. immigration. According to reports published by Mexico’s National Council of Populations and Migration Policy Institute in 2001, there are about nine million Mexican-born people in the United States, three million of whom are undocumented. About 300,000 Mexicans come to settle permanently in the United States each year, half of whom are again undocumented (“Beyond the Border”).

The Migrant Farmworker’s Son (MFWS) uses ghosts and live characters to deal with the difficult process of assimilation into American culture. The play tells the story of a Mexican couple, Mom and Dad, who cross the Rio Grande River to work the land in rural Arizona. The frustration of adapting to a new culture is explored in Dad’s relationship to Mom, and their relationship to their dead child, Girl, and a live teenager, Henry. The family being the locus of the culture clash, a generational conflict forms the core of the play. This culture clash originates at the linguistic level. Mom is trying to learn English, and blend in culturally. She even suggests that she and her husband learn the language together so that they can better understand their son who speaks only English. But Dad thinks that if one learns English and gets some of the culture, they do not remain Mexican. And it is interesting to note that Mexican-Americans are one of the few ethnic communities who have always struggled to maintain their native language in a country that is essentially monolingual. Why? Julian Samora and Simon Paticia Vandel offer a plausible answer in A History of the Mexican American People:

[one of] the basic premises of American education [was that it] should be based on the talents, the heritage, and socio-cultural attributes which the student possesses. We interpret this to mean that if a child does not know English, his native language presumably should be used in order to teach him English or special efforts should be made [to preserve their culture]… What actually happened, however, was that… Spanish-speaking children were stripped by the school systems of their language [and much of their heritage, too].

Confronted with his wife’s tenacity to learn English, Dad becomes afraid of losing his wife and his native identity as well. This fear soon turns into gender biases – “It’s a waste of time for a woman to learn” (MFWS 54); Mom should not wear pants or work the fields or “talk like that to me.” Dad can only think of going back to Mexico, while the woman is pragmatically aware that they would die of starvation there. Her independent spirit, he feels, interferes with the husband’s traditional “duty” to “protect” his wife. In the struggle to live in a new country, Dad believes that he has lost control of his finances, his family, and his manhood. He also worries that his wife’s job and incomes are supporting his family; in Mexico he would be criticized for letting her work. Yet Mom can never think of leaving her man and tries to balance between the cultures in her relationship to both her husband and son who keep fighting. “Struck between [two] stubborn boys,” she takes pains to explain them to each other while the man becomes increasingly an autocratic head of the family out of a somewhat irrational fear of losing authority.

The culture clash climaxes in the father-son conflict. Restricted and threatened by his father’s old Mexican values, the son finds himself torn between the demands of a traditional society and the compelling/seductive cultural attractions of contemporary America. “Nowhere does the question of the [migrant] family’s domestic problems become more accurate,” Ellis correctly observes, “than in the impact of cultural assimilation upon immigrant children” (47). The American educational system may rob them of their language and culture to an extent, but the young equally “seem to adapt most quickly to American society, eagerly adopting the language, dress codes, musical tastes, and other features of their peer groups in schools and on playgrounds as they seek to win acceptance and an entrée into American youth culture.” “But in the process of acculturation,” Ellis continues, “many children find themselves restricted, threatened and even embarrassed by the ethnic values and customs of their parents and older family members” (47). They find it hard to choose between the values of an older society that they hardly remember and the cultural realities of the society they presently live in.

Dad believes that children are born in the U.S. only to be spoiled and that American schools only help the parents lose their children. It would not be wrong to say that “the American public schools … neglected the particular needs of many children and focused on teaching American middle-class values and mores” (Samora and Simon). It is no less true, however, that people migrating to the U.S., while keeping up the culture they left, must also learn and embrace the new culture. That is the difficulty the father goes through in this play because he does not want to embrace the new culture; he just wants his old culture to remain unmediated. He does not like the company Henry keeps or his partying around. The music (rap) Henry enjoys is noise to his father. Dad sells off Henry’s bike as he considers it a dispensable luxury item. He is anxious that his son will never learn Spanish and therefore understand him. No wonder Henry finds his father a little too crazy. Preoccupied with an “irreparable” sense of loss, Dad constantly demands his son to pay him respect. By claiming his autonomy, Henry invites beatings from his father. He describes the shame the beatings have inflicted on him over the years:

See, Dad. It was bound to happen. I got used to it. I got used to all the beatings. Ever wonder if that would happen? …. Keep hitting me, Dad, if it makes you feel better. After all, this is your house. I am a snake in the grass for not understanding you. For being too young and too stupid to know why you hurt (MFWS 88).

The violence is also “a product of the father’s own abusive upbringing,” says Abbotson, “which has led him to become a physically abusive parent” (200). But Henry does not either show any gratitude for what his parents have achieved or done for him, and only complains and demands to be treated as an American child, with respect. “Dad is rightfully upset at his son’s general lack of respect:” Henry wears headphones when his father is speaking to him; once he sprayed him with beer, admittedly an accident, but a careless one which could have been avoided (Abbotson 205). Neither of them, above all, would allow any space for the other. Dad would remain an unalterable Mexican and Henry wants to be accepted as just an American.

Dad had a tender relationship with his daughter. But he started missing her, too, as she began to “mistreat” him by learning a language he could not understand. She sang songs that had no meaning for him. Her growing up, the father felt, seemed to be taking her away from him. Dad felt left out not only in a land away from Mexico but in his own house as well. Once he punished his daughter for a little act of disobedience, which eventually cost him too dear: “she had drowned while trying to wash the dress he had shouted at her for dirtying” (Abbotson 205). Girl died, leaving Dad overwhelmingly sad and guilt-ridden for the rest of his life. The ghost of the girl appearing occasionally before him is a symbol of hurt in a household stuck between cultures. This one slice of his past that Dad struggles to suppress but fails, defines his present mental state rather acutely – a mixture of love, anger, frustration, cruelty, guilt – and accounts for the subsequent complications in family relationships.

The ghost of Oliverio, a farmer long dead, appears to inculcate in Henry an ability to live between two worlds, as Abbotson says, “just as the ghostly Blue Peasants remind the parents of the sadness of their past, and protect the new generation from repeating it” (200). Moreover, “the fact that Henry never learns Oliverio is a ghost, shows how one can keep the older generation alive by respecting them and listening to their advice” (204). Oliverio meets Henry in the fields, lecturing him about the stars, telling bad jokes, but mostly instilling in him a pride about what it means to be Mexican. Oliverio tries to understand Henry’s problems and so patiently listens to him, empathizing with him at times and criticizing him at others. He acts as a spiritual guide to bridge up the generational and cultural gap between Henry and Dad. Oliverio explains the significance of living close to the soil while stressing simultaneously the need to keep pace with the changing times. In one of their offbeat meetings, Oliverio tells Henry to go to college. “Look, my boy, someday you’ll find that money doesn’t make you happy. It’s the work.” And hard work is hard work, whether in the field or in the college. Oliverio knows both Spanish and English, but he also says, “It’s not what the words mean. It’s how the language makes you feel” – implying that Dad’s Spanish or Henry’s English should never come in between the father and son if they understand the language of the heart (MFWS 84).

As Henry comes close to understanding his father’s problems, especially after he is told about his dead sister, Dad also learns to stand outside of himself and recognize others for who they are instead of hurting any more the very ones he loves. When the father comes out of his world of self-pity and offers Henry the money he needs to go to college, the son decides to work in the fields to earn it for his education. Henry shows his gratitude to his father by speaking Spanish, and Dad also comes to like the rap. The culture shock thus gives way in the end to a new beginning – the beginning of the process of true reconciliation and healing. The ending may sound a little emotional, but it yields an unambiguous message about the need to bridge faiths and cultures through confession and mutual accommodation so as to forge a new identity.

Philip Kan Gotanda, a third-generation Japanese American, bases his plays on issues that transcend Asian American experience. In her article, “From Ethnic to Mainstream Theater: Negotiating ‘Asian American’ in the Plays of Philip Kan Gotanda,” Ann-Marie Dunbar contends that his work “witness[es] his movement away from the limitations of a hyphenated identity – from works which can be read primarily as ‘Asian American’ to those with more universal themes not restricted by an ethnic tag” (15-16). She takes pains to clarify that it is less “an abandonment of ethnicity” than a movement toward securing “a more central position” as an American playwright. The question that remains is: Does insistence on ethnic identity perpetuate “potential marginality” or help self-definition through a more active participation in the socio-political life of a multiracial country? That ethnic uniqueness may not be compromised by addressing experiences common to other communities is true. But acceptance of the “model minority” status as a way of entering into the so-called mainstream is a logical contradiction. For, this means falling prey to the politics of accommodation which does not take into account the majority of the minority group who still face discrimination, but cites examples selectively of those who have gone up the class ladder. Day Standing on its Head (DSH) honestly explores the in-betweenness of the Asian American identity that becomes equally engaging to the non-Asians in the U.S. as the play skillfully shows how this is inherently an American experience by virtue of being both particular and general. “What he’s [Gotanda] doing in his plays is to make the Asian-American experience a very American experience,” says Michael Omi. “I think that’s central to his impact on the mainstream theatregoing audience. His stories are not marginal, exotic tales. What he’s telling is essentially an _American story_” (qtd. in Hong 31).

The 1994 production of Day Standing on Its Head at Stage 2 of the Manhattan Theater Club did not receive a favorable review in The New York Times:

The story of an emotionally inhibited Japanese-American law professor trying to come to terms with a hitherto unexamined life, Mr. Gotanda’s play deals with material common to the recent spate of confessional journalism inspired by midlife crises. The traditional bugaboos of the middle-class fortysomething male—lost idealism, sexual repression, the guilt of privilege, professional paralysis and the specter of mortality—are all threshed out in ways that seem entirely too close to self-help books promoting the search for “the child within” (Brantley 1994).

The play, however, moves past the confines of the run-of-the-mill midlife-crisis story. This is thanks not only to its remarkable dramaturgy, its “abstract expressionist style,” but also to its thematic specialty, the crisis a hyphenated American of privilege may face when suddenly confronted with the need to revaluate their radical past. All other aspects of the protagonist’s past and present life – his relationship with his parents, his unhappy marriage, his sexual fantasies around an enigmatic woman, his ideological differences with his friends from his college days, his acute writer’s block – in fact revolve around the identity crisis precipitated by his painful awareness of his increasing separation from his youthful idealism, by his growing sense of betrayal of self and others of the revolutionary organization he once belonged to. Harry Kitamura’s present inability for self-expression/action as well as his lack of passion can be attributed to his sense of guilt for wearing what Sam describes as the “frozen mask of middle class propriety while inside you want to rage, scream at the injustices all around” (DSH 22).

Early in the play Harry is heard lecturing on campus unrest throughout the country, with particular references to the Asian American student movement in the late sixties and early seventies. He has also recently submitted an article to a prestigious law journal on the seminal strikes of the movement he was involved in. Within the Asian American group there were two competing factions vying for power—the pro-Maoist Yellow Guard, of which Harry was a founding member, and the Asian Americans For Action (AAFA), which he considered to be an instrument of the Administration. While Harry feels a little too embarrassed about his present position as a law professor, he is on the other hand challenged by a student’s question on the relevance of his “old war stories” in the nineties:

Isn’t your idea of the Third World Student Movement a bit of a dinosaur given the trend toward anti-Asian violence in African American and Latino communities?…. I think… the LA uprisings shattered any remnant of your 60s political model and I quite frankly find your lecture… irrelevant to our discussion here on ‘current’ political Asian American trends and the legal system. (DSH 8).

The rising factionalism in the Asian American groups and the 1992 LA uprising, the first multiethnic riot in American history that is often described as a “class war articulated in ‘racial’ ways,” eroded as much the pre-war notion of a single racialized Asian American identity as the Asian Americans’ identification, during the civil rights movement, with their African American and Hispanic brethren over the issue of racial discrimination (“The Rebellion in Los Angeles”). References to other sporadic incidents of interracial violence, such as the Vincent Chin case (in which white Detroit autoworkers murdered a Chinese American industrial draftsman in 1982 taking him to be “as Japanese as the makers of Toyotas”) and the Latasha Harlins case (in which a Korean American store owner killed a 15-year old African American girl for alleged shoplifting, exacerbating already existing tensions between African American residents and Korean American merchants in South Central Los Angeles), further complicate the issue of ethno-racial identity in the play (Nelson 5-6).

The most important Asian American issue addressed here, as Dunbar notes, is that of the model minority (26). Originating in the Asian American movement of the late 1960s, she maintains, “racial self-determination and consciousness put Asian Americans on the socio-political map [of the U.S.], giving them a social presence” and the authorization to speak (17). But many of them gradually lost any commitment to the cause, however obsolete it might sound today, a loss that rendered them incapable of passion and conviction for anything, so to say. This has resulted in a racial stereotype that owes itself no less to their own complicity with it than to “the dominant culture’s interest in perpetuating…the concept” (Dunbar 27). Harry pulled out of the student movement to become what Sam sarcastically calls a “[q]uiet, hardworking, successful” member of middle class America. His desertion of the cause and his comrades is one crucial slice of his political past that he has long, to use Nina’s words from one of his dream sequences, “locked up deep down inside” (DSH 19). When it surfaces to prick his conscience, Harry vainly tries to evade it, now in a “sophisticated” way, though. Decided “for some reason,” as he says, to write about “one of the seminal strikes of the Asian American movement,” he in fact wants to avoid analyzing the strike itself that exposed the deep fissure between the Maoist outfit and the rival AAFA. He does so on the flimsy grounds that he is attempting “a critical analysis of the social structures of that time and their relationship to present day legal” system and that the issue [of the strike] “wasn’t that big” (21). The price of conformity to the “model minority” status is best described by Sam:

They (the authority) like people like you. You are just like your parents. My parents. We always do what we’re told….They love saying to our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, “Hey, the Orientals made it on their own, why can’t you people?” and secretly our chests swell up….So they accept us for now but at what price? To live like a cowardly mouse….One day we’ll get too good at what we do. We’ll make a little too much money, figure out the game a little too well and then we’ll see middle class America’s real face. They’ll hate us, they’ll hunt us down, kill us in the streets… (DSH 22-23).

Gotanda thus deconstructs the racial stereotype while dramatizing the “complex historical formations of Sansei identity” (Kondo xiii). Harry’s own uneasiness about the stereotype finds expression, at a very personal/familial level, in his “strange mixture of emotions” at his father’s funeral: “I was at once shocked, painfully uncomfortable at [his father’s brother’s] overt calling attention to ourselves, the event. At the very same moment, wanting to join him, to wail…unabashedly” (16). The “self-imposed masking of feelings,” common to middle class Japanese Americans, acquires a new dimension here, thanks to Gotanda’s deft handling of the crisis his protagonist is caught up in (Gotanda, qtd. in Hong 71).

Harry’s lack of commitment characterizes his love life, too. He has suffered a yuppie divorce. His wife Lillian had accused him of being cold, of “having no feeling” (DSH 12). Harry accepts the charge, during one of his reveries, and holds himself no less responsible for Lillian’s extramarital affair. He cannot take his life in his own arms, let alone any “responsibility” for yet another life, even if it were his own child. Harry’s repressed sexuality finds an outlet through his sexual fantasies. An “enigmatic, erotically tantalizing” woman (Brantley) with “the most beautiful nape” (11) keeps appearing in his dreams, symbolizing for Harry—as it were—fuller living. Harry hesitates to touch the nape, though his arm reaches out for it (14). The Woman turned Nina brings the same charges of coldness and indifference against him as Lillian once did. In a poem Harry wrote on Nina, he desires to die in her “mysterious fire” (29). But he cannot ever know the woman as he is never ready to pay the “terrible, wondrous, excruciating price” for it (37). Harry is not capable of the “plunge,” to put it in Nina’s words, of a “[l]eap into the void with no designer clothes, no Pinot noirs, no make-up, no credit cards, no excuses, no lies, no history, no mythology, no trickery or deceit…” (38).

To have Harry confront his true self, we see his friend Joe forcing him, in a phantasmagoric scene, to go skydiving with him. The chute will open only when Harry gives the right answer. Asked to show his face, he does not know how to do so and falls straight down onto the ground. But Harry is “so tight” that Joe’s plot fails: “You didn’t break apart….I figured at least the force of the crash would shatter you, make you see beyond yourself” (DSH 27). Harry’s self-evasion also explains the disappearing of his arm and his sinking into a chair. The writer’s block he is experiencing now, symptomatic of his general difficulty of “getting started” (9), is ascribable to his lack of self-knowledge and initiative.

For all this, Harry “wakes up” before the play ends. Together, the characters appearing in his dreams and hallucinations serve as his accusatory other self to shake him out of his compliance and complacency. Harry repeats some of Sam’s words in the end, suggesting his acceptance of the charges and hence some self-realization: “I told the school officials what we were planning to do… They like people like me…. Quiet, hard working… not dangerous… not sexual…” (DSH 39). Harry also experiences a sense of “fullness” as he bites the back of Nina’s neck and his arm gets its “muscle back” (41). A Japanese Peggy Lee impostor with whom Harry dances as the light slow fades is revealed to be Lillian beneath the blonde wig. Harry’s “hand moves to stroke” the nape of her neck (42), suggesting the collapse of two identities (Lillian and Nina) in the secret recesses of desire. Gotanda’s innovative handling of the mask as being inseparable from one’s person, the doubling of roles and fusion of identities, costumes with “an ambiguity of eras,” dreams peopled by surreal figures from the past and present, hallucinations spilling over into waking life – all this perfectly builds up the atmosphere of “a German Expressionist film,” making it difficult to label it a merely Asian American work (Gotanda, “Author’s Notes” 4). Gotanda’s dramatic material, however, hardly blurs the concrete Asian American issues taken up in the play that in fact attains a fine balance between an abstract style and a concrete socio-cultural concern.

“No single issue has ever stirred up so much controversy in the history of the American stage,” claims Roger Ellis, “as has the current debate over ‘cultural diversity in the American theatre’” (viii). True, some of the best American plays being written today, both literarily and theatrically considered, are addressing themselves to “the issues of race and culture” (Ellis viii). This is so because while people with ethnic or racial backgrounds are still sometimes expected “to assimilate into American society” by way of conforming to “Anglo-American ideals and values,” the surrender of ethnic distinctiveness in the hope of realizing the so-called American Dream seems obsolete as a pattern that defined the American experience till the first half of the last century in the same way as racism, for all its present-day traces, is no longer operative as an institution (Hirschman and Snipp 89-90).

In fact, ethnic identity now frames claims to social and economic visibility as well as to political power and participation. This significant shift has encouraged the hyphenated Americans to recover/emphasize the importance of their ethnicity as a way to claim, to borrow phrases from Paul R. Brass, “status and recognition… as a group at least equal to other groups” (19). While “many traditionalists see these trends as divisive forces,” especially in the wake of recent threats to national security/integration, others view the emphasis on cultural diversity as “the defining character of contemporary American society” (Hirschman and Snipp 89-90). The most recent trend in multiethnic American drama, as David Henry Hwang notes in his Foreword to Asian American Drama, is to “explode the very myth of an immutable cultural identity.” True, culture is “a living thing, born of ever-changing experience and therefore subject to continual reinterpretation.” True, ethnic identities cannot be separated, to quote Hwang, from “the other cultures which have also become part of our personal histories, whether these be Jewish, gay, or the natural result of a mixed-race heritage” (Hwang viii). Yet the need remains, as the plays discussed above suggest in various ways and to different degrees, to stay connected with one’s ethnic roots even as they imbibe other cultures rather than adapt to the majority (read: white) culture once passed off as “mainstream” America.

What is interestingly common to all three plays is that the collective past, remote or recent, with its ethno-racial dimension is symbolically revisited by the protagonists, or it visits them instead, in the form of dreams, visions or hallucinations. The implication is that a literal return to roots may not be possible or desirable, but to abandon the ethnic identity would tantamount to being written off the history of a nation where the competition is not only with the white majority, again of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but also between different non-white ethnic communities for power, participation and status. Ethnic/racial identities are nevertheless variously experienced, depending on the specifics of time and place.

Harking back to the 1910s, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone reminds us that for some groups, as Cornell and Hartmann would have it, ethnic or racial background still “predicts life chances, organizes social relations and daily experience, and plays a prominent role in individual self-concepts” (11). The Migrant Farmworker’s Son demonstrates that while some may just turn their backs on ethnic identity and seek to build their “lives around another identity altogether,” to put it in the words of Cornell and Hartmann, ethnic identities can “emerge or become important sometimes in an effort – unattached to concrete material interests or assertions of power – simply to make sense of the differences among persons in complex situations” (11, 30). Day Standing on Its Head shows that some can “pay their ethnic or racial identity little mind” in their pursuit of socio-economic power and position, but they may eventually face a crisis of identity in the new socio-cultural amalgam and desperately long to be “a part of some manageable community of sentiment and cultural heritage” (Cornell and Hartmann 11, 30).

The choice for the people with ethnic backgrounds is not between holding onto their own identity or having it wholly transformed, but maintaining a balance between the two positions in the ever-changing relations of power. However, there is no reason why work by ethnic playwrights should be produced only by ethnic theaters since it would ghettoize valuable work “that should speak to all races, especially to the culturally pluralistic society that the United States is fast becoming” (Ellis viii). Seeing each other’s works is, for the majority as well as for minority groups, a good way of developing a cross-cultural bond. Together, such plays speak to a mixed audience about what it means to be an American today.

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