[Jessica Hagedorn] “wanted to explore what humor was and how it related to racism. For Hagedorn, ‘humor has to be tied with truth’: ‘[Truth] is what makes you laugh because it hurts…Humor is about telling the truth.’” (121)
“Hwang knew how to let mainstream audiences laugh at Asian American topics: ‘One of the things I found very early on at the [Public Theater] was that with predominantly non-Asian audience, you had to give them the permission to laugh because they weren’t sure whether or not they were being offensive by laughing, and so after The New York Times came out and said that it was funny, then everyone thought it was OK to laugh.’” (134)
There were a few things I found particularly interesting in reading this book. First was the preponderance of women who were at the forefront of the Asian-American theatre movement. Jessica Hagedorn, Joanna Wan-Ying Chan, Roberta Uno, Nobuko Mitamato and many others were among the most exciting, active and incendiary people in the history of this group about which we generally know so little. If we tend to be ignorant of Asian American theatre in general, then we are certainly ignorant of the specific role women have played within it.
I also took note of the many mentions of humor within this book. The quotes cited above make note of the ways Asian-American artists were able to use humor to test and even blast beyond boundaries, inviting or dragging people into their world. This appropriation of humor is important for these artists, since the roots of Asian and Asian-American characters in American theatre were also often comical, but in those days they were the butt of the joke. They were the geishas, the drunks, the fools, the criminals, and they were to be feared, laughed at, or both. So it’s interesting to see the ways in which they changed the discourse, took control of the laughter, and made it into something that could propel them into the mainstream. Hwang’s understanding of the intricacies of letting the audience in on the joke is the very reason he became the pioneer he did. He worked within the rules of the mainstream to open doors into the world of the Asian-American experience, humanizing it and allowing audiences of all stripes to find the kind of connections and parallels with their own lives that are the bedrock of so much comedy. He was, in a sense, “using the master’s tools” to dig out a place for the Asian-American voice in the American theatre context.
And while Hwang was digging with fairly delicate tools, it sounds like Hagerdon may have been working with dynamite. I have to admit, I love that Hagedorn was so known for her particularly in-your-face brand of humor. Seeing a woman challenge society in such a straightforward, unabashed way is often (not to be trite) empowering to me. She reached out across racial and societal barriers to point out the injustice and absurdity of stereotypes and judgments, and she did it in a way that refused to go unnoticed. I’m not a proponent of shock for the sake of shock, or coarseness for the sake of coarseness, but when humor and extremity are applied in a carefully thought out, intelligently crafted, intentional manner with a social purpose, I can really dig it! And the fact that she was playing with Samuel L. Jackson… well… that’s just bonus cool points, let’s be honest.