In Print Asian Identity in Popular Culture

About Face: Performing 'Race' in Fashion and Theatre

by Dorinne Kondo

Routledge, 1997, $17.95

AS AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR in anthropology at Harvard in the 1980s, Dorinne Kondo missed being part of a large Asian American community.
So as soon as she turned in her grades, she’d jump onto the next plane from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she still had friends from her undergraduate years at Stanford.
There she would “feed body and soul,” eating her favorite foods in San Francisco’s Japan Town and taking in performances by small, nonprofit Asian-American theatrical companies.
“ ‘The play needs work,’ I might think, but my enduring memories are of empowerment,” she says. “After years of starving for images of Asian Americans as something more than dragon ladies, lotus blossoms, despotic tyrants or desexualized servants, here were live actors who looked like me, performing right before my eyes.”

THUS BEGAN KONDO'S passion for the Asian American theater, one of the many areas of interest that distinguish this professor who joined USC’s anthropology department last fall.
In her book About Face: Performing ‘Race’ in Fashion and Theatre, she brings together essays, vignettes and interviews with playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and designer Rei Kawakubo, provoking an illuminating discussion of how Asian identity is used and misused in popular culture; she also shows how cultural misperceptions are expressed and overturned in performance.
M. Butterfly deeply moved Kondo when it first opened on Broadway in 1988.
“I’d been accustomed to the earnest, underfunded productions of Asian American troupes,” she says. “Here was something lavish and smart. This was the first time in my life when I felt completely compelled to write about something.”
Kondo’s interest in theater is not limited to scholarship. During the casting controversy surrounding the Los Angeles run of Miss Saigon, she lectured and wrote newspaper op-eds about the politics surrounding cross-racial or non-traditional casting.
In addition to her appointment in anthropology, Kondo is director of Asian American studies in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ American Studies Pro-gram. In fact, this “vibrant, exciting, new program” was part of what drew her to USC after teaching for seven years at Pomona College and seven years at Harvard.
She also was intrigued by the opportunity for interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty in the arts, at the Annenberg Center for Communication and at the School of Theatre.
“USC is really taking advantage of where it’s located and Southern California’s changing demographics,” she says. “Los Angeles is an inspiring site for cutting-edge work.”

-- Meg Sullivan

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In Print: Asian Identity in Popular Culture

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