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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Race and Role: The Mixed-race Asian Experience in American Drama

  • Author(s): Heinrich, Rena M.
  • Advisor(s): McMahon, Christina S
  • et al.

Mixed-race subjects have long posed an invisible threat to the stability of racial categories in America. Given that racialization has influenced government policies since the country’s inception, the subordination of various ethnic groups based on their physiognomy has served to control non-white people deemed socially inferior while attempting to keep white bloodlines "pure." Influenced by the human "scientific" taxonomy proposed by Carrolus Linneaus and Johann Blumenbach, among others, Western hegemonic discourse has historically centered on the assumption that human beings are rightfully divided into different races, which places white Europeans at the top of the hierarchy and non-white people from various ethnic groups scattered among the different classes below. This social stratification also functions through the belief in naturalized hypodescent, which forces mixed-race people to identify as monoracials, who are only able to claim their non-white parentage. Evelyn Alsultany calls this structure of racialization a “monoracial cultural logic” that dictates monoracial designations to the body politic.

Imposed monoraciality has erased the majority of historical narratives about mixed-race people in the United States. The resulting lack of documentation seems to suggest that interracial marriages and their mixed-race offspring are anomalies in society, rare in previous generations, and only recently on the rise. In previous decades, however, social mores denounced interracial unions as impure and often erased them from the discourse. These silenced histories have been replaced by tropes in the social imaginary that depict mixed-race children as defective, deviant, and tragically trapped between two worlds. Nonetheless, Americans have been mixing and marrying individuals from other ethnic backgrounds for generations, and instances of interracial marriages have taken place in significant numbers between various ethnic groups.

In this dissertation, I examine the experiences of mixed-race individuals with one Asian and one non-Asian parent as represented in performance, and I argue that one of the most critically important ways these mixed-Asian American histories have survived is through theatrical texts. These dramas elucidate the external social pressures and cultural limitations that have played a key role in the development of mixed-race identity. Further, plays written since the new millennium present mixed-race subjectivity in a different light, which, I assert, is due to the government’s formal acknowledgment of the mixed-race population on the 2000 United States census. As a result, the mixed-race narrative in theater has begun to shift from one of the tragic Eurasian to that of a wholly integrated identity, one who shape shifts to resist the rigidity of racial designations.

This dissertation traces the depiction of mixed-race Amerasians in American theater from the late-nineteenth century to the new millennium and investigates a new canon of politically-charged mixed-race Asian American plays. Through archival research, ethnographic methods, and cultural materialist readings of theatrical texts and their performances, I suggest that an understanding of this “doubly liminal” hapa consciousness, constructed and embodied in a liminal space outside of monoracial binaries, is crucial for the examination of the mixed-Asian American stories. These narratives, when transformed into performance texts, can often dismantle the social and cultural assignments that are imposed upon mixed-race bodies. They complete a historical narrative that begins in the nineteenth century and delivers us to the present day—to an age in which a post-racial society remains ever elusive.

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