After reading reviews that ranged from mediocre to an all-out pan of the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists' (PAPA's) production of Mike Lew’s Tiger Style! I was concerned the company might have overreached in choosing this as its first fully produced play.
However, after watching the show’s delightful performance during its closing weekend, I reconsidered. To me, it seemed the criticism levied against PAPA was a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps its critics didn't recognize the importance of an organization that refused to pigeonhole its actors within the trite conventions of racialized theater casting.
The show does not fit neatly within conventional theatrical perspectives on Asianness, and this also may have influenced its detractors. The presence of Asian actors in U.S. theater is still a novelty. They’re usually paraded out for trope-laden roles such as those in Miss Saigon and South Pacific. Asians are generally either portrayed through a tragic poverty-porn lens where their characters are pitied or, inversely, used as a comic device in juxtaposition to their white counterparts.
The characters in Tiger Style! are neither, combining the raucous comedic acting of Richard Chan and Stephanie Walters with a nuanced critique of Chinese cultural values. The result was an intelligent and self-aware take on the Chinese-American identity story. Simply put, this play was unapologetically written for an Asian-American audience.
As members of the target audience, we often see ourselves represented in the stereotypes Lew seeks to tear down through his satire. Though hyperbolic at times, many Asian women would see themselves in Walters’s character Jenny, whose boyfriend dumps her after she fails to live up to his fantasy of a sexually available yet submissive woman.
Similarly, Chan’s portrayal of Albert is equally relatable to many Asian men fed up with being categorized as “dickless” and expected to work harder for fewer rewards. Others among us who have “tiger parents” (for which the play was titled) may see their own families reflected onstage. Perhaps they even empathize with Anita Holland and Daniel Kim as a mother and father who, in their encouragement of success above all else, hoped to spare their children the poverty they experienced.
Although PAPA is new to Philadelphia, the bicoastal Asian-American theater community has spent the last five decades establishing a new mode of theater that centers its works in the Asian-American experience. Tiger Style! includes several of the movement’s most common themes, such as intergenerational conflict and navigating the marginal space between being ethnically Asian and culturally American. Since the other reviews missed these key details, it seems these critics lack familiarity with the movement and perhaps even a general understanding of the cultural context required to adequately assess the merits of this play.
As a critic, it is important to speak your truth, but if you cannot relate to this particular play, chances are it wasn’t written for you.