Over the past year, three Harvard student theater productions centered queer Asian stories: “ISCARIOT: The Musical,” which premiered at Harvard in December 2022, “OUT: An Asian American Musical,” which premiered at Harvard in April 2023, and “SWAN,” which premiered at the Boston New Works Festival in June 2023.
In conversations with The Harvard Crimson, student actors, writers, and directors described their experiences telling these stories, sharing their thoughts on identity labels, and expressing the importance of LGBTQ Asian representation.
Each of these AAPI and LGBTQ-focused productions faced challenges in the casting process, as the writers were forced to negotiate their existing visions for characters with the actual identities of the auditioning actors.
“It’s very hard to find queer Asian American actors in Boston, and also within the Harvard community, especially if you want to cast for specific identities,” Sophie H. Kim ’24 said, the writer and executive producer of “ISCARIOT” and writer of “SWAN.”
As a result, Kim sometimes chose to reimagine the specific backgrounds of characters. For example, Judas in “Iscariot” was originally written as East Asian American; however, as the actor was Filipina, Kim “refigured the script” to better reflect and resonate with the actor’s personal identity.
Beyond changing the identities of the written characters to match the cast members, some production teams built their casts with fluid expectations of who the characters could be. For example, according to Fahim Ahmed ’25, one of the lead actors in “OUT,” the executive team of “OUT” did not focus on casting actors based on specific details within their Asian American backgrounds. Instead, they focused on the actors’ capacities to tell the stories in the musical.
“It’s less important what the exact ethnic identity of the actor is — like what kind of Asian American are you,” Ahmed said. “It was about ‘Can you tell the story? Do you have the heart and soul of the character itself and their story, and do you have that emotion in you?’”
After the casting process, the creative teams also took steps to cultivate positive environments where the actors felt comfortable discussing and creating such personal work. For “SWAN,” Kim worked with The Theater Offensive, a Boston-based theater company that presents art by and about queer and transgender people of color. As a part of the production process, Kim’s team included a dramaturg and a gender consultant, which Kim found helpful in holding space for exploring gender dynamics in the production of the play.
When asked about the specifics of cultivating his cast’s connection with one another, Kalos K. Chu ’23, book writer and director of “OUT,” broke into a laugh.
“It was a deeply personal story about queer Asians in their early twenties, and pretty much all of us are queer Asians in our early twenties,” Chu said, grinning. “So there was a lot of talking through things, learning about each other, and — hopefully, in the end — healing.”
One nuance of the affinity show approach is the issue of labels. Producers make many small but consequential decisions, like choosing to describe their show as “Asian American” versus “AAPI.” They must consider what it means to label a show as “LGBTQ” versus “queer.” If they choose to use certain labels, they ultimately need to believe that the labels are actually useful — rather than reductive or counterproductive — in the presentation of their works, which can be a complex question.
“I think labels are helpful to some extent,” Chu said. “We had a really good attendance at all of our shows, and many of the people present were Asian American, and I think, had it not been called ‘OUT: An Asian American Musical,’ we wouldn't have had as many Asian American people in the audience.”
However, while identity classifications were effective for drawing in certain audiences, Chu highlighted a caveat on the label used for the show.
“It’s called ‘OUT: An Asian American Musical.’ And I think that the ‘an’ is a really important word for me,” Chu said. “It’s not ‘The’ Asian American Musical, and it’s not a musical meant to encapsulate and be a blueprint for what the Asian American experience is — because that doesn’t exist. It is, in my opinion, a story about three people, and the audience takes away what they want.”
Regardless of labels, the artists behind these affinity productions experienced profound satisfaction in the works they produced, as positive forms of LGBTQ, Asian American representation.
“One thing that Kalos said to me was that even if there’s no one in the audience that can relate and understand, just knowing that you as an actor have seen yourself in the role and felt represented — that is enough,” Ahmed said. “That brought me to tears.”
Ultimately, Chu aimed to let audiences know that “they’re not alone.”
“If at least one person came to see the show and found comfort in knowing that they weren’t alone in their experiences, I would call that a win and a success,” he said.
Additionally, Kim reflected on the framing of works as identity-based, describing a vision for a future where artists of affinity shows would not be constrained by labels.
“In my ideal world, people are just free to do whatever they want; they don’t have to be a spokesperson for the community,” Kim said.
Kim described creating LGBTQ Asian American art as “exciting” and “an honor,” but added that artists should not be wholly defined by their identities.
“I’d rather be known for being myself as an artist and a person than being known for being like somebody else,” Kim said.
Instead of labeling creative works as “queer Asian stories,” perhaps it is more important to recognize them as stories written by individual artists on their own quests for a form of representation that feels authentic to them — armed with the motivation to share this representation with others.
“Why do humans tell stories and listen to other people tell stories and make friends and find communities of people who share their experiences?” Chu asked. “Because they don’t want to feel alone. We’re social creatures. That’s what we do, and storytelling is another vehicle for doing that.”
“SWAN” runs from June 22-25 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. “My Only Vice,” a single from “ISCARIOT,” is now available to stream on Spotify. More information about “OUT,” including an upcoming full-length recording of the production, can be found on their website.
This piece is part of The Crimson’s 2023 Pride Month special issue.