Esther Kim Lee Noted Scholar on Asian American Theatre
The course of Esther Kim Lee’s scholarship was set by a book that didn’t exist.
When she accepted the 2023 Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) on November 11, Duke’s Frances Hill Fox Professor of Theater Studies, International Comparative Studies and History recounted an experience from her days as a graduate student at The Ohio State University in the 1990s.
While working on her dissertation, Lee searched the library for books about the history of Asian American theater. To her dismay, she found herself coming up empty-handed, unable to locate even one volume that documented this rich but marginalized strand of American theater history.
Realizing a wealth of information would be lost forever as the playwrights, actors and other artists who contributed so much to Asian American theater in the second half of the 20th century aged, Lee set out to document their stories and the stories of the communities they served.
Over 70 interviews and one Ph.D. later, Lee’s research was published as “A History of Asian American Theatre,” which won the 2007 Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
Over the course of the following two decades, Lee has maintained an unswerving commitment to exploring the history of Asian American theater.
“All of my subsequent works have been driven by the same impulse to document the unseen and the excluded or what’s missing in the library,” Lee said when she accepted the Distinguished Scholar Award. “Asian Americans are stereotyped as perpetual foreigners who are excluded from the imagination of the U.S. I wanted Asian American theater to be included in American theater history. That’s been my mission.”
Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University and chair of the nominating committee for ASTR’s 2023 awards, noted the “depth, sophistication, and rigor” of Lee’s scholarship.
“She is recognized around the world for her expertise on Asian American theater and Korean diasporic theater…,” he said. “Her edited collections extend the reach and depth of critical engagement on canonical playwrights, such as David Henry Hwang and Diana Son; and, then there’s the staggering achievement that is her recent 2022 four-volume ‘Modern and Contemporary World Drama’ collection, which offers a 150-year overview that models how not to repeat the errors of Eurocentricism in telling the history of world theater.”
2022 also saw the publication of Lee’s most recent book, “Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era,” which received the John W. Frick Book Award from the American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS). Young referred to “Made-Up Asians” and “A History of Asian American Theatre” as “two impactful, masterful and consequential studies….”
The chair of the Department of Theater Studies at Duke, R. Darren Gobert, noted that “What is most remarkable about Esther is the fact that she is a brilliant scholar and yet the most community- and service-minded of faculty members. Despite her professional commitments, Esther is always the first to say yes to any work that will help her department. We couldn’t ask for a better colleague.”
In addition to her contributions to the Department of Theater Studies, Lee was instrumental in the development of an Asian American Studies curriculum at Duke. She serves as director of the Asian American & Diaspora Studies Program (AADS), which launched in 2018 and began offering an interdisciplinary minor in 2022. The success of the program, now in its fifth year, speaks to students’ passion for the inclusive approach to scholarship Lee champions.
Lee has stated that her goal as a scholar is to “see a rewriting and resurgence of theater history from diverse perspectives. I want us to decolonize theater history together.”
Receiving the Distinguished Scholar Award from ASTR is a win not just for Lee, but for the many, often unheard, voices that speak through her work.
“The award recognizes and celebrates the anger, frustration and risks entangled in a subfield that many didn’t understand or value,” Lee said. “It is also powerful evidence of how the margin can change the center; how inclusion can be meaningfully transformative.”