From Staging Plays in New York’s Chinatown Community Theatres to Fostering Talents in Sing Sing’s RTA Program: Joanna Wan-Ying Chan papers

The Joanna Wan-Ying Chan papers have been processed and open for research, and the finding aid is now available.

The Empress’ Daughter program, 1970 February 07-08, 15, Founding production of Four Seas Player, Box 2 Folder 7.

It all started when Joanna Wan-Ying Chan (陳尹瑩), a Maryknoll sister, was appointed the Director of Youth Services at the Transfiguration Church in New York’s Chinatown in 1969. On the Lunar New Year holiday, February 7, 1970, in the basement of the church, Joanna Chan and the local community in the Chinatown area put on a play titled The Emperor’s Daughter/帝女花 (a popular classic Chinese opera within the Cantonese-speaking community) to celebrate the new year. The performance was so well received by the community that the 300-seat basement was filled with audience for three evening performances.

Following the success from the first show, Joanna Chan went on to co-found the Four Seas Players in 1970 and the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America in 1992, both of which feature Asian and Chinese American theatre for the local community in New York City’s Chinatown area and beyond. Joanna was also the Artist Director at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in the 1980s and where she worked as a guest director and playwright for 25 years. She also worked with the Sing Sing Rehabilitation Through Arts program in Westchester, New York, beginning in the 2000s for which she served as guest playwright and director.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s recent acquisition of the Joanna Wan-Ying papers (陳尹瑩檔案) emphasizes her life and her artistic experience as a female Chinese American and a Cantonese-speaking Maryknoll sister, teacher, artist, playwright, producer, and a stage director in both Hong Kong and New York. The collection contains her personal materials, business records of the three theatrical repertories she worked at, and the production files of the plays she produced and directed, dating from 1970 to 2020. The materials comprise correspondence, minutes and agendas, business and financial records, printed materials, and theatrical production files including programs, scripts, casts, schedule, scenery plans, clippings, research materials, photographs, and memorabilia. The collection overall highlights the local and transnational Asian American and Chinese American experience in the theatrical scene of New York City’s Chinatown area and Cantonese-language theatre in Hong Kong. 


Left: Four Seas Players Programs, Box 2 Folder 7. Center: Photographs from Production Scrapbook, Beyond The Milky Way/天河配 (commonly known as The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl), 1974, Box 11 Folder 2. Right: Slides, The Monkey King rehearsal, circa 1972-1973, Box 2 Folder 6.

Under Joanna’s artistic directorship at the Four Seas Players, the repertory focused on incorporating well-known Western literature as well as traditional and contemporary Chinese literature, stories, and themes into performances that could be consumed by the local audience, including Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge/橋邊 (directed by Jess T. Adkins), Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream/仲夏夜之夢 and Othello/嫉, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound/赤膽英雄盜天火. Some plays featured traditional Chinese classics and stories, and popular Cantonese opera commonly known by the Chinese and Cantonese-speaking community, such as All Men are Brothers/水滸傳, Laughing in the Wind/笑傲江湖, Journey of the Stone/石頭記, The Moon Story/嫦娥奔月, The Ghost Story/聊齋誌異, and The Rickshaw Man/駱駝祥子. The goal was to use the community-based theatre and entertainment to nurture talents and to serve the local community and others in the broadest sense.

Program, Between Life and Death=生死界, 1997, Box 10 Folder 8. Joanna Wan-Ying Chan papers.

The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America was co-founded by Joanna Chan in 1992. The repertory started as a professional theatre company to produce work by Chinese Americans. Over time, the repertory expanded its scope and to showcase artists in various art forms and to offer multilingual production and cast artists across ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The repertory also provided space and venue for plays, exhibitions, concerts, dances, stage readings, and the styles are vast. The Yangtze Repertory also collaborated exhibitions with local Chinese Americans, such as Corky Lee/李揚國, Zhou Changjiang/周長江, and Gao Xingjian/高行健. The 1997 production of Gao Xingjian’s Between Life and Death at Yangtze was the only play by the writer to be produced in the US (and which he directed himself), before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. Yangtze also premiered Tea House by the Beijing People’s Art Theater in 2005.

The production files in the collection provide an insight into Joanna’s creative process in producing and directing the plays performed at the Four Seas Players, Yangtze Repertory, Hong Kong Repertory, and Sing Sing’s RTA program. As a stage director, producer, and playwright, Joanna Chan has produced numerous controversial and original plays that have challenged the perception of Chinese history and the norm in the culture. Some plays include historical fictional plots with discussion of contemporary and political issues, revealing topics deemed as difficult or politically sensitive to some.

Programs for Fou Lei and Fou T’song (1991.8 at the Four Seas Players) and The Years of the Hungry Tiger (1990.11 at the Four Seas Players).

Plays such as Fou Lei and Fou T’song/傅雷與傅聰 (directed by Sherwood X. Hu/胡雪桦, written by playwright Hu Weimin/胡伟民) and The Years of the Hungry Tiger/餓虎狂年 were originally scheduled for the 1989 season at the Hong Kong Repertory, the year of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Both were canceled due to the politically sensitive content in the plays: Fou Lei and Fou T’song is based on a real life story of a gifted pianist Fou Ts’ong and the fate of his parents, Fou Lei and Zhu Meifu, both persecuted by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and committed suicide; The Years of the Hungry Tiger is based on John Gordon Davis’s novel about the love story between a British Hong Kong policeman and a communist school teacher during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s, highlighting the political and ideology conflicts at the time. Despite the plays being canceled by the Hong Kong Urban Council, Joanna Chan advocated for the two plays to be performed in New York, and subsequently successfully produced them during the 1990 and 1991 season at the Four Seas Players.

Casts of The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed/如此長江, Photographs by Corky Lee, 2003, Box 33 Folder 6.

Moreover, The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed/如此長江 was researched and written by Joanna Chan around this time as well. The Soongs was focused on corruption and duplicity by China’s Nationalist leaders, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek. The performance was canceled in 1992 due to cast absence and pressure from the pro-Nationalist influence in New York Chinese community. However, the play was performed in 2003 at the Yangtze Repertory Theatre and 2014 at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. Another play, Forbidden City West/紫禁城西, highlights the life and the times of the legendary Chinese American celebrity, Jadin Wong. The play was originally set to perform in 1996 at the Yangtze Repertory, but it was canceled. In 2008, the Yangtze produced the performance.

In the early 2000s, Joanna Chan began working with the Sing Sing Rehabilitation Thru Arts (RTA) program. One of the major plays that she produced was In the Silence of the Heart. The play was produced in 2008 with the stories contributed by RTA members. Personal essays and stories about the life of the RTA members are present in the collection. The play focuses on a family drama set in the U.S., dealing with racial biases, the concept of family and the nature of forgiveness. One of the RTA Members involved in the production was Eric Glisson, a Senegalese immigrant who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1997. He met Joanna Chan through the RTA program and she contacted Peter Cross to investigate the case. In 2012, Eric was found wrongly convicted and released from prison after being incarcerated for 17 years. Another RTA member, Kenyatta Hughes, created original music and songs for the play, including “On Your Wings” and “Feels Like Home”. Kenyatta Hughes worked with Musical Connections, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, for 10 years. In 2015, Kenyatta gave a talk on TEDxSing Sing focusing on music and its transcendental ability to connect with one’s soul. 

Left: “Spider’s bio for Larry”, writings and interviews with RTA members, Box 20 folder 8. Center: Notes from Kenyatta Hughes, Box 21 folder 2. Right: “On Your Wings” vocal score by Kenyatta Hughes, Box 20 Folder 9. Joanna Wan-Ying Chan papers.

The Joanna Wan-Ying Chan papers highlight the role of community theatre in nurturing local talents and the accomplishments that Chan has achieved using plays and performing arts as a medium to provide entertainment and a sense of unity in New York’s Chinatown community and beyond. The collection is most appealing to researchers who are interested in the history of the Asian American and Chinese American community in theatre, culture, arts, and social activism, specifically in New York City and Hong Kong, from the 1970s to 2010s.


Sources and further readings:

Lee Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. First paperback ed. Cambridge University Press 2011.

Building Bridges with Language and Theater Sister Joanna Wan-Ying Chan 陳尹瑩,