Esther Kim Lee Wins Barnard Hewitt Award

 Esther Kim Lee Wins Barnard Hewitt Award
Esther Kim Lee, winner of the 2023 Barnard Hewitt Award. (Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

Esther Kim Lee, Frances Hill Fox Professor of Theater Studies, was awarded the 2023 Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History for her book Made Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era.  

The Barnard Hewitt Award is given annually to the best book in theater history or related disciplines and is widely considered the most significant prize in the field. The awardee is also given a $2,000 prize.  

Lee’s book looks at how yellowface, the practice where white actors portrayed Asian characters, was used to exclude Asians and reinforce racist ideas from 1862 to 1940.  She provides new ways to study theater history and performance by combining historical documents and theory. Lee argues that yellowface wasn't only about mimicking Asians, but was used as a way of exclusion, creating harmful stereotypes. She reflects on how these ideas from the past still affect Asian representation in media and casting today.  

Lee says the reception of the book exceeded her wildest expectations and marks a significant milestone in her career. 

“Writing this book during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was both isolating and surreal,” she said. “Amidst the backdrop of escalating anti-Asian violence, focusing on a project centered around Asian representation felt intensely personal and resonated deeply with the prevailing social climate.    

In winning this award, Lee solidifies Duke Theater Studies' reputation as a leading hub for academic theater research. The department now boasts two Barnard Hewitt winners.   

"As delighted as I am that Esther has won the Barnard Hewitt Award, I cannot say that I am surprised in light of the universal reaction to her pathbreaking and important book,” said chair of Theater Studies R. Darren Gobert. “As a person and as a scholar, Esther represents the very best of Duke and of theater history as a discipline." 

Learn more about the Barnard Hewitt Award at the American Society for Theater Research’s website