There is a series from PBS called “The First Twenty,” where it explores significant, altering events within the first two decades of the 21st century. One of the episodes, “20 Years of Asian American Playwriting,” interviews playwrights – from David Henry Hwang to Lauren Yee – about how Asian American playwriting has evolved.
I was immediately compelled to watch this particular episode as a playwright myself, and while I definitely recommend you to watch it yourself, this is not why I speak of it today. You see, it was from watching the documentary I realized that as of this month, I’ve been actively writing for theatre for the past five years, and I haven’t really explored exactly how I got to this point. So I decided to take today to dive into that, by touching on subject matter that participants of the documentary addressed.
I’ve been around theatre for a majority of my life. My elementary and high schools, in particular, really thrived in the dramatic arts, and so I was compelled to get involved in that in multitudes of ways over the years. I’ve done backstage work, tech, acting, producing, even publicity. But it was the writing side of theatre that was particularly drawn towards.
Until five years ago, the only time I have written for theatre was in a production I was involved in when I was in junior high. Despite the thriving drama program in high school and pursuing a theatre minor in college, there was zero resources nor opportunities available to really learn the craft. It was when I was previously involved with Bindlestiff that that really began.
In my writing for theatre, a lot of the stories I tell tend to be pretty grounded, and often with a tinge of whimsy to them. Some of the pieces I’ve written have leaned heavily on my Filipino identity, whereas others are stories that are open to just about anyone to play. I write what I write because I feel I can come up with stories that aren’t always told, and if they are, they haven’t always featured people from marginalized communities for the longest time. I write what I write to bring both of those aspects – telling uncommon stories starring people we aren’t always see onstage – towards fruition.
As mentioned before, I started getting into playwriting more when I was still with Bindlestiff; a Filipino American-focused theater. Representation was constantly at the forefront of my mind. Even though I’m no longer affiliated with them, that doesn’t mean the work stops. In spaces where I’m not seeing a whole lot of representation, I let my writing push to make that happen.
Hwang dropped this truth at one point in the documentary: “Representation isn’t just visibility, but it’s also a matter of life and death.” The past two years have been rough on everyone due to the pandemic, but my community has had an extra dose with all the hate crimes that have been taking place. If you trace our history back to 150 years when Chinese migrants worked on the railroads, white America’s view on Asian Americans might always change in extremity, but the one constant is that it always erases our humanity. Whether we’re being pitted as yellow peril or the model minority, we’re rarely ever seen as fully fleshed human beings as we often see white people portrayed as.
That’s where representation – and in this case, in the theatre world – comes into play. These stories, our stories, bring experiences both unique and central to the community, and also undeniably part of the fabric of this country. We’ve been here, we’re not going anywhere, and it’s time that white America starts paying mind to that. At the beginning of the documentary, it revealed how prior to the pandemic, six Asian American plays were about to be running simultaneously Off-Broadway, which has never happened before. As we slowly start to emerge from this prolonged pandemic, it’s very clear that things can’t go back to the way things were in how Asian Americans were being featured in the theatre world. What needs to change is basically what was happening right before the pandemic hit: feature more stories from the community.
Okay, I’ve kind of deviated away from my personal experience and kind of became a rant about Asian American playwrights and theatre as a whole, but as you can imagine, these sentiments are very much part of my intentions as a playwright as well. If this past week has shown me anything is that we are hungry for that representation, and are willing to do whatever possible to support one another to make that happen.
If you follow me on social media, you’re likely aware by now that I do have another Zoom play in the works for Rainy Day Artistic Collective, when earlier this week, I put out the following:
This casting call was shared on both Twitter and Instagram, and little did I expect for to be met with as significant of a response as it has. This was shared and retweeted by people I know and don’t know. There were folks from New Zealand who reached out and expressed interest in it. Already, the producer is in talks with several candidates for both the acting roles and the director position, and I could not be more grateful. I’ve never seen such a surge of response to something like this happen to me before, and so I want to thank everyone who has helped spread the word, especially regarding a story that’s actually very personal to me.
Although my focus these days is more so making my goal of being a screenwriter a reality, I’m clearly not against the idea of my path as a playwright taking me places. In fact, it’s because I became more in tuned as a playwright that gave me the tools to make that transition to writing for screen. I’m nowhere near the level as Hwang, Yee, Qui Nguyen, and all the other incredible playwrights who were featured in that documentary. However, if I can make just a minor ripple effect as we go forward into the future for Asian American playwriting, that would mean so much in showing what I’m capable of contributing.
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