by Savas Patsalidis*

Elizabeth Wong

Elizabeth Wong is a Los Angeles-based playwright and theatrical director acclaimed for her unique blend of comedy and social justice issues. Her most recent play Code of Conduct, about a soldier deployed to Guantanamo Prison, was named a 2018 O’Neill Theatre Center finalist. Other award winning plays are: Kimchee and Chitlins (Victory Gardens), Letters to a Student Revolutionary (Pan Asian Rep), Dating and Mating in Modern Times (Theatre Emory), and China Doll (Northwest Asian-American Theatre.)

In 2017, East West Players commissioned Wong to write Tam Tran Goes to Washington, a TYA play about an undocumented dreamer who becomes a student activist. Other commissions include: The World’s Strongest Librarian (Winner of the 2017 Distinguished Play Award) and Does My Head Look Big In This? (Dramatic Publishing), among others.

Wong is a recipient of the Tanne Foundation Award for Artistic Achievement. She was a Disney Writing Fellow, a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed columnist and a staff writer for the ABC sitcom All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho.

She holds an MFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She’s been a visiting artist-in-residence at Harvard University, Texas A & M, Bowdoin College and at Illinois State University.

She is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and at the University of Southern California, where she teaches playwriting. Her memberships include: PEN, Dramatist Guild, and Writers Guild West.

Does My Head Look Big in This? Courtesy of Rachel Harry and
Hood River High School Drama Department

How did it all start? I mean, your playwriting career?

My playwriting career started when I met August Wilson in a stationary store. I had just quit my newspaper job at The Hartford Courant, where I covered aviation and transportation, and had moved to New Haven, CT, to be closer to New York City and the Yale School of Drama. I started sneaking into classes there. So, while in New Haven, I was introduced to August Wilson and he was told I was a playwright, which was embarrassing since I hadn’t written a single word.

From Letters to a Student Revolutionary. Photo: Elizabeth Wong

My first produced play was a play I wrote at NYU about a ten-year epistolary friendship between a Chinese-American girl and a Chinese girl, Letters to a Student Revolutionary, around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a U.S. election in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson was the first black candidate for president.

Your first produced play was also the first play of yours I taught at the university; my 18- and 19-year old students loved it. I am just wondering: what is the market for this particular kind of theatre (for young audiences, I mean) in the United States?

Theatre for Young Audiences is thriving. Nearly every theatre has an education department, and nearly every theatre awards commissions to playwrights to write original work for family and young audiences.  Nearly every city has a theatre dedicated to performance for young audiences, for profit theatres find it to be very lucrative. And both for- and -non-profits find it’s a way of tapping into a potential pool of theatergoers.  It is not only a way to educate and entertain, but also to foster a love of live performance.

Oftentimes, the playwright doesn’t receive the same kind of attention or accolade, as kids don’t care who wrote the play, they care about the story. Young people are the toughest audiences. . . . If they are not engaged or if they can’t relate to the story, they get restless and vocal about their confusions. Of course, in my plays, this never happens.

From the first scene of Letters to a Student Revolutionary, when Bibi, a young American of Chinese ancestry, visits China for the first time. She’s at Tiananmen Square and about to meet Karen, a Chinese girl on a bicycle. Bibi is played by Mieko Beyer and Karen is played by Miji Svensk-Fllsk. Photo: Elizabeth Wong

To what extent has your Chinese background affected your way of writing, your ideas, your reflections on life?

My culture is American, but my heritage and my brown skin, my almond eyes, my long black silky hair has informed everything I have written or will write. My experiences as a Chinese American, who grew up hearing the Cantonese language, but not being able to speak it fluently, who grew up bowing to the ancestors, but also attending Christian churches, whose mother survived the Japanese invasion and showed a strength of character and pioneering spirit, while I lament not going to Disneyland at least once a year, all this and more informs my writing. And because I am considered the “other,” I grew up feeling different, marginalized by the patriarchy and insidious institutionalized racism inherent in a fear-based culture like ours.

America has its growing pains, dealing with the wounds of slavery, or not dealing with it. Not acknowledging the damage is the underlying problem; we can’t heal a wound if we won’t admit the injury.

You are absolutely right about “admitting the injury” before healing the wound. In the age of globalization, many people (at least the more optimistic ones) talk about interculturalism as a kind of “healing process.” Do you think there is a promising intercultural exchange between Chinese theatre and American theatre?

American popular culture easily embraces the exoticism of faraway places, which is an idea I explore in my play China Doll. It’s harder to look in the mirror. So, I do make a distinction between what happens when Chinese Americans tell their stories within an American context, and when Chinese Americans tell their stories set in a foreign context. But, to answer your question, since Nixon helped to open the doors, there’s been a steady stream of Chinese films and filmmakers, cultural exchanges, theatre and playmakers. So, the exchange is more than promising; it’s a promise realized and ongoing.

The door is wide open, even if the current political climate with the Republican Administration under Donald Trump doesn’t reflect that. There is great interest in Hollywood now, thanks to the success of Crazy Rich Asians.

In your play, Letters to a Student Revolutionary, you seem to “flirt” with a third term. Neither the “Chinese-ness” of Karen, the girl who chooses to stay in China, nor the adopted “Americanism” of Bibi seem to offer a way out. What is your idea about these hyphenated people? Is this a more general reflection on the situation of Chinese people living in the US?

My characters aren’t looking for a way out; they are looking for a way to fit in. The world is being populated by hyphenated people; as we cross-pollinate DNA and as we cross-pollinate cultures. The general reflection of the play is that our governments and the constructs of government actually have sway in shaping our lives and who we are. So, how do we find and keep and maintain our humanity? One of the questions being asked, in my own sneaky way, in Letters to a Student Revolutionary. Two women developing into citizens of their respective worlds. Will they change history? Will they make history? Become a part of history? Or be overwhelmed by history?

By extension, I’m asking these questions of everyone in the audience to ponder as they sit in the theatre and as they walk out of the theatre . . .  and maybe when they are at home too and settling into their lives.

A scene from the end of Letters to a Student Revolutionary, when Karen decides to join the student protest movement and go to Tiananmen Square. State University of New York in Albany. Photo: Elizabeth Wong

You were born in LA. Do you visit China often? Do you relate to contemporary China? What is China for you and, particularly, for your creative imagination?

China is my ancestral homeland and where my mother and father were born, where my grandmothers and grandfathers were born, where my family came from. But I am American. When I visited China, I knew very clearly I wasn’t Chinese. And the Chinese I met knew very clearly I was American, which is a notion that serves as the inciting incident in the play Letters to a Student Revolutionary. Two girls who could be sisters, who will be friends, who might even look alike, are nothing alike, shaped by their culture and upbringing and the land into which they were born.

However, even my pure Chinese ancestral lineage came into question after I took a DNA swap test as part of a Silk Road Rising theatre project theatre project that included six other playwrights – David Henry Hwang, Philip Gotanda, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, Velina Hasu Houston and Silk Road Rising Artistic Director Jamil Khoury.  Based on our DNA results, which traced our matrilineal lines for deep ancestry, I discovered in the Ancestry.com database that not only did we all hail out of Africa, but that I had “cousins” who were Ashkenazi Jews. I was surprised as I thought my lineage was pure Chinese. I was American by citizenship and by birth, but I thought I was genetically pure Chinese. I was wrong. And it occurred to me that perhaps all of us, being copies of copies of copies of copies, may be more hyphenated genetically or spiritually than we realized. Which is why I wrote Finding your Inner Zulu for the DNA Trail project.

I was in China, in October 2018, attending Wu Zhen Festival, and there I felt that the issue of what it means to be Chinese or whether there is a distinct Chinese aesthetic in modern Chinese theatre is very much at the forefront of the discussions of local theatre people. Does this concern ever enter your own reflections on China when you write your plays?

That’s awesome. I cannot speak to the contemporary aesthetic, except for what I know through their films and what I know of their theatrical traditions, as represented by visiting troupes of Beijing Opera or dance troupes. I can tell you that my play Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King was born because my friend Lee Chen-Norman was a stage manager for a mainland performance troupe touring the United States, so I saw some wonderful excerpts from famous Chinese opera stories of which I was unaware, I saved the program and began to devise a play that would marry the ancient with the modern.

My Monkey King version blends Chinese Opera with Hip Hop and anime. Later, I happened to see a production at the Huntington Theatre, in Boston, of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation, Journey to Tthe West, because a close friend of mine, Lisa Tejero, a protégée of Zimmerman’s out of Chicago, was in the play. I went to see it and was inspired to do my own version for young audiences. Denver Center Theatre for the Performing Arts had asked me to write a play for them for family and young audiences. They gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted. So, the convergence of all those factors seemed very serendipitous, and thus I wrote Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King.

What does it mean to be Chinese-American? Do you feel the need to develop a distinct subject position where you can also place your art?

It’s a label, and it’s accurate, but it’s not all that I am. It can be limiting, speaking as a writer, because people assume that I can only write about Chinese-American subjects, from a Chinese-American female perspective, with only Chinese-American female protagonists. And I do feel drawn to write characters I can relate to, who look like me. I embrace this.

However, the label can also be confining creatively; this limit isn’t my personal demon; the demon is with others who would place constraints and delegitimize my creativity and my imagination, and the depth of my understanding of human nature, male or female, Chinese-American or other.

I once had an agent who told me he couldn’t submit me to shows that didn’t have an Asian character in them. I wrote China Doll to explore the idea that creativity knows no ethnic or genetic boundary, and can be beyond the hyphen. China Doll is about the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, and about how the limitations of others had an impact on her career and her creative psyche.  There is a comedic yet sad scene in China Doll, in which Anna May is not cast in a role, but rather asked to teach a white actress how to “play Asian.” And there is another comedic but sad scene in the play, in which Anna May goes to China thinking she’ll be accepted, only to confront the fact that her movie roles presented a stereotypical image of Chinese people to Chinese people.

Ethnic theatre seems to be flourishing now in the United States. I have seen and read a number of so-called “ethnic plays,” and my concern is not the very issue of ethnicity, but the fact that most plays play the card of ethnicity in a very shallow and trendy way. It is a kind of shortcut to public visibility. What is your opinion?

You are right; there is an uptick of play productions written by playwrights of color and by women. But to me, it’s still a struggle to be seen, to be heard, to be taken seriously.

Lucky you, I just received statistics known as “The Count,” from the Dramatic Guild of America, and it shows who is being produced in America. Out of 147 theatres polled and 3,970 productions over six seasons, from 2011 to 2017, only 15.1 percent are plays written by playwrights of color, with 84.9 percent written by whites. But this number is indeed up from the last count of 10.2 percent for playwrights of color being produced nationwide, versus 89.8 percent. For women (and other genders), now it is 28.8 percent for (mostly) female-written plays, versus 70.8 percent; which is also up from the previous 20.3 percent for women/other, versus 79.7 percent for men.

China Doll at the West End Theatre. Roseanne Ma as Anna May Wong and Robert Wedig as Conrad, in the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre production, directed by Tisa Chang. Photo: Elizabeth Wong

What is the situation of contemporary Chinese-American theatre?

More mainstream theatres are paying attention, especially in the regionals and off-Broadway. Works by Asian-Americans, with the exception of David Henry Hwang, are still on the outside of Broadway looking in.

There seems to be a trend, among the artistic directors of Asian-American theatre, to broaden their definition beyond Chinese-American and Japanese-American stories, to embrace playwrights of East Asian descent, for example, which is great to see. Not so great is the trend to cast non-Asians, which has been cause for disappointment amongst those who feel the once Asian-focused theatre, which might provide audiences the only opportunity to see work written and performed by Asian-Americans, has been moving into a more mainstream aesthetic, becoming more “white” and abandoning its original mission, which again leaves the Asian-American artists feeling that they have no home.

But Tim Dang, the former artistic director of East West Players, has said in interviews that in an ideal world, there should be no need for an Asian-American theatre, just a theatre telling good stories. To this I say, “In an ideal world.”

Are there any promising names among Asian-American writers?

Boni Alvarez, a Filipino-American who graduated from USC, wrote a ghost play that was lovely; he’s one to watch. Lauren Yee, with Cambodia Rock Band and King of the Yees, has been getting many productions in the mainstream theatres, outside of the Asian-American focused theatres. Leah Nanako Winkler, born in Japan but raised in Louisville, Kentucky, is also one to watch, with her comedic plays, including One Mile Hollow, God Said This and Kentucky (see here.)

What about the audiences? Do they come from the respective ethnic communities or from the general public?

Audiences have been aging, and are mostly educated upper class to middle class whites. It’s been a struggle for mainstream theatres to capture a younger audience and a more diverse audience. I don’t understand why it’s been a struggle because the solution seems simple to me. Offer a season of plays that reflect the community you are trying to attract. It has to be a consistent season of plays and not just a nod to Pacific Asian Islander American Month or Black History Month. A steadier diet of new stories and new perspectives by artists of color performed by artists of color will melt an otherwise cynical younger non-theatergoer.

There is a huge untapped underserved audience out there, especially in cities where diversity is a way of life. It’s a no brainer, and yet, theatre professionals lament the loss of their white audiences and bemoan being unable to entice people of color into their theatres. People want to see reflections of themselves and their experiences before they will trust the storyteller.

It seems theatre producers are still stuck in the mindset of serving a population who are bored with the usual offerings of tried-and-true musicals and classics, and plays written by known playwrights, and you can usually find each theatre having one slot reserved for new work. There’s a lot of lip service in the public forum when decision makers gather or are interviewed by the press; they want diversity and to be inclusive, but the statistics are still skewed towards the domestic, the naturalistic, the known quantity.

The whiteness of theatre is still blinding, but it is improving. . . . The demands of the economy will drive inevitability towards the under-served Audience of Color.

Younger audiences? How do you reach them?

Family and young people are the most discriminating and discerning of audiences. I don’t have to justify why there is a one-horned ogre or a monkey born from a stone, but I do have to find the connective tissue to their young lives, something they recognize as being a part of their experience; the ogre has taken something without permission, or the monkey king must go to school to learn how to harness his magical powers.

Often, theatre is homegrown in the school, and must be a play for a large cast, which is why musicals suit school theatre programming. Often, the theatre in schools needs to attend to an educational purpose and artistic expression not as keen as the lesson to be learned. Some high schools are led by courageous, adventurous artist educators, like Rachel Harry at Hood River High School, in Hood River, Oregon, who produced and directed a stage adaptation written by myself and novelist Jeff Gottesfeld of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s novel Does My Head Look Big in This. I co-wrote this adaptation about a high school teenager who decides to wear her hijab full-time.

Does My Head Look Big in This? Courtesy of Rachel Harry and Hood River High School Drama Department

Generally, when a play is attached to a historical event or to a trendy issue is in danger of being forgotten when the event is forgotten or the trend is no longer a la mode. Do you feel that there are Chinese-American plays that can survive the passage of time on the ground of their depth, ideas, innovative aesthetics? That is, plays that can survive without the label of being “ethnic”?

The only reason any play has a life and survives the march of time is when it illuminates our common humanity and mutual struggles. I wrote Kimchee and Chitlins back in 1992, but it’s had productions nearly every year since its first production at Victory Gardens Theatre, in Chicago. The play is tied to a specific political event, the boycott of a Korean bodega in Brooklyn by African Americans. I recently directed the play myself in St. Louis, at the Center for Global Citizenship, on the heels of the shooting of a black man by a police officer. The play keeps its relevance because it’s about the media and how it covers volatile events; it’s about race relations in America and unacknowledged open wounds of racism; but it also stays fresh because it’s really about a woman in the workplace, a television news reporter, working out the puzzle of her life as she works out the puzzle of the story she’s covering.

Kimchee and Chitlins. Directed by Elizabeth Wong. Solid Lines Theatre Production, Center for Global Citizenship, St. Louis, Mo. Photo: Solid Lines Production

I think it’s in my job description as an artist, to reflect the times in which I live, but also to peel back the bitter and the sweet and the bittersweet truth of modern life, to ask the hard questions: How do we get along? How do I make a difference? Do I fit in? Can I be the best I can be? Does anything I do matter at all?

Kimchee and Chitlins poster from the Solid Lines Production in St. Louis. Poster design by Fox Smith. Photo: Elizabeth Wong

Also it doesn’t hurt that I work in a comedic vernacular, so I can pose questions while tapping gently (or not so gently) on the funny bone.

Same thing with Letters to a Student Revolutionary, a play tied to a event fixed in time, the Tiananmen Square Massacre. But the play continues to be produced today, even after it was first premiered in 1991, at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, because it’s really about the desire to make history, be a part of history and the consequences when two young women are overwhelmed by history. Because it’s a coming-of-age story, it doesn’t feel dated, and it ends up being a memorial and clarion call to remember sacrifices made in the pursuit of Freedom. If you find the core of an experience, it will always transcend time and place. I hope I’ve been successful at doing just that in my own storytelling.

Video

Tan Tram Goes to Washington (2018), a play for young audiences, commissioned by East West Players and the Artistic Director Snehal Desai. This is a two-person play about the life and activism of a shy young college student who happens to be undocumented. Based on real people and real events. Her name was Tam Tran, played here by Thi Nguyen, and a fellow activist Cinthya Felix played by Noelle Rodriguez.

As a writer can you make a living from your plays without pursuing a steady job?

I do because I write for television occasionally. Off and on, I teach as an adjunct professor at both the graduate and undergraduate level at a variety of universities. I often work on my new plays as an artist-in-residence at a theatre or a university. And I survive because I write plays for young audiences, which has been a staple in my financial repertoire. And I live at home with my mom.

Most people in Europe are unaware of what is going on in contemporary American theatre, beyond certain award winning plays (Pulitzer, Tony, etc.). What is the situation today?

Ironic, since Americans love imported theatre, especially from the U.K., because it sounds smarter. Also theatre from Asia, particularly China, in the form of acrobatics and Chinese opera; there’s always a market for the exotic.

I think American theatre has found incredible agency and relevance in the age of Trumpism, turning all theatre into acts of rebellion. Case in point, when Vice President Mike Pence was in the audience to see Hamilton. At curtain call, the cast addressed Pence directly to make a plea for sanity (see here).

It came as no surprise that the most articulate and outspoken of the students who took action after the Parkland High School shooting in Florida were theatre kids.

I think American theatre feels the urgency of pushing back against this current administration, which is the role of good artmaking, holding up a mirror and asking, “Can’t we do better?” Where there is Theatre, there is Hope.


 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavartparallaxi, and thegreekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Dimitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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Where Τhere Ιs Theatre, Τhere Ιs Hope: Interview with Elizabeth Wong
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