There is always discussion on the right or wrong/ness of other ethnicities writing stories outside of their ethnicity. As writers, we all know that you have to write the stories that want to be told through you. Not long ago, black stories were only allowed to be told through white writers as black writers were considered “less than able” to tell our own stories. A classic black story is Sounder which garnered both Golden Globe and Academy Award Nominations for the late Cicely Tyson, an extraordinary actress who lived with purpose. Had the story not been written, she would have never had the opportunity. The white author of Sounder admits the story came from his black school teacher.
“But one night at the great center table after he had told the story of Argus, the faithful dog of Odysseus, he told the story of Sounder, a coon dog. It is a black man’s story, not mine. It was not from Aesop, the Old Testament, or Homer. It was history – his history.” – Sounder by William H. Armstrong
The unfortunate thing was that author couldn’t seem to remember his teacher’s name to give him actual “story by” credit. Undoubtedly, the story of Sounder was to be shared, had to be shared… And, we are grateful for this sharing.
Serendipitously, I caught a Close/Up with the Hollywood Reporter Writers Roundtable on YouTube hosted by Scott Feinberg with: Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version), Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie), and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami*, Soul), the segment discussed some interesting insights on working through the Pandemic safely, directing their own screenplays (*One Night in Miami is directed by Regina King), the change in how the work is seen by the audience and the question of who should write what. The writers are very candid.
The challenges will not go away over night or over decades- it has seemed -but we must try to do our best in telling our stories and pushing to not limit ourselves or the work. Being Black can mean, in a lot of cases, that we are mixed with other things; we have the right to write those stories too.
As a people, we are affected by the mutation of Eugenics and how that has wounded us – from our ancestors to ourselves and to our sons and daughters. Sterilization / castration without consent is something that still happens.
“Then he grabbed stuff, this and that and that and this and this and that and that and those – Scissors. He inserted them and CLIPPED!!Babies, I thought of babies. I looked him in the eye, this white man who was raping me with stuff made of steal. He looked at me. An expression. A small detectable grin. ‘Oops!’ he said.” – Oops! by Robin Byrd
Some of these stories are hard to tell; we wonder why it’s still happening. Fighting for equality promised to us by law is exhausting…
“but bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet/ do you see the point my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/” – For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
We have the right to tell the truths of our people and to write about how we are surviving more things than being shot in the streets, in our homes… We have the right to be awake without apology…
We also have the right to walk in love without that being mistaken as a pass for more abuse…
As I said, I would take a special post to highlight the three co-producers of Breakthrough Reading Series because I believe they deserve so much recognition for what they done started, y’all!
I first met Teresa Huang through a mutual friend and prolific, talented artist and illustrator Nidhi Chanani on her visit to LA. Add to the mix another mutual friend and creatress, the marvelous workhorse Cecil Castelluci, and you know I’m sitting up to pay attention about how I could possibly hang in this magnificent mix.
Over the next few years, I’d see and hear about many of Teresa’s ventures, and what stood out was how she would generously inform her communities about networking opportunities, fellowship and scholarship deadlines, casting notices, and more writing gigs. She doesn’t keep anything to herself. She has literally cultivated her community by giving away what keeps coming back to her. This trait has blown me away and kept me watching and learning from her.
Teresa just wrapped on her second show as a staff writer. In 2020, she’ll be fielding new writing opportunities and finishing up the first draft of her sci-fi romance novel. And of course, she churns out great work in volume making BRS her own gym and playground where all are invited to partake.
When Teresa Huang announces that she is taking what’s in her brain and teaching POC how to write a pilot, you sign up. Or apply for the scholarship. Or attend the showcase. Or get one of the students drunk, make them talk and take notes. I had strong motivation to do all of the above, and in the end, was invited to act in the class’s student showcase at East West Players just this past November.
Teresa is no stranger to the lonely grind of LA and says that what’s kept her going is focusing her energy on what’s important outside of her career aspirations. She also draws upon classic wisdom from some modern-day creators:
“I live by two words – gratitude and tenacity. Tenacity gets me where I want to go and gratitude doesn’t allow me to be angry along the way.” ~ Henry Winkler “Stop complaining and just be undeniable.” ~ Sarah Silverman “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” ~ Steve Martin
This woman. This voice. This cosmic cheerleader for artists. Where do we begin? I met Karen at BRS obviously, and we quickly gravitated to each other because that is one positive energy swirl!
Karen is responsible for penning the first piece I ever saw, a rom-com called IN LIKE FLYNN, when BRS was being held at Tom Bergen’s bar in a packed back room in the summer of 2017. What I witnessed was astonishing: A dashing Asian-American actor playing lead to a gorgeous woman and nobody was batting an eye. It was the most natural thing to this room.
Karen likes and marches towards challenges, and she not only casts with actors of color in mind, she actually writes stories about POC. When she spoke to me about a few scripts she’s got in development, she came off so humble and open. For her process, she will make a point to surround herself with people of different backgrounds so that she can display historical/factual accuracy, pepper in cultural insider gems, and approach with sensitivity. Don’t we want more writers like HERR?
Karen also has a collaborative spirit. Not only was she willing to make some time to give me screenwriting notes on a script I will eventually showcase, she came onboard the crew of “What’s In Front Of You?” – seven beautiful one-acts written and directed by Joe Walsh, also a BRS alum, to bring it to the Broadwater stages, and brought me along with her! Because when Karen Herr has you in mind for something, you say YES!
Melissa is the casting powerhouse of BRS. When you come to our room, introduce yourself to her, and let her work you in to the myriad of roles to fill. One of the biggest highlights for me was when she saw me, her face lit up upon recognition from the previous month and she made her way over to hold my hand and eagerly introduce me to a writer.
She knows this part well because she is a brilliant actress herself. She got her start as a young dancer and singer in Australia, booking the starring role in a major musical against all odds. It’s always a treat for the BRS crowd when she takes a role for herself in a piece or two for the evening.
“I was offered The League which is a completely improvised show – no script at all. When I got the offer I said, ‘Who booked me? I don’t know anyone in that casting office!’ Well it turns out I had auditioned for another office and the associate girl BEHIND THE CAMERA whom I barely remembered MOVED to this new office and literally PUT ME UP FOR THIS based on THAT comedy audition. And it turned out to be a beautiful four scenes … and I got to have the last comedic beat of the episode … So it was a foundation for a new found confidence with comedy from which I went on to book Arrested Development, Shameless and Love (Netflix).”
Most recently, Melissa is starring in and producing a short film called Post Sentence produced by Teresa Huang. It was showcased at BRS and it got a fantastic response. She also recently shot an episode of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat.
Inspired? Of course you are! If you ever have the chance to hang out with, attend an event with, learn from or jump onboard to offer your services to any of these wonderful women, do it. You will grow personally, professionally, and skip away with a sparkling pep in your step.
The next Breakthrough Reading Series will be held February 5, 2020 at the Broadwater (Main Stage). Tickets are being sold now. See Writer Submission details at the same link.
Rasika Mathur is a comedy actress, writer, and yoga instructor. She has tv/film and stage credits but is most proud of being able to have drinks with all these people while holding a Sprite.
I have been trying to write this blog post for the past week. I have started and stopped, trying to wrap my head around the subject. Talking to other people and reading things online has made me talk in circles to the extent I don’t know anymore.
What am I talking about? Writing
I still consider myself new to
playwriting regardless of the number of plays I have written and I overthink
everything. When you’re writing your show, you’re thinking about the characters
and who they are, how they sound, look and move in the world. At some point you
have to write the character description. You know, that page right after the
title page where you introduce the reader to your world.
The character breakdown:
Amy: Female, 30s, African-American, Grounded and stern.
But what does it mean? #InsteadOfRedface? Are the playwrights the only ones who have to be Native? Does your cast have to include Native characters as well? If it’s done in a theater class is ok to cast whomever? And is Native not enough? Do we include Indigenous people as well and is it ok for them to play Native roles? And do all the roles have to be actually be played by Native people? And how Native do they have to be? Like I just took a DNA test and I’m 5% Native, so I can play Native roles now ok?
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire in the main prayer hall and murdered six people. Soon after, I received a frantic call from my younger brother telling me that he was unable to reach our parents. My parents are members of that temple and every Sunday, like millions of their fellow Americans, they go to a place of worship and bow their heads in prayer.
For an hour that felt like an eternity, we were unable to reach them. My younger brother had arrived at the scene – a place that was once filled with calm and solace now reeling with chaos and sadness sectioned off by yellow police tape. I was in LA with my young daughter, feeling completely helpless and preparing myself for the worst. Then finally the phone rang; it was my mother telling me that they had gone to a different temple that morning and she and my father were safe. This would not be the reality for my uncle and several family friends who were shot and killed in the shooting.
I found myself in a deep state of depression, feeling a mixture of anger and sadness. Having something horrific hit so close to home put me in a constant state of worry over my parents. I picked up my pen and began to write as a release, and as a result, my one woman show RAG HEAD An American Story was born.
Set in a small American town and inspired by actual events, RAG HEAD explores hate, hope and American identity. I portray seven inextricably linked characters whose lives are forever changed by one hateful act. All the characters in the play are inspired my family and friends. It’s a deeply personal piece, about how ignorance can be deadly.
I will be performing the show at the The Complex Hollywood on Saturday July 27th. This performance will be filmed and proceeds will go toward taking my show on the road in hopes to educate and foster understanding about the Sikh community.
And on Aug 3 & 4 I will be performing the show at the Broadway Theatre in Milwaukee to support the Interfaith Conference of greater Wisconsin and to honor the seven-year remembrance of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple tragedy.
With your support, you could help raise awareness and become an
ally to the Sikh American community. According to the Sikh Coalition there are
roughly 500,000 American Sikhs; many of which have been subjected
to xenophobic harassment or violence. Sadly over 70% of Americans do
not know who Sikhs are or what their faith entails. This is a story that
must be shared and with your presence we can spread our message of unity.
Thank you again for your support, I hope to see you at the show.
RAG HEAD An American Story plays in Hollywood Saturday July 27th at 7pm – Tickets tiny.cc/RAGHEAD
SUNDEEP MORRISON is a Punjabi Sikh writer, actress, director, author and activist. A graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy NY, her work focuses on social justice, cultural friction, inter-ethnic family dynamics and feminism. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.
Alyson Mead interviews playwright Inda Craig-Galván about questionable mothers, Carrie as a role model, and a better Scott Baio. The Playwrights’ Arena premiere of I Go Somewhere Else plays at the Atwater Village Theater through September 17th.
WHY: In this diversity scholarship winning show, Indian-American actress, improviser, and rapper Rasika (pronounced “Ross-ika”) takes us on her artist’s journey in Hollywood as she struggles with ADHD as well as finding relief in her diagnosis. This is a powerhouse one lady show where Rasika explodes with energy and commitment (until she gets distracted) but then dropping back in for sheer moments of brilliance. Anyone dealing with feelings of ineptitude in a town where everyone is working for their big break will find this show resounding. Also, for any fringers wanting to support females of color, YOU CANNOT MISS THIS SHOW.
For the past few years, LA FPI has been very much into matchmaking: introducing female playwrights to female directors with an eye on future collaborations. So when East West Players (EWP) invited us to be their Community Partner for the West Coast Premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, directed by Deena Selenow, we immediately said, “Hell yes!” And took the opportunity to ask this exciting creative team a few questions.
LA FPI: What brought the two of you together, initially?
Leah Nanako Winkler: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to work with Artists at Play (AAP), an amazing LA-based theatre company that did a developmental workshop of my play, Two Mile Hollow. They immediately suggested working with Deena because they were confident she’d nail the humor of the piece while maintaining the seriousness of the issues regarding race—and even more so, class—that lurks beneath the surface of the play. I didn’t think twice when they suggested her because: A) I trust everything AAP says since they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; and B) I’ve only heard great things about Deena. I’ve admired her from afar as a fellow mixed-race theater artist.
Deena Selenow: I knew some of the AAP folks from around town, so when they invited me to direct the reading I—of course—said yes. Then I read the script and fell in love. Leah’s writing is so blunt and funny and nuanced and moving. She shifts tone like an acrobat, and it’s so clear that she has fun while she writes. Leah, Julia Cho (AAP producer), and I had a great collaboration leading up to Two Mile Hollow.
LA FPI: Were you familiar with East West Players before this production?
Leah: I’ve known about, admired, and wanted to work with EWP for quite some time. I’ve been immersed and singularly focused in the past decade doing plays in NYC, but it wasn’t until last year that my dream came true and Kentucky was fully produced Off-Broadway. I kind of thought—well, what now? What will happen to me when this is over? So imagine my surprise when EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai called me to tell me Kentucky was going to be included in East West Players’ 51st Anniversary season. I feel so empowered as a Japanese American artist working with a diverse creative team. I definitely feel like I’ve won the lottery.
Deena: Snehal Desai and I met through the TCG SPARK Leadership Program, which is a branch of Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. At that time, he was the Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at EWP (he’s made quite a climb in a short amount of time!). SPARK is a cohort of ten, so we all became close very quickly. Snehal and I are the only two based in LA, so we see each other quite a bit. I think I had seen one show at EWP when I was in grad school, and now I see pretty much everything they do. EWP is a vital American theater, and Snehal is an incredible leader. I’ve loved getting to know Snehal in this creative capacity. Tim Dang has left EWP in good hands.
LA FPI:Leah–what was it about Deena that gave you confidence in her? And Deena–what was it about Leah’s play that spoke to you?
Leah: Deena and I both want the same thing: for the play to be the best it can be. With her, I know that nothing is about ego but for the greater good of the piece. Even in our disagreements or points of confusion, we’re both straightforward and come to a conclusion without any passive aggressive weirdness, which is huge as playwright/director relationships can get complicated in that way fast.
Deena: Leah’s work in general is so very honest and the characters speak their minds. She writes realities in which people don’t self-censor and say what they mean. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. Particular to Kentucky is remembering that moment in your life when you realized you can never go home again. That home moves, and the idea of home changes as you grow up and evolve. Family is complicated, and Leah doesn’t shy away from that.
LA FPI:When did it hit you that you two were a good fit, collaborating on Kentucky?
Leah: I think we had an initial phone call that was supposed to be an hour that turned into four. Our personalities definitely vibe, which is an important foundation. But we both worked actively together on a new nine-person adaptation [the NY production had a cast of 16] and figured out the doubling schemes together. I really felt connected in those moments.
Deena: I love working with Leah. I love how vulnerable she lets herself be in her writing and in the rehearsal room, and it encourages me to let my walls down as well. We worked really closely during pre-production. We took our time, imagined different scenarios, and listened to each other. Leah trusts me, and I can feel it, which gives me confidence. She gives me room to experiment but also doesn’t hesitate to speak up and tell me when I’m off the mark, which I also appreciate.
LA FPI: Kentucky’s director for its Off-Broadway Premiere, Morgan Gould, was a woman, as well. What are your thoughts about what a woman director brings to a female playwright’s work?
Leah: While I know of and work with male directors that bust their ass on a daily basis and deserve every career success that they get, I know that female directors have to work twice as hard to be respected. As “emerging” playwrights, we’re sometimes told to “level up” to a director who’s more famous, and that’s often an older white dude. I think while this tactic is meant to “protect” the young playwright in many ways, it really screws over young female directors that often develop the script for years only to be fired when the show gets picked up.
Kentucky is a huge undertaking with multiple characters, 17 locations, three songs, and complex relationships that need to be dug into with precision, sympathy, and understanding. It takes a BEAST to direct this play. And both Morgan and Deena are BEASTS. It’s incredible and inspiring to watch strong women take total command of a room. They get shit done with the strength of ten thousand men.
Deena: Any time you work with someone who is “like” you in some way or another, there are certain nuances that don’t need discussion and are just inherently there. I work with a lot of women playwrights, but with men as well (albeit not as frequently). Differences are just as important as similarities. There are inequities in every inch of our society, so I work with people who share my core values, and we lift each other up.
LA FPI:As women artists, telling a woman’s story, how has your experience been with East West Players–a company that embraces diversity and is presenting a femme-centered season?
Leah: I think “white girl” and “diversity” are often conflated, and I love that EWP is championing women of color. In addition, nobody is the “only one” here, and it’s a gift to be working with not only a cast, creative team, and crew that are diverse, but also producers, board members, and staff as well. I’ve never had that happen to me.
EWP lets us do our work while acting like it’s the most normal thing in the world. By doing that, they universalize our experiences. And you know what? Good. Because our stories ARE universal. We’ve been told that white is normal for so long, and it’s just not true. I love EWP because they acknowledge this naturally in their mission, but it’s still fun and it’s a safe space.
Deena: I’m thrilled that EWP chose to program a women-centered season. They really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to equity and inclusion. We all need to be allies to one another. EWP has a platform for visibility, and they are using it.
LA FPI: As theater artists, how important to you is forming ongoing relationships vs. finding the right person/project?
Leah: I’m still learning about this. I directed my own work for six years and just started working with other directors in the last four. I like working with a lot of different people just to test the waters, and get to know as many people as possible. I love collaborating and finding long term relationships with various people on projects that work for each partnership. Which for Deena and I, ended up being Kentucky.
Dena: Relationships are everything. Theater is a collaborative sport and finding your teammates is key. I’m so glad that Leah and I have found each other. I’m excited for our relationship to grow and to continue. I’ve been really lucky in my collaborations. The dynamic changes with each group of people and each project, and that’s part of the fun.
LA FPI: In seven words or less, what’s your advice to women artists about getting the most out of the collaborative process?
Leah: Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t forget the joy. (Or LADIES, DON’T BRING SNACKS OUT OF OBLIGATION.)
Deena: Listen. Trust your gut. Make a mess.
Kentucky plays through December 11, 2016 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.Click Here for information and to purchase tickets.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Writing is usually a solitary event and sometimes I forget about the rest of the world. This week I was reminded of why, after terrible procrastination, I write. I left my cave of solitude, to be surrounded by creative people breathing life into the characters and stories of playwrights. A show closing, Inner Circle Theatre’s “The Doll” by Miro Gavran, and a show opening, Native Voices at the Autry’s “Off the Rails” by Randy Reinholz. As the show starts, I sit in the back of the theater listening as the audiences laugh or “ooo’d and ahh’d”. After the show, I watch as people discuss the show they’ve just seen. It is Sunday night and I am reflecting on why I need to continue writing.
After a successful reading of my first solo show, “There is no I in NDN“, I was done. My story finally written and performed, I could put it to bed. But then I was asked to perform it. I said yes, without a second thought. It wasn’t until I was polishing up the piece, that fear once again began to set in. As an actor you take the words in front of you and give them life. But as the playwright, I know where these words come from. They may not be the full version of the story, but as I write, the whims and fancy that fill my characters lives may have some truth to them. And this frightens me. How will it be received? Will people get “it”? Will they get me?
I say all this as I am trying to complete a second half to my solo show. To delve further into the mind of an off-reservation Indian and her continued struggle with identity. I am bringing back a character that I had to cut from part one. His name is Pooley. When I first began writing his voice, he was to be my bad guy, spouting all the ugly, negative things that are wrong with the world. But then as he spoke to my main character, I found the truth in his story, their shared story and all the ugly things I imagined him saying melted away. He sits on his well worn stool at the end of the bar, his back to wall, his eyes on the door. As he sips his tall glass of whiskey, he narrates tales of the life he left behind. The dark pinched leather door creaks open, and as sunlight pours in, the regulars at the bar shield their eyes. Pooley jokes with the bartender he knows all too well. This is his home now.
It’s not a traditional story, there are no headdresses and ceremonies. He could be anyone, he just happens to be native. Working with Native Voices, I am reassured of why the story is important. The lack of stories that speak to an entire population, inspires me to continue.
Playwright David Henry Hwang had a few more things to say about the craft of writing when he dropped by a revival of his play “Yellow Face” in Washington DC this weekend.
He says it’s his practice to write the first act as a comedy, which allows the audience to more fully embrace the more difficult, serious topics of act two. Ah, the old “give the kid dessert first” technique I used to employ as a babysitter.
He also poked fun at one of his own less-than-successful plays, even presenting a snippet on stage that could make your teeth hurt. Would I be brave enough to publicly expose my own writing foibles night after night? When I write a lousy play, I want it to disappear.
And for a play that debates race appropriate casting, the play itself demands the director and producer make hard decisions about which actors of which races are appropriate for playing the characters in “Yellow Face.” Can a non-Asian play the mother of Henry Hwang? What does it say to the audience if he’s not? The multi-cultural casting was fun, but it was even more fun to hear the producer Ari Roth and David Henry Hwang talk about the hard choices. It was a debate the audience also joined in on. What a wonderful idea to find a way for the audience to see the political questions of a play at work in front of them, forcing them to ponder the same questions!
Tomorrow, I fly to Denver for the Colorado New Play Summit. Stay tuned for updates from the Mile High City on a new Matthew Lopez play and more!
Theatre J here in Washington DC just revived the 2007 comedy “Yellow Face” and I was lucky enough to hear David Henry Hwang talk about his writing process. Hwang is about to open a big off-Broadway show – “Kung Fu.”
As you know, Hwang makes himself a character in “Yellow Face” – a technique he says was inspired in part by all the times he’s been asked to play himself in small, indie films. Why not try it in a play?
I can’t quite imagine writing Kitty Felde as a character, but it’s something to chew on.
He says he knew two things when he sat down to write the play: he wanted to start it with the controversy that enveloped the Broadway opening of “Miss Saigon” where Cameron Mackintosh cast Jonathan Pryce as the Asian Engineer. Hwang was outspoken on the issue and became embroiled in the debate over colorblind casting. He also knew he wanted to end with a “New York Times” article suggesting his banker father had broken the law. How those two events were connected, he wasn’t sure when he sat down to write the play.
Whether he successfully connected the dots is for you to decide, but what a terrific way to attack a play!
He also knew that the emotional spine in the middle of the comedy and political commentary was his relationship with his father. The humanity shone in those scenes.
Again, a good lesson to learn: what’s the emotional spine in our plays?
An evening of theatre and a playwriting class for one ticket! Quite a deal!