Playwright and dramaturg Alice Tuan changed her writing practice during the pandemic. She vowed to herself that beginning on November 1, 2021 she would not succumb to the social media and internet doom-scrolling that so many of us are accustomed to first thing in the morning and would instead, begin the day–and the writing–“with a fresh mind.” She describes that morning vividly—how difficult it was to get out of the bed, how forceful the lure of reaching for the phone, the visualization of the writing table, so close yet so far away. All I have to do is get to the chair and sit in it, she told herself. It took her nearly thirty minutes to get out of bed, but she did it. And the next day again, and the next, until she built the musculature for a new habit. It was the beginning of a new way of writing and being for Alice. Influenced by her Buddhist meditation practice, she wanted her writing to be informed by “deep listening” rather than being “flashy and loud.” Early in her playwriting career, her works demanded attention, both in their content and form. But in this new practice, Alice strived for egolessness. She also began writing by hand in tiny letters on the backs of scripts she’d helped usher into the world through her dramaturgy—another way of slowing herself down and not screaming at the page, waiting instead for what was emerging from within rather than manipulating ideas from the external chaos of the world.
It was through this practice that her new play The Buckle Sisters was written. A fictionalized story inspired by Alice’s relationship with her own sister, the play centers around Bea and Bar, two sisters who could not be more opposite in personality or temperament. Of the pair, Bea is the free spirit, a starving artist who never has the approval of her Chinese mother, while Bar is an ordered and perfectionist mother and wife, working hard to tend to the needs of everyone in her nuclear family. But this is not a sibling rivalry play at all. Rather it is a play about sisterly and familial bonds that endure and even strengthen in spite of–or because of–the oppositional energies that engage in a continual push-and-pull, yin and yang dance of interpretations and negotiations amidst family secrets, legacies, and re-constructed memories.
I had the great pleasure of experiencing The Buckle Sisters first as a reader in a private Zoom read, and secondly, as an audience member for a professionally staged reading at Boston Court Theatre in conjunction with East West Players directed by Rebecca Wear. As a reader, I was excited by the language and the wordplay; there is so much happening with language—the double meanings, the symbolism, the puns, the sounds—that an audience member might miss how deliberate and poignant each layer of meaning is crafted. Beginning with the play’s title, to buckle, Alice points out, means to collapse, but it is also a mechanism in which to keep people safe, as in, buckle up. Add to that, Bea’s favorite singer Jeff Buckley and Bar’s middle school impersonation of William F. Buckley, and the dialectical nature of relationships reveals itself as both significant and imperative to a family’s survival.
This sort of subtle and nuanced symbolism is embedded in both the process and the product. Thematically the play touches upon capitalism and the paltryarchy (as Bea calls it). The text itself is written entirely in lower case letters, and it is in part, a way to fight the Capitalism with a capital C. While an audience member might not ever know this about the text, I can’t help but believe that the process impacts the product, which is to say, this measure of resisting traditional form compelled the words to look different and then subsequently be different. Bea and her sometimes love interest, Pierre Nous, discuss the voraciousness and the boring, limited scope of capitalism. This is mirrored in their dog chase cat games or in Bea’s job as a sushi plate—indeed, there is something capitalistic to a predatory chase or to the commodification of the body as it relates to hunger. When Pierre says to Bea “You are obviously not a capitalist”, Bea declares, “I’m not a capitulist.” In a sense, the play itself refuses to capitulate to expectation, and it is precisely that resistance that makes it so delightful, which is the only way to describe the audience experience.
The live in-person reading revealed just how humorously all the wordplay and banter translated. I found myself laughing from start to finish. I laughed when Bjorn, Bar’s half-Swedish, half-Chinese son became seemingly possessed by spirits; When Sven, Bar’s husband, tried to assert his parenting style so as not to raise a child who is too soft, too indulged, or too uncouth as other Americans; When Ma, the sisters’ mother, forgot Bea’s birthday and felt zero remorse for it; When Sven and Bar fought over a cotton-top tamarin taxidermy as home decor. For me, the characters were so well drawn out that I was simply watching them in their elements interacting with each other. Ask me what happens in the play, meaning, what is the plot? and I don’t think I could definitively answer. So much happens, but none of it is tied to a driving plotline. Instead, it is an amalgamation of conflicting desires, feelings of being misunderstood or not seen, endeavors to help or heal, between people who know and care for each other so intimately while being themselves, flaws and all. Yet and still, by play’s end, I felt full and satisfied. I could feel a transformation for both sisters as they came together, closer and freer than when we began.
This satisfaction has everything to do with what Alice has coined the Last Third Dramaturgy, in which the playwright can utilize the last third of the play to “take a moment to think about the world you want to live in.” It is an opportunity for the playwright to consider “What is the best possible outcome for these characters?” and too, for the audience to consider how the play may impact their own visions of a better world. At play’s end, Bar and Bea are on a mountaintop doing just this, amidst the external pressures on their lives, envisioning their best outcome and celebrating their bond as sisters.
I look forward to seeing this play again in full production. To me, it is a distinctly Asian American play as well as a political play (my words, not the playwright’s) without attempting polemic or faux edginess. I learned something about playwriting—how process informs content—from watching the growth and evolution of this piece. Experiencing the play and talking with Alice got me excited to jump back into my own playwriting. As a dramaturg (or a play doula as some have called her), Alice is always wearing the hat of teacher, mentor, and advocate. Reflecting on her own journey of development with the Buckle Sisters, Alice says “If you keep at it, it will pay you back, not in rent, but maybe in unbridled joy.” So there you go playwrights. Carry on!