All posts by Alison Minami

A Staged Reading of “What Lies Behind” at the Kirk Douglas

By Alison Minami

Judy Soo Hoo

I first met Judy Soo Hoo in our graduate MFA program. She was one of the first students to share in our writers’ workshop, and even then, I thought her work was energetic, lively, and original. We were fiction writers together, so it was a funny coincidence when I moved to Los Angeles, decided to be an actress, and landed an understudy role in a play that she was commissioned to write for East West Players through their Theatre for Youth Program.

Little did I know, prior to our time in grad school, Judy had been writing plays for years. She started in a playwriting class in the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) and went on to produce shows with the Asian American Theatre Lodestone, Watts Theatre Project, and Company of Angels. She eventually went on to teach playwriting with the DHHWI. This past year, Judy has been a part of Center Theatre Group’s Writers’ Workshop, an all-female group (at least this season) run by playwright Luis Alfaro, an Associate Artistic Director at CTG and a professor of Dramatic Arts at USC. Judy values Alfaro’s emphasis on the creative process and his insistence that the roots of a play begin in our subconscious. Alfaro encourages the writers to “write from the body.” As Judy puts it “writing from the body allows the writer to tap into the emotion that is swimming in the play.”

Starting last summer, the group met bi-weekly to talk shop and share pages. This past Spring, they had a retreat at the Mark Taper to have their work read aloud by professional actors and to receive feedback to support the development process. This week, their plays will have professionally staged readings at the Kirk Douglas, as the culmination of their year-long playwriting communion.

Judy’s play “What Lies Behind” is about a Chinese American woman attempting to solve the disappearance of her sister by signing-up her dementia-afflicted father, who was the last person to have seen her, in a gene-editing study that may recall his memory. Judy very much wanted to explore the mystery genre “as a way to explore family relationships”. The play was inspired, in part, by Judy’s own mother’s experience with dementia in her final year. Judy acted as her mother’s primary caretaker and recalls a time when her mother did not recognize her at all, instead calling her by someone else’s name. This, of course, would be jarring for any adult child and prompted Judy to delve into the questions around what and “how we remember” our lost loved ones.

Another theme of the play—what is rising from Judy’s subconscious—is the wave of anti-Asian violence in America. Libby, the play’s protagonist, is also the host of “Yellow Peril”, a podcast that discusses anti-Asian violence. Libby’s growing concern with the spate of racially motivated violent crime promises to converge with the unravelling mystery of the missing sister.

The reading of “What Lies Behind”, directed by Jeff Liu, is this Friday, September 9 at 8pm. For tickets, please visit ticketing for this event at Center Theater Group.

Company of Angels’ New Play Festival

By Alison Minami

The Company of Angels Theater (CoA) is gearing up for its New Works Festival, which will be held in-person at their Boyle Heights theater space from October 29 – November 13. The festival will include five full length plays and an evening of shorter pieces that were all developed through their playwrights’ group. 

The CoA playwrights’ group, of which I have been a member for two seasons, has been running for nearly fifteen years. Artistic Director, Armando Molina, explains that the group was born out of a need to support Los Angeles based playwrights from underrepresented communities. He says “During a time when other large theater [institutions] were dissolving diversity initiatives, CoA picked up the slack to support a forum for diverse voices to experiment and develop” their work.

While playwrights are not mandated to set their plays in Los Angeles, Molina describes the spirit of CoA as committed to creating work that “reflects and responds to LA” whether it be literal or embodied in the notion of LA as a “phenomenon” or a “state of mind.” In the past, the group served as an incubator for CoA’s annual LA Short Play Festival (formerly LA Views), which was a fully produced evening of theater cast with company members.

The group meets bi-weekly to share new pages that are read aloud, and playwrights receive feedback from those who’ve lived with the work from the ground up and know its overall aims. Additionally, CoA offers further support by bringing in a professional dramaturg to work with writers and offer feedback on their pieces to ready them for the rehearsal process, and ultimately, a staged reading. Sonia Desai, Literary Associate at the Old Globe Theatre, served as this season’s dramaturg, and my conversations with her were so insightful and cracked open the possibilities for my play.

Tamadhur Al-Aqeel and John Dubiel have served as co-leaders of the playwrights’ group for over a decade. They are both facilitators and participating playwrights who know the value of a supportive and intimate space to develop work.  Al-Aqeel describes the group as having been “a wonderful place to land” after taking a long break from writing to raise her young children. After seeing her first CoA show, she was inspired to get back to writing, and the group reaffirmed that she could “still write.” This is a huge epiphany for writers who are burdened by the insecurity that often comes with having shut off their creative faucet for years; I can relate.

For myself, CoA has supported a writing practice and helped me to stay connected to a creative community. At the height of the pandemic, I knew that the isolation was either going to take me down or not. I chose the latter. The past few years have been the most creatively productive time for me as a writer. Formerly, I was primarily a fiction writer, an even more lonely endeavor than playwriting. For years, I would beat myself up and think “If you want to write, just write” or “If you’re not writing, you obviously don’t want it bad enough”—all the unproductive, self-flagellating words that block an artist’s creative mind. CoA helped to resuscitate my creative voice, and I learned that it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, I just needed better structure and support. Dubiel echoes this sense of community, saying that CoA provides “a lot of opportunity for creative people to come together.”

Coming together will finally happen in-person after two long years of virtual zooms and shows. CoA is reuniting with their New Works Festival, and I for one am looking forward to meeting the people who’ve supported my creative life in real life. Maybe I can give them a big hug too! This season’s playwrights include: Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, John Dubiel, Leah Zhang, MJ Kang, Emily Brauer Rogers, Matt Callahan, Danny Munoz and Alison Minami. For a full schedule of performance dates and times please visit the Company of Angels.

The FPI Files: World Premiere of “Untitled Baby Play” at IAMA Theatre

By Alison Minami

Nina Braddock grew up with a tight-knit group of girlfriends dating back to kindergarten and managed to maintain this friend-group through the many different phases of adolescence and adulthood. But at a certain point, as we all know, friendships become challenging to negotiate as people grow in different ways. These transitional growing pains as we move into adulthood serve as the inspiration for her new play “Untitled Baby Play.” In it, Braddock explores how a group of women from childhood maintain their friendship and “invest in the way their lives have taken shape.”

Laila Ayad, Anna Rose Hopkins, Jenny Soo
Photo by Jeff Lorch

In the play, the women all join forces to throw their friend Libby a baby shower, but through their various text message and email chains, a lot of miscommunication and hilarity ensue. At the heart of the play is the theme of motherhood—deciding to become a mother, facing the challenges of fertility, anticipating birth, and the actual experience of being a mother. As the play’s title deliberately suggests, the women are struggling with their “evolving and unresolved” decisions around “the baby question.” They are each a work-in-progress, as is the unborn and unnamed child about to enter Libby’s, and by extension, their lives. While all the same age, each woman is at a different place in relation to motherhood, and this can be cause for judgment, pain, or just sheer ignorance. Braddock wanted to write a play about “women who love each other but also don’t understand each other.” Sisterhood is, after all, not always easy, though it is ultimately rewarding and, arguably, vital.

The Ensemble: Laila Ayad, Sarah Utterback, Sonal Shah, Courtney Sauls, Anna Rose Hopkins and Jenny Soo. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Technology and its many forms of communication is another interest of Braddock’s. She’s always been fascinated by the way “people are performing as they are writing their texts or emails.” It is true that there can often be a performative aspect of showmanship or joie de vivre in our digital voices that do not always reflect the reality of our lives including our feelings. For this reason, the play is as much an exploration of how we stay connected in today’s day and age and the limitations of these modes of communication as much as it is about the strengths (or weaknesses) of our friendships.

Nina Braddock, Melissa Coleman-Reed and Katie Lindsay. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Also a television writer, Braddock enjoys writing in different forms as each offers its own set of constraints and possibilities. Writing this play allowed her to exercise a different kind of creative muscle and vision from writing for the screen. “Untitled Baby Play” had a professional reading at Clubbed Thumb in NY and continued development with IAMA theatre in Los Angeles, where it was set to premiere right before the pandemic. After a two-year delay, it is finally getting the World Premiere it deserves with IAMA Theatre. Directed by Katie Lindsay with associate director Melissa Coleman-Reed, it runs from May 26 through June 27 at the Atwater Village Theatre.

Click Here for More Info on “Untitled Baby Play”

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Hero Theatre’s Revival of TEA

By Alison Minami

Velina Hasu Houston

This month Hero Theatre of Los Angeles will open its revival of Velina Hasu Houston’s TEA, one of the most widely produced Asian American plays worldwide since it first premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. TEA follows the experiences of five Japanese war brides, women who immigrated to the U.S. as the wives of American servicemen, in Junction City, Kansas. Four of the women gather for tea after the violent suicide of the fifth, whose ghost reverberates throughout the play with an anguished urgency.  

At the end of World War II, roughly 50,000 Japanese women came over to the United States. Houston, who was herself born and raised in Junction City and the daughter of a Japanese war bride and African American father, traveled around the state interviewing nearly fifty Japanese war brides to research the depth and diversity of experience within this community. Worried for her safety, her mother insisted on joining her on the trip—this was, of course, before the ubiquity of GPS and cell phones! The two were both surprised and moved by the vulnerability and openness of traditionally reserved Japanese women sharing their experiences. Many of the women they spoke to were living in isolation as the only women of color in the towns where they lived. Their stories of immigration, cultural clash, alienation, racism, mental health, and domestic abuse as well as resilience, love, sisterhood, and motherhood were distilled into the characters that make up this all-female, all-Asian cast. Houston’s aim was always to “represent these women more meaningfully and truthfully, so that people would see that they were human beings beyond their stereotypes.”

Hiroko Imai, Elaine Ackles, Tomoko Karina, Olivia Cordell and Hua Lee. Photo by Jenny Graham

But the inspiration for the play, and really all of Houston’s work, has roots in her Japanese upbringing. Houston grew up listening to Japanese folklore from her mother. One of her early childhood memories was helping to serve tea to her mother’s Japanese friends when they came to visit her home. This job—replenishing cups of hot tea—allowed her to be the proverbial fly on the wall as she listened to their conversations of struggle and joy both in Japan and in coming to America. Houston says, “When you’re in an immigrant family, you just have a different perspective of U.S. society.” Children of immigrants are constantly observing America through two (or more) languages and cultures, often defending one over the other and constantly flitting back and forth or standing in the liminal space at their crossroads.

Over thirty years later after its first debut, TEA continues to carry universal and relatable themes that pull at the heartstrings and challenge society’s stereotypes around identity. Long before intersectionality was a widely coined term, Houston was writing about the convergence of race, ethnicity, language, nationality, and culture. As a mixed-race playwright, she has always naturally been drawn to the experiences of women who live between worlds. In the early days of her career, she was marginalized because her work defied categorization. She says, “I’ve spent my life never being Asian enough or never being Black enough.” When asked about the evolution of the play, Houston explains that while the themes have always remained the same, “the society listens differently” with a different consciousness that is reflective of our current cultural sensitivities and appreciations. Further, with every new production, TEA goes through the process of re-interpretation and re-imagination; from the acting, to direction, to set, and sound. Houston describes with delight “my experience of the play always changes” and that it is “forever alive and breathing.”

While the pandemic offered Houston the time and space to work creatively, she understands how badly theater institutions were impacted. She recognizes the need to be “sensitive as artists to help cultivate the industry back to health.” What better way to do so than to buy your tickets to TEA? Part of HERO theatre’s mission is to re-define the modern classics. Undoubtedly, Houston’s TEA has earned its place in the canon of American dramatic writing. Directed by Rebecca Wear, TEA will run at Inner-City Arts from April 21 to May 15. For full cast and schedule visit: http://www.herotheatre.org/tea.html

Two all Asian female ensembles tell the story of five Japanese immigrants in ‘Tea’ by Velina Hasu Houston
Photo by Elisa Bocanegra
Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Meet Kimba Henderson

When Kimba Henderson was a young child, her mother required her to pick three articles from the newspaper every Sunday and write summaries of the events. This, in tandem with the criminal accounts she heard at home from her mother’s dictation as a court reporter, were the origins of Kimba’s love of storytelling. She first began writing and producing her own plays as a middle schooler, heavily influenced by the scintillating drama of Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon’s novels.

A Graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program, Kimba is both a playwright and screenwriter. One of her first plays at NYU about an African American woman who grew up in an all-white town and decides to go to an HBCU, sparked an unexpected and lively debate in her class. Initially, Kimba slid down her seat nervously at this reaction until her professor gave her a quiet nod and wink, as if to say, this is exactly what theater is meant to do. As Kimba puts it, that’s when she realized the power of her words to “make people feel and discuss.”

When I ask Kimba what she’s drawn to write about, she talks about legacy and the reverberating consequences of the choices people make. Thematic to her creative explorations are questions of cause and effect: “How does it [legacy] live? How does it haunt you? How do you rise above it or escape it?” In her award-winning solo show, WOMEN ON THE VERGE, she examines a family of women, all with disparate tales, and how their choices ultimately affect the central character Vanessa and the woman that she becomes.

Her play THE RECKONING, produced by the Robey Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, is about a Black family running a crawfish farm on a former plantation in Louisiana. This is a family play that has gothic influences and features plantation ghosts who carry secrets and their own agendas for sticking around.

 Kimba, an African American writer, who grew up living in an upper middleclass neighborhood of San Diego and going to private school, recognizes the tacit desire of the industry to demarcate the boundaries of identity for writers of color. We discussed at length the issues of representation and the question of who gets to write what story? Her take—and I agree–is that historically, white people have always been telling the stories of people of color and now it can often feel as though they desire diverse voices but still want to control the transmission. Meanwhile, the white power structure continues to write (and project) the stories of marginalized people. She says, “It’s another form of racism or othering” and as a writer “your brand goes beyond your ethnicity and culture.” Kimba is first and foremost a storyteller, and she doesn’t limit her content to her own lived experience. Instead, she does her due diligence in getting to know her characters and their environment through her research. It goes without saying that her lens as a Black woman informs her perspectives and renderings of character.

Kimba reflects on her writing life during the pandemic.  Despite all the madness of COVID and amidst the murder of George Floyd, she used the forced quarantine to hunker down and generate. She says “Crazy doesn’t shut me down. Crazy makes me curious”. And Thank God for that, because her latest play reflects her skill for telling complex multi-character drama with humanity and humor to boot. RED HARLEM, developed with the Company of Angels’ professional playwriting group, highlights the true story of the Communist Party’s recruitment efforts in the 1930s by casting a propagandist film with Black performers from Harlem that was written by Langston Hughes and shot in the Soviet Union. The intersectionality of race, class, nationality, and politics are seamlessly woven into a fascinating tapestry that depicts a virtually unknown bit of history.

In addition to her playwriting, Kimba has written for True Crime and Origins docuseries. Her latest collaboration was writing the introduction to the upcoming book “Black Hollywood” which re-imagines classic films with Black actors through iconic photography. This book will be released in October.

MJ Kang Back on the Scene

MJ Kang’s life thus far is a treasure trove of material for great theater. A few highlights from the archive: Her father’s family owned a farm along the DMZ that was completely destroyed during the Korean War; When she was eight, her babysitter was brutally murdered, and her mother was insistent that MJ and her sisters watch all of the news coverage; Before she was a series regular playing a single mom on the Canadian soap opera Riverdale, she worked as a Christmas elf at the mall just to pay her bills; She took a trip to Korea where her aunt locked her in a room for six weeks at the behest of her mother; Her grandfather was a Korean astrologer and palmist who accurately predicted the city in which she’d meet her future husband.

Born in Seoul, Korea, MJ immigrated to Toronto with her parents and two elder sisters when she was only two. Like many immigrant families, her parents struggled to survive in a new country where their education and professional training were not respected. MJ grew up watching her parents work multiple jobs and run several businesses to provide for the family. MJ escaped the stress of her domestic life through theater. As a teen, she was hired to create devised theater pieces geared toward youth. At nineteen, she had her first professional production of Noran Bang: The Yellow Room, a piece she wrote and starred in about a Korean-Canadian family fractured from their historical past.

Shortly after this, she was awarded a grant to travel to Korea to research her next play. This is when her aforementioned captivity by her aunt occurred.  MJ used the experience as the basis for her play Blessings, which debuted at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto, making her the youngest playwright to have a mainstage production in the prominent theater’s history.

We talked about her early success and the cultural differences between Canada and the U.S.  “In Canada being a playwright is more respected [than in the States] as a vocation” she says. I asked her why she thought that was the case, and she pointed to the subsidization of the arts by the Canadian Government. Because the entertainment media is saturated by American stories, Canada is particularly invested in “holding on to what is different and special about being Canadian.”

MJ’s work centers on the Asian and Asian-Canadian experience. She is continually observing and interrogating “how Asian are seen in the world.” It is still a common experience for her, even in a place as diverse as Los Angeles, to encounter people who treat her differently because they believe she’s foreign and can’t speak English. She describes her writerly obsessions as the things that “keep me up at night.” Being the mother of a bi-racial daughter has further nuanced her perspectives on race, gender, and identity. These are themes reflected in her new play Foxy Ladies which examines race and cultural appropriation.  When MJ sits down to write, she asks herself “What do I want to see on stage?” Later she answers her own question. “The world wants honesty. Or zombies.” She’s going for the former (but not against the latter).

After having a child, MJ took a long break from theater, but she’s been steadily making up for lost creative time. The pandemic has helped, giving her more time to focus and generate. Currently, she is a member of several professional playwriting groups including: the Company of Angels, the Vagrancy Theater, Playground LA, and Restorative Stories for The Barrow Group in NYC.  She will also write and perform her show My Grandfather’s Story with Enrichment Works, an educational theater organization serving Los Angeles.  

Feel your feels

My daughter has epic temper tantrums. They are developmentally age appropriate, but they are very uncomfortable to sit through as a parent. I witness with a mix of emotions–awe, envy, and irritation as she rages on. I must clasp my hands together, as if in prayer, and remain across the room for fear that I will grab her or hold my hand to her mouth, or worse. Sometimes I see my child self, and then my adult self, in her unrestrained volcanic eruption, and I think of my own parents, how they may have been raised, how they were so ill-equipped to understand a child’s mind, which is empty of words but full of raw emotion, how they would not allow or make space for my feelings, how everything was personal. I wonder if those feelings are lodged somewhere deep in my psyche or muscle tissue because they were not given permission to exist. My daughter’s fits are pure, unfiltered by the demands of civility. Once, after she’d calmed down and was sitting in my embrace, she told me “It’s hard to stop [crying]” because I had wrongfully implored her after a full half hour of her wailing to “Stop! Just STOP!”  I thanked her for sharing, for naming and processing the emotional experience so that I could understand just a little of what she was going through, and it was helpful and instructive; I got it. I was reminded that the tantrum is beyond her control; it needed to move through her in order to expel. Her self-awareness astounds and inspires me.

I’m thinking a lot about how we are not taught in school (or life) to name our feelings, to own our feelings, to make friends with our feelings, or to take responsibility for our feelings. Everything is so behavior oriented, but feelings are what prompt action. (Is it funny to think about a feeling? The writer’s brain must force feelings into justification, reason, transmutation.) I think about acts of violence and how the perpetrator was unlikely ever given permission to hold space for their own feelings, to sit with, to honor, and to forgive rage enough to let it dissipate. Yes, I am someone whose heart breaks for the school shooter as much as it does for his victims. I think of how social and economic forces are squeezing the citizenry to the point of self-destruction; their feelings, unprocessed, turn to darkness. We are not our feelings, I am told. Yet they are so seductive, so entrancing, so controlling…and they move us both negatively and positively depending on how we interpret them.

In his book “The Untethered Soul” Michael Singer writes:

When the energy can’t make it through the mind because of conflicts with other thoughts and mental concepts, it then tries to release through the heart. That is what creates all the emotional activity. When you resist even that release, the energy gets packed up and forced into deep storage within the heart. In the yogic tradition, the unfinished energy pattern is called a Samskara. This is a Sanskrit word meaning “impression,” and in the yogic teachings it is considered one of the most important influences affecting your life. A Samskara is a blockage, an impression from the past. It’s an unfinished energy pattern that ends up running your life.

It’s a fine balance, our brain’s relationship to the emotional experience within our bodies. One the one hand, we should acknowledge what we feel, but on the other hand we should not allow our feelings to define us, at least when they are negative. But isn’t our feeling world–particularly our pain and anger–what activates our creative expressions? And don’t our creative expressions elevate our sense of justice, ethics, and humanity?

My favorite poem by Amiri Baraka

Young Soul

First, feel, then feel, then
read, or read, then feel,
then fall, or stand, where you
already are. Think
of yourself, and the other
selves…think
of your mother
and sisters,
and your bentslick father, then feel, or
fall where you already are
if nothing else will move you
then read
and look deeply
into all matters
come close to you
city boys–country men

Make some muscle in your head,
but use the muscle
in yr heart.

2 Characters, 1 Mask

In one of my writing groups, we recently did a 15 minute freewriting exercise based on the prompt: 2 Characters, 1 Mask (a real mask). Halfway through, we were asked to shift from writing about the literal mask to the figurative one. This was a prompt provided by playwright and teacher Alice Tuan. It was a lot of fun, and I offer it to you. Here’s what I came up with:

A is waiting for B. B walks in wearing a dramatic mask that covers her/his/their entire face.

A: Interesting.

B: I’m hiding.

A: From what?

B: From you.

A: I see you.

B: Do you?

A: What’s underneath?

B: You don’t know.

A: I saw you last night.

B: And?

A: Did you hurt yourself?

B: No.

A: Did you use a chemical peel?

B: No.

A: Then what are you hiding?

B: Myself, from you.

A: Why do you need to hide from me?

B: I don’t.

A: Then?

B: I choose to.

A: I want to see your face.

B: I want to see your brain.

A: What?

B: Why should I show you my face?

A: Because this is weird and not normal.

B: Well, what is normal?

A: I can’t work like this.

B: I can’t work like this.

A: I refuse.

B: Now you get it.

A: Get what?

B: Do you ever lie?

A: Everybody lies.

B: To me?

A: No. (Pause.) White lies maybe.

B: What’s an example.

A: Can’t think of one off the top of my head.

B: Go inside of it then.

A: Okay, I told you I loved to cook.

B: That one got blown pretty quick.

A: Yes, I fessed up.

B: You had to.

A: I’m an open book.

B: Only in cuneiform.

A: What is that?

B: Ancient scroll.

A: So you’re wearing a mask to prove that I’m a liar.

B: No, for fairness.

A: I hide the truth, so you hide your face?

B: Maybe it’ll make you listen.

A: I’m confused.

B: Embrace confusion. It helps.

A: With what?

B: Growth.

A: Please take off your mask.

B: You go first.

A: I’m not wearing one.

B: You are. You have many.

A: You’re speaking in tongues.

B: Take it off. Just one.

A: Fine.

B: Make it good.

A: I’m scared.

B: Of what?

A: Leaving you.

Sinkholes Everywhere

By Alison Minami

I’m writing a play about a town–really a family–but also a town that is hit with a giant sinkhole. The play moves around a lot in time–pre-sinkhole and post-sinkhole. It also dives right down into the hole itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NJixKfml4k

I went down the rabbithole of sinkholes on Youtube. Some of the sinkholes are gargantuan. We’re talking three to four hundred feet deep and sixty feet wide. Sometimes they are born out of avarice, a willful ignorance of science that puts profit above all else. Sometimes they are due to poor infrastructure and engineering or slow undetected leaks of water or sewage that collapses soluble sediment. There is evidence that floods and storms related to climate change are linked to more and more of these holes. Other internet videos include a man walking down a busy Brooklyn Street when one of his legs falls right through the cement crosswalk. A Florida man sleeps in bed when the earth opens up beneath him and swallows him whole; His body is never recovered. These holes seem futuristic and apocalyptic, but in fact they’ve been happening for a while now.

I can watch these videos on a loop. For me, it’s riveting! Sinkholes are a physical manifestation of all our demons and our fears. Why a hole? It’s like any other calamity…one day you’re here, the next you’re not. One day you know everything, and the next, you know nothing. The earth is supposed to represent the most sure and steady thing for us. What does it mean when people describe others as grounded? Or salt of the earth? And what does it mean to be at ground zero or hit rock bottom? There is so much metaphor in a giant gaping hole. I think of inconsolable grief, trauma, regret, unbearable shame, addiction, guilt, dreams deferred, dreams dead. I think of a terrifying abyss, fear of the unknown, depths of despair, Dante’s inferno, yes hell. Once you start with the metaphors (and the puns), you can’t stop. We’re all in the fucking hole in one way or another, doesn’t matter what it is for you—a divorce, a death, a freaking worldwide pandemic. We’ve all been down it; we’ve all had the choice to climb out or stay in.

 And isn’t it funny, that a hole is a piercing, a wound, an intolerable emptiness? And the same word with a different spelling Whole means exactly its opposite. To heal is to make whole, to piece together the essentials is to make whole, to be complete is to make whole. What’s that fancy Brene Brown terminology of being whole-hearted? How do we live whole-heartedly in a world with sinkholes everywhere? I don’t have an answer, but I’m here for the excavation.

Meet Tamadhur Al-Aqeel

By Alison Minami

Tamadhur Al-Aqeel has been writing plays for over a decade. She started out in an acting program at Boston University, where the Dean of her theater department snickered that she’d only get stereotypical roles as a maid or a prostitute. This problem of representation followed her when she transferred to Cal Arts, and finally to Cal State Long Beach, where she settled on a major in Journalism. Like many artists of color, Tamadhur realized that writing for the stage was the best way to create better roles for women like herself.  That was the nineties, and still, change has been slow to come.

Tamadhur has been a member of the Company of Angels Playwrights’ Group for nearly a decade and now serves as one of its co-leaders, volunteering to organize and schedule logistics. The group has evolved over time, having begun as an incubator for the theater’s 10-minute short play festival. Today it is an application-only, year-long play development program, with the aim of assisting writers to complete full-length pieces that culminate in professionally staged readings. She was also recently a member of the Vagrancy Theater’s professional playwrights’ group in 2020.

Tamadhur–“rhymes with bother” she says to help people with the pronunciation–was named after her father’s favorite Egyptian poet. She speaks fondly of her Kuwaiti-born father, a trained educator and a natural with young children, and recalls one of her early memories of him telling stories, using his hands as puppet-like figures around a tambourine, the proverbial campfire or theater in the round.

As an Arab-American female artist who is also a mom of two, Tamadhur has faced her fair share of challenges. In the early days, she co-wrote and independently produced a successful play that was a feminist take on Scheherazade, the narrator of the classic Middle Eastern tale One Thousand and One Nights. The piece incorporated shadow puppetry and began Tamadhur’s training and interest in the art form. Unfortunately, she was also in an intimate relationship with her co-writer and when that didn’t work out, he attempted to discredit her contribution. “Never sleep with your writing partner” she quips. The line is funny, but not the anecdote. It reflects a common problem of the patriarchy, desiring to punish women by usurping them of their creative power and due credit.

Post 9-11, like so many Americans of Middle Eastern descent, Tamadhur experienced increased scrutiny, which naturally led to increased paranoia. Her mail would arrive opened, and the airport security checks started and have never let up. To this day, whenever she travels with her family, they must factor in the time that it will take for security to put her through the humiliating rigmarole of patting her down, grabbing her crotch and breasts, and going through her things. Even at a young age, Tamadhur’s daughters would ask, “Why is it always you mom?”  This kind of racism has naturally informed her writing.

In one of her most recent works “Traffic Report”, written expressly for the Zoom stage, a daughter and father, who is living under a “dictatorship cracking down on dissidents,” exchange Skype calls that are being surveilled. The audience is put in the seat of the spying, uncertain whether the father himself is a dissident and forcing them to consider the morality of surveillance as well as their own complicity.

Tamadhur wonders in a post-pandemic world “Who are audiences going to be?” and “How much can you ask of an audience?” These are great questions for all theaters who struggled, even before the pandemic, to fill their seats. She admits that while quarantine was terrible and Zoom plays were not ideal, the online format made it easier for her to produce her work and to participate in playwriting opportunities such as LAFPI’s Microreads.

Currently, she’s developing a puppet show “Drugs and a Magic Cow” which is a dark adaptation of the fairy tale of Old Mother Hubbard. She is also collaborating with Cold Tofu Improv Group, who will be taking the first two pages of a play she’s written expressly for their group, which they will perform and extend into a complete one-act of improvised theater. That show is virtual on November 18  https://www.youtube.com/c/ImproTheatre.