All posts by Alison Minami

Mistakes Make You

by Alison Minami

As a mother to a young child, I often think of the lessons that I want to teach my daughter. I think about how I can instill in her the spirit of creative risk-taking. I want her to be willing to fail, to fall flat on her face and still get up. I was always inspired by the story that Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx shapewear, shares from childhood when her father would require her and her brother to report back their failures at the end of every week. He wanted to instill in them a willingness to try new things despite the fear of failure. He was not interested in their easy or comfortable achievements. I know these kind of stories are aspirational and also reflect all kinds of privilege that don’t account for the very real social and economic struggles of both children and adults, but I still like it. I’m always thinking about what my version of this parenting will look like, mostly because it is a skill that I feel I did not learn as a young child, and then, as an artist.

I have been paralyzed with fear when asking for help or advocacy in my creative life. I’ve hovered my finger over the send button when trying to reach out to a person that I deemed to have some sort of authoritative role or in a position to negatively critique me or outright reject me. I have stood awkwardly at the drink table at many a networking event, wanting to disappear into the walls. I have sat in darkened rooms, my face burning hot from a rejection letter. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. It’s much better now…I think age has made me more resilient, but I also feel like I wasted a lot energy in worry or self-consciousness. Nobody cares, I must remind myself.

So then, I ask myself, how to build resilience for my daughter, so that she doesn’t become too precious or perfectionist, but that she sustains passion and joy in her artistry. So you can imagine my delight when she sat at the piano yesterday–she started lessons–and sang me an original song that she wrote. It was only one line, but it had heart and it was lyrical as songs should be. “If somebody hurts, hurts you, I won’t be fine.” Maybe I’m just being one of those parents who delights in everything their kid says or does, but I thought it was pretty good. When she explained the songwriting process to me she said, “You know how I make my songs? I make a lot of mistakes. It’s okay if I make mistakes because I learn from them.” This was such a proud parent moment for me, and now my daughter can give back the lesson to me.

I’m struggling with a new play. There’s a whole lot of non-work happening with a whole lot of loose thinking about different avenues and directions. Starting at the blank page is always a challenge. I just need to adopt the spirit of making mistakes.

The Buckle Sisters

By Alison Minami

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!

World Premiere of THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY Re-presents / Represents

By Alison Minami

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to see the World Premiere of “This is Not a True Story” produced by Artists at Play in partnership with the Latino Theater Company.  Playwright Preston Choi tackles the white man’s stereotypical representation of Asian women in three works: firstly, in the “canonical” (note quotations) opera Madama Butterfly and musical Miss Saigon, and in a more modern iteration of the Asian female, in the movie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.” All three works portray the central protagonists as damsels in distress, ones who need saving, ones who cannot endure the tragedy that befalls them by the American lovers who jilt them, and instead, succumb to suicide.

The women–CioCio from Madama Butterfly, Kim from Miss Saigon, and Kumiko (or Takako, the real woman for whom the movie was based on)—are cursed to live out their lives and deaths over and over again in a liminal purgatory where their true voices contend with the stories that were written for them. The play opens with CioCio, played by Julia Cho, gutting herself with a dagger, once, twice, one-hundred, nine-thousand times and so on. Every time she kills herself, she is condemned to live again and experience the birth and loss of a child, the agony of heartbreak, and the pain of a self-inflicted death. Every time she attempts to challenge her given circumstance or to deviate from the way she has been written, a booming, God-like voice overhead reprimands her “THAT IS NOT YOUR LINE!” When Kim, who was a character adaptation of CioCio, played by Zandi DeJesus, lands herself in the same space, she is simultaneously defiant with and reliant on CioCio to cope with the miserable repetition of her own story’s tragedy.

While CioCio and Kim, characters in the most widely produced works with Asian female leads, clash over how to deal with the hellish nightmare of being trapped in the scripts in which they were written, Kumiko, played by Rosie Narasaki, enters the liminal space with a desire to seek the truth, to distinguish the movie character Kumiko from the real-life Takako, the former being portrayed as a naïve caricature who was purported to have been looking for money buried in the snow of Fargo based on the Coen brothers film by the same name. So the mythology of Takako goes, though in real life, she could not have been that stupid, and such a story was more likely to have come from the police officers who deemed it reasonable to call a Chinese restaurant to assist in translation with this young, Japanese woman traveling alone. It is the arrival of Kumiko/Takako that compels the three women to move beyond commiseration and to strategize an escape. But what does escape look like? And can they ever be truly free?

Julia Cho as CioCio

This play was delightful on so many levels. Firstly, I was in tears of laughter from beginning to near end. I say near end because in the final moments, the tears turned to sadness and a glimmer of hope. Having read this manuscript before watching the play, I was struck by how truly theatrical the piece was. The reading experience did not come even close to the audience experience, which included stylized Asian accents—we were instructed to laugh at them—and babies flying in on ziplines. The trio of actresses were superbly adept at the physical humor and at all the sharp turns in moods and voice. They were dynamic, compelling, and so fun to watch.

Despite my laughter, I found myself empathizing with their plight. As an Asian American writer, actress, and human, I have felt the projections of Asian female on my body through a white male gaze, a colonialist, imperialist gaze, a frat boy gaze, whatever—all the ways in which I did not get to choose how I was seen. I felt the import of the play, which I consider to be deeply feminist in its messaging, and this can only be credited to the playwright Preston Choi, who found a uniquely creative way to deconstruct a longstanding and oft discussed issue of stereotyping and objectifying the Asian female without hammering our heads with pedantry. I’ll just say it: someone is going to write their Ph.D. dissertation on this play someday.

I enjoyed the play so much, I reached out to Director Reena Dutt, who was first introduced to the work through an Artist at Play reading series. The play spoke to Dutt so viscerally that the seed of direction came to her in a dream (yes, the flying babies!) Dutt shares in the feminist reading of the play, saying that in terms of BIPOC representation, she is no longer interested in “gratuitous female pain” and instead seeks out art that celebrates “BIPOC female joy”.  An actress herself, Dutt knows all too well the issues of representation for Asian women, but she is clear-eyed about the changing landscape over generations. She says, “Tragedy with BIPOC women is not entertainment anymore” and “at what point do we gain agency?”

The answer to this question is not only in the play, but in the power of collaboration and the process of production. Dutt is quick to credit Artist at Play, a female-powered AAPI theater of which Julia Cho is also a founding producing partner, for their willingness to support her vision and to respect all members of the team, from designers to performers.  Dutt describes Artists at Play as “changing the culture of how we work in the theater.” It stands to reason that the best theater will be born out of a community of artists who feel heard and respected. As Dutt exclaims, “It takes a team to care about the story,” and in this case, the story delivered.

“This is Not a True Story” is playing through October 15 at LATC. Reena Dutt is currently the Assistant Director to Leigh Silverman for Hansol Jung’s play MERRY ME at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Decolonize Your Artist Identity: A Conversation with Maikiko James

By Alison Minami

At a recent Company of Angels’ table read of a colleague’s play, I recognized one of the actresses. I had met her nearly a decade and half earlier at a different reading. That reading was in New York City where I had been one of the readers, and she had been the award-winning NYU Tisch screenwriter to have her work presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Asian CineVision. Maikiko James has since moved back home to California, eventually making her way to Los Angeles as an artist, activist, and arts administrator. She is now the Senior Director of Programs at Women In Film (WIF) —amongst the many hats that she wears.

After meeting up for a coffee re-connection, coincidence soon revealed itself as kismet. We connected right away as Asian American women and artists who have both struggled with the economic challenges and existential questions surrounding the moral imperative of an artist’s life and the convergence of art and politics. For Maikiko, to be creative is to be human; it is our birthright and intrinsic to our value as individuals and members of a collective. And yet, the current state of an artist’s life—as evidenced by the writers and actors’ strike—is aligned with capitalist interest; it is inherently “extractive” and “exploitative.” Maikiko’s philosophy on being an artist is very much a critique of the economic structures that prevent artists from thriving. She says, “artists should not be traditional workers making a product; art is something everyone should just get to do” and “when you commodify anything, it loses its spiritual value. Dehumanization is actually the outcome.”

Maikiko readily admits that she had to sacrifice much of her ambition as an actress and writer, so that she could make a viable living. She further shared that WIF has a help line for anyone who has experienced harassment, abuse or discrimination in the entertainment industry, and one of the recurring themes that comes up in calls is shame over perceived lack of success. The internalization of shame resonated so strongly with me. As someone whose pay-the-bills job has always been in low-paying part-time education gigs, I have felt so much shame for my life choices because, as I would say to myself, I could’ve or should’ve earned more/done more if I had only chosen a different professional path, or alternatively, I could’ve or should’ve pushed harder and sacrificed more for my art. The could’ve/should’ve game is very seductive, but ultimately, self-destructive. It is perpetuated by a hamster wheel of self-blame in a society that purports personal responsibility. Maikiko expressed and affirmed such a valuable truth for me and so many other creative compatriots: “We should not be ashamed for wanting to be artists, for being artists.”  It seems like such a basic truism that you’d think it doesn’t bear saying aloud, but I felt so seen and heard (and liberated) when she said it.

In many ways, this is the core of her work at WIF, uplifting the voices and spirits of women and underrepresented voices in the entertainment space. It is so heartening to know that there is a deep and thoughtful philosophy that underlies her work beyond surface and obligatory nods to diversity and representation. And while Maikiko is honest about the bleakness of sustainability for artists in a capitalist structure, she is equally a visionary for what’s possible. Maikiko asks the essential question “What does the decolonized generative future of artists look like?” I love that she is even asking the question at all, and I wish more artists could first feel how these words land on their body, and secondly, consider their role in answer to this exact articulation. The starving artists—the strikers, the minimum wage workers, the freelance hustlers, the drivers and servers–are suffering, yet paradoxically, it is they who will get us through to the other side of the madness that is brimming all around us in the current climate of neoliberal fascism. It’s not the billionaire class that is going to save us or preserve our humanity. Maikiko is not just hopeful, but resolute, that “the artistic mind can change how our systems work and how we engage.” These words were very inspiring and made me feel less isolated as a tinker in my workshop. Maikiko affirmed that we as artists are part of something bigger and that our work is not just about expression for, say, personal catharsis or self-interested gain, but truly a moral and spiritual imperative for the survival of our humanity. It’s easy to dismiss this sentiment as hyperbolic or lofty, but it reminds me of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Young Soul” in which he writes: “First, feel, then feel, then/ Read, or read, then feel, then/ Fall, or stand, where you already are” and “Make some muscle in your head/but use the muscle in yr heart.”

Meet Emily Brauer Rogers

By Alison Minami

Emily Brauer Rogers grew up on a farm in Indiana with a large brood of siblings and cousins. Often left to their own devices (and imaginations), the children put on their own shows. As the eldest of the clan, Emily wore all the hats, serving as playwright, director, and star of the many theatrical productions they put on. This was the early beginnings of Emily’s life in the theatre.

Since graduating from the Master’s in Professional Writing Program at USC, Emily has been steadily writing for nearly two decades. Thematic to her work are “stories of strong women” that serve to answer the central question “How do we tell the stories of heroines we haven’t seen?” In her work “Bringing Iraq Home” Emily interviewed women who had been affected by the Iraq war, whether as veterans, family, or partners, examining both their struggles and sacrifices. Emily wanted to examine what it meant to go to war for women, and the lasting reverberations of wartime trauma, whether the women had been in combat or on the periphery.

I know Emily through the Company of Angels’ Playwriting Group, and I have read and admired her writing for over two years. Her play “Monstrous Women” explores the resilience and sisterhood of oppressed and unfairly maligned mythological female figures, including Siguanaba, a supernatural siren from Central American folklore with the head of a horse, or Yamauba, a mountain fairy from Japanese mythology, who seduces hunters before killing them. In another work “Undine”, Emily tells the story of a water sprite who is helping to alleviate drought while facing the wrath of her father. True to Emily’s words, these plays examine “stories that are bigger than life.” Emily is expert at teasing out the allegories of the patriarchy—the psychological traumas on women, their survival strategies, and their deep reserves of strength and empathy for each other as well as, yes, their capacity for betrayal and vengeance.

“Bloomer Girls” staged reading at Macha Theatre on April 15, 2023

Her play “Bloomer Girls” follows the lives of women in baseball in the late 1800s and today. A play structured in innings, the scenes move back and forth in time as two central figures, Liz and Gwen, played by the same actress, must make difficult decisions surrounding their careers. Liz, a baseball player in 1800s, must decides whether to stay with her team or get married, while Gwen of modern-day struggles with being objectified as a female softball player in a PR stunt in exchange for the opportunity to be scouted for the National Softball League. Most recently “Bloomer Girls” had a professionally staged reading at Macha Theater in Seattle, directed by Anna Claire Day.

As a mother of two young girls, Emily continues to push the stories of women from the margins to the center as an artistic and moral imperative. This is something that she does in big and small ways, not just in her writing, but in her role as a mother, writing professor, and community artist. Emily has been a member of the Vagrancy Theater playwright’s group, Playground LA, Company of Angels, Hunger Artists of Orange County, and our very own Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative.

How to Write that Play for a Developmental Reading: A Set of Questionably Useful Instructions

By Alison Minami

  1. Wait until the last minute. Swim in a pool of guilt when you consider the months you were given. 
  2. Get on Yelp to find the perfect coffee shop. Consider the seating, the available outlets, the parking, and savory food items, which means, must have melted cheese. Remember: location, location, location.
  3. Situate. Why are coffee shops getting rid of their outlets? Do they resent the writers?  Sit next to someone who appears appropriately interesting (not too crazy, not too loud, but not too boring. Will they watch your laptop if you need to go to the bathroom? Of course not, you always say sure when people ask you, but you’d never leave your precious, half-written, non-backed-up scenes in the hands of others.)
  4. Do a mental assessment of all those half-written scenes you wrote and decide to start over. New page, new document. 
  5. Let your eyes and ears roam the room. Listen to people: on their phones, in their meetings, deep inside their gossip. 
  6. Type up their words–dressed up in their inflection, their outrage, their excitement. Everything is copy, even this saying. (Norah Ephron’s grandmother?)
  7. Ruminate over all the public plagiarism scandals. That girl from Harvard–name omitted here because she deserves re-invention; she was so young. The guy Oprah named to her book club. The ridiculous white woman who pretended to have a Black foster mother named “Big Mama”. You called that one right away after reading the NYT mixed review of her memoir. Chuckle at the memory of your perspicacity and your ensuing vindication. 
  8. Start to cast the play for the developmental reading, even though you’re not even sure which characters to keep and which to ax. Too many is better than not enough right? Send a flurry of emails, inform them that the reading will be cold. Keep the pressure down.
  9. Crave a cigarette. Pretend to smoke one and hope no one is watching. Wonder why you didn’t do more drugs in your youth. Would your life have been better or over?
  10. Fill out your ballot. Begrudgingly. Remind yourself to incorporate your cynicism into one character. Or two, why not? 
  11. Think again about your play–the one you’re actually trying to write. Make excuses–a lot of them. If you hadn’t taken on that second job that’s not even really worth the money. If you’d only started earlier. If you hadn’t gotten sick and slept through an entire week. If you’d researched better, this all might be so much easier. 
  12. Speaking of research…get on Youtube. Start with a relevant question. Like, what is the strategy of Voir Dire? Watch some lectures. Take notes until you feel bored. 
  13.  Jump into a rabbit hole of court tv sentencing videos. Observe the faces of defendants as they hear their fate. Be disgusted by your voyeurism. 
  14. Turn your attention to your ailments. Start searching up about that strange skin rash on your finger. The possibility of early onset tinnitus. The pain in your bunion when the weather turns cold. 
  15. Get sucked into the ads. Wonder why you’ve been so poor when there are so many ways to make money. 
  16. Consider what it would actually take to get a flat belly. Or how to get flawless skin. Why are there suddenly lines around your neck? 
  17. Think of metaphors too. Cliched ones, strange ones. You are lost out at sea with this damn play. You are in a perpetual permanent press cycle in the washing machine of your life. 
  18. Think of alliteration. How cool it is, how crisp it is, how syntactically delightful.
  19. Think of repetition. And rhythm. It’s pertinent; it relates. This is a patchwork play. Things, people, characters, they must weave through like colored thread. But order matters. And what the fuck is the order?
  20. Consider your concerns about the climate. Why did it take you this long? What are you doing about it? Admit, nothing. Is putting it in your play a small measure of penance?
  21. Think of the parts of a story, especially the climax. What is the climax of your play? Must a play have a climax? Can it be a series of vignettes that don’t actually rise to any dramatic moment of peril?
  22. Notice the temperature. You are cold. It’s a cold world. Everything is a metaphor for capitalism and its grip on us. It lives in our bones. 
  23. Notice the time. In minutes, hours, and days until your reading, and by the way, check your emails for actor responses. 
  24. Map out a schedule, number of pages per day and hour until your deadline. Revise and rewrite as needed, as every hour escapes you and you stare at page 15, the place where you are stuck. 
  25. Go home. Go to sleep. Pray that your dreams will inform you. 
  26. Wake up early and try to manifest with meditation. Picture yourself banging away at the keyboard. The words tumble out of you. They dance on the page. 
  27. Feel the mounting dread in the pit of your stomach. Think of its color, its texture. Consider if it is gassy or solid. Can you vomit it out? Would it be better expelled the other way?
  28. Google contemporary playwrights.  Google the awards they’ve won. 
  29. Eat a lot. Think about the concept of insatiability. Does it live in every worthwhile play? Is it evil, good, or neutral?
  30. T-minus twenty four hours until the reading. Remind the actors, they will be reading cold. Apologize profusely. Promise they’ll have a script by lunchtime.
  31. Turn off the wi-fi. Make more coffee. 
  32. Tell yourself: a bad decision is better than no decision at all. 
  33. Cut and paste. Cut and paste. Sew at the edges of words between the jaggedly cut fabrics you are willing into form. Think of the word interstitial
  34. Look up how to pull an all nighter. Roll your eyes at their dumb tips, but do stick your face in the freezer. Then sit again at the keyboard. 
  35. Set an alarm and take a nap in an uncomfortable position, so as not to oversleep. 
  36. Wake up. Train your eyes on the clock. Remember, this work is for you. Remember, you have something to say. 
  37. Write. Write a lot. Messily, desperately, with both focus and abandon. Focused abandon?
  38. Invoke the Gods. Ask for a miracle. 
  39. Strive for passable and page count, forget perfection. Work toward a semblance of cohesion, create a lot of filler dialogue to be replaced later. 
  40. Grind. Your keyboard. Your teeth. The hours into minutes. 
  41. Eyes on the page count. Eyes on the clock. Eyes on the words, the sentences, the stage directions. 
  42. Think of the end, which will really be the beginning. Get to it. Complete the cycle, so that you can rinse and repeat. 
  43. Think of the actors…waiting. Think of their frustrations, their judgments. You’re already two hours past the promised lunchtime hour. Re-frame your negative thinking. Think of their grace; think of their talent
  44. Freewrite a monologue on the fear of death. This is the heart of the character; this is the heart of the play. This is the existential question. Make your audience consider their mortality.
  45. Decide on an end. Then press send. 

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.

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 [email protected] & 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:

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 [email protected] & 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.