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INTERVIEW: Leah Nanako Winkler on Parodying Stage Whiteness, the Kilroys, and More

Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler in the rehearsal studio. Photo by Leni Kei Photography.

Next Valentine’s Day, Mu Performing Arts and Mixed Blood Theatre will be sitting down together over glasses of white wine. The occasion? Their co-production of Leah Nanako Winkler’s play Two Mile Hollow, a parody of a certain well-worn cornerstone of American theatre. Two Mile Hollow is hot: the play was featured on The Kilroys’ 2017 List and is currently enjoying a rolling world premiere across the United States, with Mu and Mixed Blood just two of several theatres that signed on.

Winkler spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about the Kilroys, writing Kentucky onto the stage, and more.

What inspired you to write Two Mile Hollow

Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler. Photo by Leni Kei Photography.

I was on a writer’s retreat a couple summers ago with Youngblood (an awesome group for professional playwrights under thirty at the Ensemble Studio Theatre that I’ve sadly aged out of) when a few of us noticed that a certain theatre’s new season consisted solely of what Knives author Will Snider coined “White people by the water.” We deemed this a genre where rich White people sit in a big house by the water and complain about their First-World problems over white wine.

I remember laughing about it at the time, but then I got freaked out and started to wonder how deeply these overblown narratives were ingrained in my brain. So, as an exercise, I decided to start writing a White-People-by-the-Water play of my own from memory alone. Five hours later, I had written about half of the play. Why? Because theater, movies, and many, many novels had been feeding me rich White people narratives since the day I could understand English!

These stories have become an inherent part of my vocabulary – especially theatrically. So many of these plays are produced every year, and we’re constantly told that they are the best and the most “normal”. And then I thought, “What does that make my experience as a mixed-race Asian Southerner from Japan and Kentucky who comes from more humble means? Weird??”

I don’t think I’m weird. What I think is weird is how I knew so much about these white people by the water, but how little they knew about me. But, I guess, how could they? I barely had a framework of my own identity, because we’re still framing our own narrative and claiming our voice.

So how does being force fed one dominant perspective affect the hopes, dreams and self-esteem of the “other”? I knew I had to dig deeper, but I chalked the play up to an exercise and sat on it for a year. Then, a wonderful theater company in Los Angeles called Artists at Play asked if they could do a workshop and cast the White characters with non-White actors (and of course, Charlotte – the one non-White character – with a non-White actor).

At the time, I had been in the thick of helping lead a protest of a yellowface production of The Mikado by New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, on top of seeing Emma Stone play a hapa in Aloha (among many other instances of white people playing Asians), that the idea of having a bunch of AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] performers play ridiculous White people seemed both cathartic and correct. According to AAPAC [the Asian American Performers Action Coalition] figures released in 2016, Asian American actors comprise only 9% of casting decisions in New York (for both On- and Off-Broadway).

A promotional photo for First Floor Theater’s 2017 production of Two Mile Hollow.

Through my experience with Artists at Play – which is joining in the simultaneous world premiere of the production with Mu/Mixed Blood, Ferocious Lotus, and First Floor Theater this season – I became even more inspired to make Two Mile Hollow a play that not only pokes fun and scorches these lily white, over the top, ever too-familiar characters we often see at major American theaters over and over.

I was also inspired to showcase the comedic force, emotional range, and sense of play that actors of all races have and can demonstrate in works that isn’t solely The King and I or Miss Saigon. So, in short, I’m inspired by the talents I see around that aren’t always given a chance. I was inspired by the desire to somehow satirize, implode, pay homage to, and create a deeper meaning out of these familiar and often great plays from a new perspective – while also making people laugh.

Two Mile Hollow is listed on the New Play Exchange and was selected for the 2017 Kilroys List. These are still relatively new experiments in promoting plays – have you received any productions or inquiries come about through these programs?

Yes! The Kilroys are amazing and provided great exposure for Two Mile Hollow. I’ve spoken at universities [as a result] and gotten many inquiries about the script and about my work in general! Very grateful for them!

Your play God Said This is on the slate for the 2018 Humana Festival in Louisville, KY. Kentucky is featured in several of your plays, including the aptly named Kentucky and God Said This, which is set in Lexington, KY. Are there any particular reasons why this state features so prominently in your work?

I’m so excited about Humana!

I moved to Lexington, KY by way of Japan, so my roots are there. I also often write what I know (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I write my life). For example, God Said This is only about twenty percent true. The events that happen in Kentucky are ninety-nine percent untrue, but could be called semi-autobiographical: I was semi-estranged from my former alcoholic father for a long time, and my sister (who became a born-again Christian in high school) did marry a born-again Christian man. But I did not try to stop the wedding [laughs] – which is what the premise of the play is about – and my mom’s cat Sylvie is alive!

Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler in nature. Photo by Leni Kei Photography.

I also think the working class of Kentucky is misrepresented in plays. I actually went to Japanese school in Lex[ington] on Saturdays and learned theater from an amazing drama teacher in the public school system in “American” school. Lex now has an openly gay mayor. A lot of gastro-pubs. Music. Diversity. Also, there are Asian Kentuckians in my plays because I am an Asian Kentuckian and I was surrounded by them – which seems to throw people off. As my friends like to say, “We’re not all a bunch of Tweetie Bird t-shirt wearing, Yosemite Sam-tattooed motherfuckers.”

I think there are smart people everywhere and dumb people everywhere, and a lot of humor and truth comes from that. We aren’t in a liberal bubble just because we’re in New York. Trumpers could be your rich neighbor in your vacation home, if you have one. Although on my last trip I did meet a half-Asian Trump supporter in Kentucky and that threw me off!

You’re also part of the inaugural group of playwrights commissioned by Audible to create new works – what’s in the works for that project? Are there specific parameters that you’ve been given (e.g., length, genre, delivery dates), or is this more open-ended?

You know, I received this news very randomly and cannot be more happy to have given a chance to explore a new medium. I’m actually not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about it – but I’m hoping to come up with something super unique, truthful, and fun!

Several of your plays have been published. At what point do you call a play “done” and send it off – after a workshop, after a production, after a certain number of years of sitting on it?

I don’t think it’s ever done actually. If I went into rehearsal for any of my published plays, I’d probably still try to change things!

A promotional poster for the upcoming 2018 Mu/Mixed Blood production of Two Mile Hollow.

Two Mile Hollow plays February 16-March 4, 2018 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine