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INTERVIEW: John Olive and How the Ghost of You Clings

A photo collage of the early-20th century actress Anna May Wong, whose story is the focus of the upcoming How the Ghost of You Clings, the Anna Wong Story.

Some people make New Year’s resolutions to do less. The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo – come the new year, it dives right into the latest installment of the Ruth Easton New Play Series: Minnesota playwright John Olive’s How the Ghost of You Clings, the Anna Wong Story.

Each installment in the New Play Series operates on the same basic paradigm. One of the PWC’s Core Writers is matched with a director, a dramaturge, and a cast of actors for 20 hours of intensive development. During that time, a play might be tweaked, enlarged, or cut – or all of the above – before it is presented to audiences in a pair of free public performances. Playwright John Olive spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about this play and its inspiration.

Playwright John Olive.

When and how did you first become acquainted with Anna May Wong and her work? When did you first think of writing a play about her?

I am a devotée of old movies. I first became aware of Anna May Wong when I watched Shanghai Express, a film Anna did with Marlene Dietrich. Both women are remarkable, and the film is well worth seeking out (though it’s not easy to find). Anna did silents, talkies, plays, early TV, vaudeville (she could sing). Anna did a few “A” projects — Shanghai Express, The Thief of BaghdadThe Toll of The Sea, (Madame Buttterfly with a Chinese setting). But mostly she did “B” movies. Some were very successful, some not. To this day Anna remains the busiest, most active, most accomplished Asian-American actor, ever.

The genesis of the play is a conversation I had with Sun Mee Chomet, an extremely accomplished local actor. Sun Mee mentioned Anna May Wong and a lightbulb went on.

How long ago did you decide to start writing this play?

Not sure. This play took shape quickly. I’ve written a number of plays —3? 4? — on Asian themes. I’m also very interested in Hollywood, old Hollywood especially, and in the way it expresses American culture. In this case racist culture. It may have taken a year to write this play, but I didn’t spend all my time on it.

One discovery I made is that (relatively) few people have heard of Anna. The reaction I often got was “Anna May Wong…? Gee, it’s a familiar name, but…” I am hoping that my play will rectify this situation.

An interesting aspect of Anna’s career is that she traveled to China on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which had a very noticeable impact on her work during World War 2. Do you engage with this piece of history in your play?

A promotional poster for the wartime propaganda film The Lady from Chungking. Note the text describing the Japanese as “savage conquerors”.

Anna actually traveled through Japan on her way to China (!). China and Japan were not “officially” at war during Anna’s stay in China, which lasted 11 months…but the relationship between the two countries was fraught, to say the least. Shanghai was full of Japanese “businessmen” who had money and a nasty attitude.

When the war started, Anna was back in the U.S. She did two anti-Japanese “propaganda films:” Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking. Anna was financially comfortable, but she was not rich. Still, she donated her salary from both films to “the cause.”

One issue arose: despite her fame, Anna was, like many American born Chinese, Cantonese. Not Mandarin. Many mainland Chinese looked down their noses at the Cantonese. Thus, because of her ethnicity, and despite her successful anti-Japanese efforts, Anna was not allowed to appear with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, etc. She experienced discrimination on both sides of the Pacific.

Many of the roles that made Anna famous are now considered Asian stereotypes, like the Dragon Lady and the Butterfly characters that she often played. Do you think this ultimately helped or harmed her career, keeping in mind the constraints of the time?

The prevalence of stereotyped Chinese roles and the heavy use of yellowface casting (the use of white actors in Asian roles — e.g., Micky Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) – was a significant problem for Anna. But even more problematic was the fact that it was not allowed for non-white actors to kiss white leading men. This meant that a whole range of parts, romantic leads, was unavailable to Anna. She had to watch roles she could have, should have played go to less-talented white actors.

Anna May Wong (left) and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express.

This is a huge issue for the play – how much did Anna personally suffer? How did she deal with this discrimination? I have yet to make up my mind about this.

It’s interesting that Anna lived and worked for some years in Europe, where [this type of] discrimination was relatively mild (if it existed at all). In Europe, Anna was taken seriously as an artist. That she was Chinese was irrelevant. Yet Anna chose to come home, to Hollywood. To the land of Dragon Ladies and Yellow Face. (“Home” is the operative word here.)

Tell me about your writing process. Do you have a certain schedule, habits, or other ways of making sure that you meet your regular writing deadlines?

Writing is ideal work for me because I can’t do it 8 hours a day – so I have a lot of free time. This is good, because I am lazy. Generally, I work in the mornings, though not always.

I usually write by hand, then transfer the material to computer. Computer work is very different – less compositional, more editorial (if that makes sense). Right now, the play exists on computer, but I’m writing the new scenes by hand. For what it’s worth, I write screenplays directly on the computer. Ditto, the play reviews I write).

A frequently discussed topic among playwrights is how much to put stage directions into a script. Where do you stand on this and why?

The cover of an illustrated edition of Charles Kingsley’s 1863 novel Water Babies.

I use stage directions in order to put space in a script and suggest to the actor that he/she should insert a change of process at this point. Do I care whether an actor does a line “angrily”? Or takes a “beat” (whatever that is)? No. But I do want the actor to note that there is a difference between material that comes before a stage direction and what comes after.

Also, there is a significant distinction to be drawn between stage directions that describe physical action and directions that describe interpretation. The former should be taken seriously; the latter, not.

When and how did you first become affiliated with the Playwrights’ Center?

I’m sometimes accused of being a founder. I don’t think this is true, but I’ve been with the PWC for a lonnnnng time.

You’ve written a number of plays for young audiences – what’s coming next in that direction?

I’m working on an adaptation of Charles Kingsley’s (wonderful) Water Babies.

How the Ghost of You Clings plays January 8-9 at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine