After seeing her play Kentucky Off-Broadway, I chatted with Leah Nanako Winkler about being biracial and young in the theater world, things on her reading list, and what’s next (heads up LA!)–and she was delightful even when I failed to properly articulate questions. Also, since both our initials are LW, my questions, words, and contextual notes are just in italics.
What was the inspiration for the play? To what extent is it autobiographical?
A lot of people have been asking about the autobiographical because you know, I’m half Asian—I actually don’t like that term, I’m biracial—my mom’s Japanese and my dad’s white. I think that’s part of the reason people automatically assume that it’s about me because you don’t really see that on stage a lot. You see the author is biracial, you think, oh, that must be about her. I don’t think that happens a lot to every other writer whose white. Not that all other writers are white.
Right, but it’s a different conversation.
Yes. The character of Hiro is actually not me at all. She is a marketing executive who makes a lot more money than me who has a very strong belief system that does not reflect my own. A lot of the people in the play were inspired by circumstances in my real life in the sense that I did grow up partially in Kentucky, in a town called Lexington. I actually was born in Japan though and moved to Indiana mid-childhood and then Kentucky. I lived in Kentucky for a total of about ten years and I was very, very, very active in the Japanese community that they have in Lexington which sounds a little bizarre, but there’s a lot of Japanese people there. I went to Japanese school on Thursdays and Saturdays. I definitely was brought up in both cultures. Hiro is very Americanized and I imagine that she was born and raised in Kentucky and she moves to New York, that’s probably the first place she lives aside from her hometown.
It’s definitely not an autobiography by any means, but there are a lot of circumstances in the play that inspired me to write it from my own life. When I was 28, I was in three weddings in a row. You reach a certain age in your twenties you get invited to be a part of a lot of festivities–very overwhelming and expensive. One summer I was in the weddings of my best friend from high school in Kentucky and my little sister who happens to be a born-again Christian. I didn’t want to stop the wedding by any means, but it did cross my mind of the theatricality of weddings and rituals, and the similarity that it has to theater. I was also reuniting, in all three of those weddings, with people from my past. And so it started to make me go on about a person’s journey when they return home and how you have these mini-reunions with peoples.
I love that opening high school scene at the bar, felt very familiar regardless of here you’re going, of transporting back in time a little bit.
Absolutely. I think when you see people that you haven’t seen in a long time and maybe haven’t specifically kept in touch with but are still meaningful to you, a lot of the conversation is, oh my gosh high school and this person dying and that person dying and that person got married. And then you kind of repeat the cycle a lot and all of that was very meaningful and interesting to me, so that’s what inspired me to write the play.
What role does being Asian American, being biracial, wanting to see someone like you…influence how you write stories and think about…? [At this moment, my brain and preparation fail, what is my question again, but Leah immediately gets it.]
I think for me, when I was growing up in Japan I was considered white. I was a little exoticized in that way–definitely not a Japanese person even though I was born there and spoke the language so I didn’t really see all the parts of society. And there’s a lot of anime with people who look like me, because a lot of anime look white. But when we moved to the States, all of a sudden I became the girl from Japan and everyone saw me as Japanese. So it’s like I can’t win either way–not white enough to be white, not Asian enough to be Asian.
And I don’t think I ever saw a mixed race person represented as mixed race in a story or a play. Even still, there’s a handful. I mean Dean Cain in Superman is a quarter Japanese, so I remember really clinging to that when I was little. And later I learned that Zach from Saved by the Bell was half Thai or something like that [Indonesian, according to Wikipedia].
Oh yeah, I feel like every once in a while there are these lists of “People You Didn’t Know Were Asian / Asian American.”
And it was a little different with Margaret Cho because she’s Asian and that’s really great, but that’s still something very different from mixed. As a playwright, I definitely try to, or I just naturally, even if it’s just casting, cast a lot of multiracial people in the story because I think visibility is really powerful and while Kentucky is not a play about being Asian and it’s not a play about being biracial, I think it is actually a pretty normal American family, and I just wanted to show that.
I appreciated that it was a diverse cast without being a show that’s about race.
Definitely. And I think I just want to normalize these images of America. I am very involved in casting or I just write it in my script even if the role doesn’t call for specifically a half-Asian person. I do have one play that’s about diversity that does require specific mixings, but right now I’m writing a two character play and one of the criterion is that they have to be different ethnicities from each other. So I like breaking the mentality that white is the only relatable way. And I think that’s very important in the landscape of visibility.
Absolutely. So what has your experience been like in the general theater world, being Asian American, being a woman?
It’s a lot harder being a younger Asian American woman. For me, I’m still considered very young in theater terms, I’m 30. I started in New York when I was 21 and I think getting your name out there is really hard if you don’t have parents who pay for your apartment and fund all your Kickstarter shows. It took a long time to get my name out there, especially because I don’t write conventional living room dramas, even though my work is varied. I have encountered definitely racism as playwrights of color have and there’s a whole issue of gender parity as well.
But I think even from now and five years ago, the conversation’s definitely changing. I remember five years ago I wrote a show with Teddy Nicholas called Flying Snakes in 3D with my old theater company. It was about class divisions and race divisions in the arts and people were like, “Oh my god, that’s ridiculous, there is no race and class division in the arts, that’s crazy, you guys are crazy.” But now, five years later, everyone talks about it. I definitely see a lot changing, and of course Hamilton has shown that people of color, artists of color are marketable. I think this is a really exciting time to be an Asian American woman in the theater.
Yes! So moving on, sort of, you were one of the people behind the efforts around the Mikado. Can you talk about that? [Leah posted an article “The Mikado” in Yellowface Is Coming to The Skirball Center of the Performing Arts and We Should Talk About It,” and it went viral. Asian Americans rallied around the cause and spoke with New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. The production was eventually cancelled.].
There were a lot of people behind it. There were a lot of protests before the New York protests. You know, I initially found the flyer at my old job and I sent it to a few people. I think we were all talking about, oh my god we have to do something about this and then getting out there first.
What was it like to see that process of seeing that through from starting with people to protesting to the show being cancelled?
It was really cool. First of all, there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes that the general internet doesn’t know about and as soon as the piece came out and it was wildly spread and people were talking about, there was definitely a team of people that were not just me, a lot of Asian Americans artists in New York from theater and beyond speaking directly with New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players on the phone, via conferences, and they were really—I got to hand it to them—aside from a couple instances, they were never combatative. They were extremely willing to listen and I think a part of it is that they have gotten a lot of protests over this particular show for years before. It was definitely a testament to how people are speaking out now and it’s really great to see community come together. Earlier this month, there was a forum that was spurred not only by the Mikado controversy, but just the ongoing dialogue that’s been going on in New York and beyond about Asian Americans and representation called “Beyond Orientalism.”
There’s just been a lot of forums with the Mikado as a tipping point and that’s very exciting. If anything, people who may not have intentionally done yellow face, or intentionally done it, have the message now that if you do that kind of stuff, you will hear about it. And it’s not a matter of am I allowed to do this or is this censorship. It’s a matter of people have a voice now, even if it’s just on Twitter, and people will talk.
Who are your writing role models? What’s on your read/watch/listen list?
I really admire a lot of people. Young Jean Lee, she’s a cool experimental Korean American theater maker whose been around for awhile and who I worked with my first years in New York. I love that she’s really varied in her work and is constantly challenging identity and politics. I generally faithfully go to all of her shows.
There’s all of these legendary playwrights, like David Henry Hwang obviously, and there’s this next generation of Asian American and hapa playwrights that are coming up—Ming Peiffer, Mike Lew, Susan Soon He Stanton, Rehana Mirza, Sam Chanse, Zhu Yi, just to name a few, I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot. I’m constantly reading and interested in their stuff. I really think that anything Page 73 and Ensemble Studio Theater produces, and I’m not just saying that because they produced my show. But I think that to put 16 people on stage on an Off-Broadway theater is really brave and commendable and I never thought it would happen. Not once were they like, Hiro should be blonde and from Connecticut. They never questioned my casting choices at all. I also really love Teddy Nicholas, the great playwright, and my director Morgan Gould has a great theater company called Morgan Gould and Friends.
Last question, what’s next?
Kentucky is actually going to East West Players in Los Angeles! So that’s what I’m working on. It is going to be—I have to get used to saying it because people keep asking me—it is going to be November 10 through December 11.