The showcase of East West Players’ inaugural playwrights group includes everything from a musical about classism and sewer rats to a one-woman show about a Japanese-American heroine.
The group was initially launched in April 2017 by East West Players, the longest running professional theater of color. The playwrights will put on FEME (First Syllable Female) Readings Sunday, showcasing some of the pieces they developed through the course of the year. The show will illustrate not only the varying backgrounds and writing experiences of the all-female group, but also the evolutionary potential the writers’ work contains, said UCLA alumna and the group’s facilitator Alice Tuan.
“Once you have more women of the global majority in the group, you don’t have to parse words as much,” Tuan said. “People were accepting, they were listening, there was a lot of camaraderie and always support, and always just interest in the very different kinds of work that we all do.”
Snehal Desai, East West Player’s artistic director, selected Tuan to help facilitate the group. Desai also chose six other playwrights to participate in the all-female writing group, two of whom were also UCLA alumnae – Kristina Wong and Jeanne Sakata. The group met once a month for a year.
The fact that the group only features women had a noticeable impact for Wong. In the past, she had experienced group dynamics where men dominated the conversation or offered lengthy and unhelpful criticism, something Wong found unproductive, she said.
Sakata said she would have worked on the same material whether the group was all female or not. However, the female presence meant everyone was conscious of the underrepresentation of each others’ voices, she said.
“There is this recognition we have in common that our voices are less heard than men’s oftentimes, and I know it compels me to be even more supportive and even more encouraging and want to say things that will elevate and uplift the efforts of the other women in the group,” Sakata said.
The women worked on pieces that spanned a wide range of genres, including dramas and absurdist musicals, and experimented with theatrical conventions like genre or the portrayal of time. For example, during the course of the workshop, Tuan wrote a play called “Spin, Stir” which followed friends for over a decade, but manipulated the speed at which characters’ lives progressed – in one scene, a character’s speedy five-second exit and return are meant to symbolize the passage of two hours.
Wong similarly worked on a few pieces during the year, including a musical and a performance art piece performed in a hotel room, but she found herself focused on trying to write a play that made her feel personally satisfied while simultaneously finding a way to talk about the current political administration.
“I was like … I should just run for public office because anything crazy that I can imagine doing on stage will always be outdone by our real life right now,” Wong said. “I’m sort of playing with these tongue-in-cheek times, where I think people have obviously, with the election of Trump, become more into the showman than the message.”
Although she has not officially filed to run for office yet, Wong has been staging scripted rallies that mirror the structure of one-woman shows, part of an ongoing piece called “Kristina Wong for Public Office.” While she didn’t work on the script during the workshop, each project she worked on or mistake that she made helped lead her to create the piece, which she’ll perform at FEME, she said.
“It’s both a campaign, but a commentary on what it means to campaign, what does it mean to be a woman and a woman of color trying to run a campaign,” Wong said. “Politicians are now the ones who create shock and spectacle … and artists now are tasked with creating the quiet place for social change and truth.”
Sakata’s work within the group was also political – she wrote a 20-minute one-woman show telling the story of Aiko Herzog-Yoshinaga, a Japanese-American held in an internment camp during World War II. Herzog-Yoshinaga’s postwar research helped uncover a government cover-up of documents that strengthened the case for reparations. Sakata said Herzog-Yoshinaga’s strength and integrity were inspirational, particularly in this political era.
“In the age of Trump, we all need to be more like Aiko,” she said.
But after Sakata completed the play, it was reported that the government had instituted a policy of separating families at the border, which led some to draw parallels between family separations and Japanese internment. The new context altered the way Sakata perceived the urgency of Herzog-Yoshinaga’s actions and made her hope that more people like her would be able to uncover the same proof of government wrongdoing in the future, she said.
The play will be performed at FEME, but Sakata views Herzog-Yoshinaga’s story as a work in progress and plans to expand the play in the future. She said she believes that the policy will affect the way in which she tells the story, as she wrestles with artistic choices to draw clear parallels between the 1940s and today.
Likewise, most of the plays in FEME will be works in progress or still evolving, Tuan said. But the evolution of content and identity sets the showcase and process apart from other types of theater.
“Even though they’re not completed works … it’s just kind of the theater spirit is brewing and carbonating and scintillating and percolating,” Tuan said.