Lauren Yee: I wanted to write a play about minstrelsy, and I spent a month at the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts actually researching source material from 19th century minstrel shows. The play, ultimately, is not a minstrel show, but it springs out of a close investigation of the time period where minstrelsy was an acceptable and, honestly, extremely popular form of entertainment. What I tried to do was mine that mindset in a 21st century context and in doing so, I began to question the reductionist attitude towards morality that exists nowadays. It’s universally acceptable to say that slavery was bad and people should be free; yet, we continue to see a world where these antiquated, morally objectionable practices live on in subtler forms.
For me, revision is always a significant part of the writing process, since so much of what the play is most centrally “about” usually becomes clear by my second or third crack at the play. When I write, I will typically come up with far more material than I need, and a majority of my time will be spent culling this material, rewriting scenes, and filling in holes.
For Our Peculiar Institution, I basically followed this path, but also started with several elements I knew I wanted to include and then figured out different ways to make these pieces logically fit. Music—one song in particular--was one element that I was hoping to fit in, and a minstrel archetypal character was another.
PF: Some of us saw your play Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact last fall or may be familiar with some of your other work. Where do you feel this play fits with your work. How is it different from other plays you’ve written? What were some of the challenges of this piece?
LY: A sense of heightened realism runs throughout my work and often this translates into something lighter and comedic, as with Ching Chong Chinaman. While significantly more realistic and linear in its structure than some of my other work, Our Peculiar Institution also draws from this vein of lightness, which I like to think of it as “cheerfulness in the face of absurdity.”
Obviously, though, one of the challenges of writing this particular piece is my unfamiliarity with many different aspects of the play—geography, time period. In putting characters into absurd, unlikely situations, you have to grapple with balancing a rather off-kilter tone with chronological and geographic accuracy. Also, in my Asian American-themed work, I have a certain surefootedness that I didn’t have here, delving into issues that were specifically about the relationships between African Americans and whites, then and now. The wisdom is that you write about what you know, and for me, the challenge was finding something I could relate to within the story I wanted to tell.
PF: Given that you’ve grown up in the Bay Area theatre community and have recently begun to experience (and have success!) in other cities and other theatre communities, how would you characterize the Bay Area theatre scene? What do you feel it has done for you as an artist?
LY: The closeness of the Bay Area theater community is something that has always appealed to me. It’s more manageable, and as much as we bemoan the lack of X available to us here, it’s a place that has a little bit of everything.
Still, logistically, just the way that the Bay Area is laid out often makes it difficult to foster the kind of energy that you need for a healthy theater community. You don’t have a single transportation system like New York, where you can get from one side of the Bay to the other for two dollars, and that hinders the actors and the audiences from getting to where they want to be. I also think we in the Bay Area have a slight complex about being so far from New York—note how excited Bay Area folk are when a show transfers to New York.
Also, as someone who frequently writes for actors of color, I get anxious sometimes wondering whether I will be able to get the right people I need for my plays and whether that will ultimately interfere with productions.
PF: You’ve got a lot of new things coming up. What are you excited about and what’s next for you?
LY: In 2010, Ching Chong Chinaman gets two more productions, at New York’s Pan Asian Rep and Seattle’s SIS Productions, so it’ll be fun to see still more interpretations of the play.
And I’ll be heading to San Diego in the fall to start my MFA in playwriting at UCSD. It’s a tiny program (with one or two people in a class every year) with the resources to keep me busy and also help me build the body of work I need to move onto the next step in my career.
But I expect I’ll be in the Bay Area pretty frequently; it’s hard to stay away.