Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda is an Asian-American who writes about Asian-Americans, which makes him something of a rarity. And he’s brought many of his plays to prominent national and international stages, which makes him virtually one-of-a-kind.
Formerly a musician and then a lawyer, Gotanda wrote his first musical in his second year of law school, “just to keep myself sane,” he says. Soon thereafter he “gratuitously fell into” what’s become an acclaimed career.
We caught up with Gotanda ahead of his Maui appearance at the MACC’s McCoy Studio Theater (Friday, April 8, 6:30pm) to learn more about his thoughts on race, relationships and writing.
Why do you think it’s important to write about culture and ethnicity, and why is it important for audiences to experience
To me, it’s always been about writing the stories I want to write, which have always been an extension of my original interest in the Japanese-American family, which is my family. I continued to run with it and I continue to write wherever my interest takes me. It started not so much with setting out to write ethnically themed stories, but writing about the things that I knew. Thirty years ago—at least on the Mainland—the idea that I could create a story with the character at the center of the story looking like me and having my history, there was a time when that was not the norm.
Are you familiar with the Chang and Eng? They’re the original “Siamese twins.” Whenever you hear the expression “Siamese twins” it’s actually based on these two ethnically Chinese brothers—conjoined—who were born in Thailand in 1811 and brought to America when they were about 17 or 18 years old. At that time in America, there were these freak shows, so the brothers were toured around the world, initially as freaks. But what’s interesting about Chang and Eng is that they were very smart and very good businessmen. So almost right away they bought out their own contracts and began to tour themselves, becoming world famous in their time. In the early 1930s, they’d made enough money to retire, and they retired in North Carolina to become gentlemen farmers. While they were in North Carolina, they met two sisters—white, Southern belles—and between the four of them they had 21 children and two plantations, spending three days at one and three days at the other, going back and forth. And that’s the story of Chang and Eng. I just did a production of that at UC Berkeley. That, to me, is an extension of my original interest. I’ve been just following stories that allow me to grow thematically and intellectually.
One of my stories is set in Hawaii and called The Ballad of Yachiyo, set on the island of Kauai, where my father was born and raised, in 1913. It’s based on an aunt of mine who had a rather tragic life. She died quite early. I went to Kauai and did a lot of research, talked to people, came back and wrote a play about it.
But I write about many other things, too—not necessarily connected with being Asian. For example, I wrote a play called A Fist of Roses about male violence.
What inspired that?
I’d been working with a small, alternative theater where they allow you to write about whatever it is you want to write about. And I’ve always been interested in male violence against women. I started doing interviews and ultimately connected with a counseling group in San Francisco. At the time, in San Francisco, if you were convicted of a violent crime against a woman you were given the choice of going to jail or going to these sessions. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the man who ran these sessions and got to sit in. Ultimately, after about a year, I was allowed to anonymously tape the conversations. After a year and a half, I took this material and wrote [the play]. It was very powerful.
I understand you’ve just come from a rehearsal of your latest play. Can you tell me more about it?
It’s called Love in American Times and it’s a play that takes off on what I call the Rupert Murdoch/Wendi Deng scenario in which you have very rich, powerful, older white men who are married to very beautiful, very talented Asian women. It’s not about them, but it’s inspired by these two characters [and] based on that phenomena, which has been written about in the New York Times and a couple of other places. The two of them get set up on a blind date, because that’s what they want, and they meet and go at it. Because of the nature of this setup, they cover a lot of ground and tell each other the truth. It’s a romantic comedy [laughs].
Why do you think the Murdoch/Deng scenario exists?
In my play, the matchmaker says, “The white male and the white woman, that is so last millenium. The white male and black woman, that’s trying too hard. Now the white man and the Latina woman, that’s coming but it’s not here yet. But right now, in this point in time, the right balance is a white male with an Asian woman.” I think that kind of explains it. This play is meant to be provocative, it’s meant to push your buttons.
Do you think interracial relations are inherently provocative?
The way I’m framing it in this play, I think it is. To have someone who sets up a powerful white male with a younger, talented Asian woman, that scenario is provocative.
What, to you, is most unique about the Asian-American experience?
I don’t know if it’s unique in the sense that it’s more special than another group’s story, but to me it’s special because it’s the world that I grew up in, it’s the world that I know most intimately, and it’s a world that—in this country—is growing rapidly, in terms of its numbers and influence politically and culturally.
What is currently inspiring you?
Nothing specific, but as we speak the world is in upheaval and I find that very disturbing—I’m trying to figure out how to write that. Whether it’s in the Middle East, Japan, Mainland America—all these things are impacting me, and that makes me want to try to figure it out and put it into a form that I can understand. I have to sort of allow it to get into my body, then articulate it into a story that incorporates what’s going on and all my internal responses to it and put it out in a cohesive story that I can look at and say, “Oh, this is what I am right now,” and share that with other people.