Interview by Scott Dowd
Entire contents copyright ©Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most of us will probably never set foot physically in Brownsville, New York, a troubled, struggling, predominantly African-American neighborhood in east Brooklyn. Last year’s statistics for Brownsville showed a fifty percent increase in violent crime since 2009. Kimber Lee’s new play, brownsville song (b-side for tray), is set in this neighborhood and will have its world premiere in Louisville as part of the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre. Playwright Lee, a Korean-American who grew up in a small town in the American Northwest, may seem an unlikely vessel for this tale – an incongruity she herself is unable to fully explain. She applies her words to the page the way a painter applies pigment, reminiscent of the poet e e cummings. Much of the cadence is meant to guide the director and actors in finding the tone and rhythm of her language. At the top of the first page she includes an excerpt from James Baldwin’s 1964 treatise Nothing Personal, in which he makes the case for necessity of the social contract: “The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” I spoke with Ms. Lee by telephone from her home in Brooklyn, a world away from the small town in Idaho where she grew up.
Scott Dowd: Is your family in the Seattle area?
Kimber Lee: My brother is, but my parents still live in Idaho. I spent a lot of time in Seattle. I was there for my undergrad degree and stayed for quite some time. That’s where I started what you might call my professional career. I worked in and around Seattle as an actor.
SD: So you started out as a performer?
KL: Yeah. It’s funny because I’ve written things all my life, but I was always alone in a private corner scribbling in a notebook or something and not showing it to anybody. I’m finding that a lot of playwrights come to it through acting – many of my friends who are playwrights were actors first.
SD: It sounds like a natural progression.
KL: When you are a kid in those theatre programs at school, the first thing you are invited to do is act. Starting out, that was what I knew and it was completely my focus. Even as I started scribbling things that might have been considered to be a play, I was still in denial about that being anything serious. I didn’t even show it to anybody until an actor/playwright friend said, “You know, you can invite your actor friends over to your living room and have them read it out loud.” I thought, “You’re right!” So I did. I lured people to my living room with wine and cheese and snacks. It was such a good experience. I remember just sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, this is so exciting!” I hadn’t felt that level of excitement as an actor in a really long time.
SD: Why do you think that was true?
KL: Part of it was that as an Asian-American actor, the range of what you are asked to do is very narrow. You don’t often get to play a part that really blasts the doors off the range of what you are really capable of. I was working consistently and getting paid for it, but I just wasn’t finding places where I could really stretch and grow as an artist. Playwriting really allows you to do that. It’s kind of like the sky’s the limit with playwriting.
SD: As a former actor myself, I am curious about the idea of “colorblind” casting from your perspective.
KL: This is a very interesting question and something that is discussed a lot in the acting community. I want to be cautious in the way I answer because this is just my opinion based on my experience. Other people will have their own thoughts. But for me, it starts with the notion of “colorblind” casting, which I understand is an attempt to be inclusive. It’s trying to say, “Your race will not matter in a way that will keep you from doing things.” That, I believe, is the intent. The actual way that term operates on the ground is that it projects the sense of “Your race doesn’t matter.” From the beginning, that has always seemed like a silly thing to say to me because nobody is going to look at me and not notice that I’m an Asian-American woman. The way people consider race – especially in terms of casting – tends to be very limited. In the classics, like Shakespeare and the Greek plays, people are a little more open. I love it when I go to see Shakespeare and it’s a really diverse cast. But having an Asian-American Rosencrantz in Hamlet doesn’t mean diversity in my mind.
SD: There seem to be a lot of playwrights of diverse backgrounds being produced around the country. Is that encouraging?
KL: We do have a wave of playwrights of color coming up now. Part of the challenge will be developing the talents of both directors and actors of color who have the experience and technical proficiency to match the brilliance of these writers – and I’m not including myself in that. If you look at everything across the board, it is ridiculously uneven in terms of the opportunities people of color have.
SD: Tell me about your own experience as an actor.
KL: I was an acting intern at California Shakespeare Theatre years ago and I played small, supporting roles. It was great, and I was an Asian-American face on that stage. But it is interesting that people make a gesture and feel like, “Oh, that’s okay; we’re diverse now,” without looking at the substance of what is happening. Is it really diversity if the spear carriers are actors of color, but the principal roles are always played by white actors? And what I’m also concerned with is how young actors acquire the skill and experience to grow into great actors. They do it by training, and then by being given ever-increasing opportunities to grow and stretch by playing roles of depth and substance. That is something that can be very difficult for an actor of color, when your race is defined so narrowly by those in the decision-making seat.
SD: It seems there is a simultaneous need to diversify audiences. We often market specific plays to particular ethnic groups so that it becomes the African-American play of the season, or the Asian-American play.
KL: Yeah, I think so, but this sort of racial season sorting isn’t really reflective of the world we live in, is it? And it places a weird limitation on writers of color about what sort of plays they are expected to write – like “a black play should be this” and “an Asian-American play should be that” – you know? In my world, everybody is mixed in together. There is a growing awareness of that amongst the writers I know who are coming up. They want to create worlds on stage that reflect more honestly what actually exists.
SD: Is that one of your goals with brownsville song (b-side for tray)?
KL: In the play, I have a Korean-American character who spent a lot of time growing up in Brownsville, east New York. That’s not traditionally a neighborhood you would expect an Asian-American woman to come from. The character I wrote is tough and she has a little bit of an edge to her. She’s also dealing with personal decisions she has made that are a struggle for her. I had a lot of Asian-American actresses tell me that they found the role very tricky. They said, “I don’t get asked to play things like that.” The range of what they are usually asked to do is very narrow and in a very different place from that character.
SD: Idaho is a state I have never visited. Did you grow up in a diverse population?
KL: No. Idaho is not as diverse as many other places. That experience is contained in another play I wrote. It was one of the things I found so striking when I moved to Seattle for school. For the first time in my life, I was living in a place that had a significant Asian-American population! It was a really wonderful, interesting time.
SD: I am interested in the writing style you use for brownsville song (b-side for tray). The non-traditional structure on the page is reminiscent of open-form poetry.
KL: For me, it’s not so much about being poetic. The line breaks and spaces between lines – within one character’s lines – add a sculptural element I like. I’m interested in finding the rhythm, the pattern and the shape of people’s thoughts as they are forming and being spoken. There tend to be a lot of unfinished sentences in my work, and I’m interested in whatever the thought was that didn’t get finished and how its energy vibrates in the space. Using that kind of structure on the page allowed me to really dig into that and explore it fully. If someone heard my play read aloud, I don’t think they would know anything about how it was on the page, and that is as it is meant to be. It’s really more for me and for an actor reading it to be able to feel a rhythm. But it doesn’t need to be elevated in a poetic way.
SD: You are putting a lot of trust in the director and the actors to find the rhythm and give those unspoken lines meaning. Are you concerned at all?
KL: What I hope is that the actor feels really empowered to fully embody those moments alive inside the rhythm and whatever it is the character is going through at that moment. The inner life of the character has to be so strong for the actor. It’s like an iceberg – there’s so much going on under the surface. What’s underneath has to propel into that silence or incomplete sentence. It becomes a very rich collaboration between the director and the actor in the room.
SD: Was there an event that triggered this play in you?
KL: I am a boxer. I train at a boxing gym, and most of these places have a real neighborhood feeling to them. You get to know the people there and they become a sort of family. For me, it’s my second life – it’s the only thing I do seriously except for playwriting. Some female boxers have blogs and I occasionally go online to read them. One of the women is a retired amateur competitive boxer here in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn, coaches and does academic tutoring for some of the kids at the gym who are still in high school. She wrote a one-page post about a kid at her gym who had been shot. There was something about the way she talked about him. It was simple but so heart-rending because there was no sense in it. I went online to try to find out more about him and there was nothing. There was one follow-up article in a local Brooklyn newspaper and a really brief story on the local TV news interviewing the head coach at that gym. But it just died down after that. I kept thinking about this kid and his family – whoever his family was – and what they were going through. It bothered me that these things happen, very often in certain parts of our cities, and there’s no parade because the person who shot him was another black kid. There were no protests, there were no parades…and there was no outrage.
SD: Can you tell me something about the process of writing this play?
KL: There are some things about the brownsville play that I feel I really can’t take credit for because they came from somewhere I’m not exactly sure about. That process is still sort of mysterious to me. The rhythms in the language of that play are rhythms that I have absorbed from my gym family and from living in Brooklyn. I am immersed in those rhythms all day. There is a set of stage directions early on that describe the sounds that you hear when you walk down a block, and I think that is a small example of the way in which this play came to me.
SD: Your training obviously enhances your innate sense of rhythm as well.
KL: Boxing is all about rhythm. It’s a little bit like learning to be a dancer. It’s all about your footwork, balance and being able to leverage your weight. It’s endlessly fascinating to me as well as endlessly frustrating.
SD: This is the 38th year for the Humana Festival of New American Plays. What kind of feedback do you get when people hear your play has been selected?
KL: I have had so many people come up to me and say, “Oh my god! Your play is in the Humana Festival?” Everyone is very interested to see what happens there every year.
SD: I imagine you will come to Louisville at some point to meet with the director and actors?
KL: Oh, yes! Since it’s a world premiere, I’ll be there for the whole rehearsal period.
SD: Will you be a part of choosing the cast?
KL: We’ve actually already done the casting, and I was able to be present for that process. I think we’ve got some really terrific actors and now I’m really, really excited to get in the room with them to see what we can all make together.
The 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 6 and provides many special opportunities for locals to rub elbows with the global cadre of theatre professionals packing Main Street in March and April. Associate artistic director Meredith McDonough directs brownsville song (b side for tray), which begins previews March 14, opens March 16 and runs through April 6. For more information about tickets and events, call 502.584.1205 or go to actorstheatre.org.