By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The Donnellys, a family robed in wealth and privilege, gather for the weekend at their country estate in the Hamptons, which has recently been sold. As they gather their belongings and remember their departed patriarch, old resentments come to the surface, long-held secrets are revealed, and things get ugly.
The twist in Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Two Mile Hollow” is that the Caucasian family is played by Asian Americans — Emily Kuroda as family matriarch Blythe, Tim Chiou and Parvesh Cheena as sons Christopher and Joshua, and Julia Cho as daughter Mary. They are joined by Christopher’s Asian American assistant/girlfriend, Charlotte (Jessica Jade Andres).
The play is being presented by Artists at Play through Nov. 4 at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.
Winkler brings a unique perspective to her works, having been born in Kamakura, Japan to an American father and a Japanese mother and raised in Lexington, Ky. Her plays include “Kentucky,” which had its West Coast premiere at East West Players.
“I just tend to write from my heart and not be too neurotic about it,” she said. “However, I think because I grew up in between cultures with no definitive identity that could be put into one box, I like to shatter expectations that people may have placed on my characters and home in on the point that most people are never ever only one thing, or what you might want them to be.
“I also like to tell stories that are underrepresented but are actually just regular stories in real America that don’t have much of a platform yet. I dislike the white, upper-middle-class subtextual lens that was considered the norm for many years because they were the only ones with the acclaimed voices, so I write from a place of truth and heart where people say what they mean, with the hope that we get louder.”
Regarding the inspiration for “Two Mile Hollow,” which was workshopped by Artists at Play in 2016, Winkler recalled, “I was on a writers’ retreat a couple summers ago with Youngblood — an awesome group for professional playwrights under 30 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre — when a few of us noticed that a certain theater’s new season consisted solely of what ‘Knives’ author Will Snider coined ‘White people by the water.’ We deemed this a genre where rich white people sit in a big house by the water and complain about their First-World problems over white wine.
“I remember laughing about it at the time, but then I got freaked out and started to wonder how deeply these overblown narratives were ingrained in my brain. So, as an exercise, I decided to start writing a White-People-by-the-Water play of my own from memory alone. Five hours later, I had written about half of a very early draft of this play. Why? Because theater, movies, and many, many novels had been feeding me rich white people narratives since the day I could understand English!
“These stories have become an inherent part of my vocabulary – especially theatrically. So many of these plays are produced every year, and we’re constantly told that they are the best and the most ‘normal.’ And then I thought, ‘What does that make my experience as a mixed-race Asian Southerner from Japan and Kentucky who comes from more humble means? Weird??’
“I don’t think I’m weird. What I think is weird is how I knew so much about these white people by the water, but how little they knew about me. But, I guess, how could they? I barely had a framework of my own identity, because we’re still framing our own narrative and claiming our voice.
“So how does being force-fed one dominant perspective affect the hopes, dreams and self-esteem of the ‘other’? I had a reading of it with the Donnelleys as a white family and Charlotte as a woman of color and it was pretty funny, but I knew I had to dig deeper. Then Julia Cho of Artists at Play asked if they could do a workshop and cast the white characters with non-white actors.”
Having helped lead a protest of a yellowface production of “The Mikado” by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players and seen the movie “Aloha,” in which Emma Stone played a Hapa character, Winkler felt that the idea of “having a bunch of AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] performers play ridiculous white people seemed both cathartic and correct.”
She also cited figures released in 2016 by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition showing that Asian American actors comprised only 9 percent of casting decisions in New York, both on- and off-Broadway. That figure dropped to 4 percent in 2017.
“So I knew it was the right decision and after various workshops after that in NYC, I molded the play into POC [people of color] playing white characters and it gave the play the extra punch it needed to be something that is beyond a sketch or a two-hour joke,” Winkler said. “I think there is an element to sadness to it now — and heart, as these white characters are parodied but played by performers who have it way harder to get cast in these ‘normal’ roles even though they’re just as talented — and as Charlotte’s coming-of-age story comes to life.”
Simultaneous World Premieres
In addition to the L.A. version, “Two Mile Hollow” was produced as a simultaneous world premiere at First Floor Theater in Chicago, Mixed Blood Theatre/Theater Mu in Minneapolis, and Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco.
“It was so cool!” Winkler said. “I have to credit my agent, Beth Blickers, for finagling this simultaneous world premiere. I don’t even really understand how it happened, but seeing different interpretations of the play really informed how my writing can be interpreted, how specific I should be, and was one of the best experiences of my life.
“There were definitely variations from each show. For example, in First Floor Theater’s production in Chicago, the director didn’t just use AAPI actors. Blythe and Joshua were Latinx, Christopher was African American and Charlotte and Mary were Asian American. So we amended some lines … There was also more of a horror element to that production; and some of the actors were sensitive to ‘living in white bodies’ and had a hard time despite it being critically acclaimed.
“Whereas Theater Mu ‘s production, with an all-AAPI cast, was pure joy and fun. Randy Reyes, an amazing director, did a lot of physical humor with the actors and staged it at Mixed Blood, which is a converted old firehouse. The woman who played Charlotte, Meghan Kriedler, is a literal rock star in a band, so the musical number was concert-level.
“San Francisco had more of a vaudeville tone and Ferocious Lotus is an ensemble-based Asian American theater company, so it was really cool seeing them work together. They were recently nominated for 10 Theatre Bay Area Awards for the production!”
The audience laughed a lot during opening night in L.A. Asked if different audiences have different reactions, Winkler responded, “I would say that because this is an all-POC cast produced mostly by theaters of color, the audiences have been extremely diverse. If theaters want young people and diversity in their subscriber base, they should produce more plays where that takes front and center. I would never want to put this play up in front of an all-white audience.
“The whitest audiences I have had was the workshop production in New York, and two white ladies walked out and said, ‘This is ridiculous!’ Another white man fell asleep and I nudged him and woke him up.”
The show’s next stop is Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mass., then Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe, Ariz., and Rogue Production in Kingwood, Texas.
Winkler’s other upcoming projects include “God Said This,” produced by Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theater in New York; “Hot Asian Doctor Husband” at Theater Mu; and “Diversity Awareness Picnic” at Cygnet Theater in San Diego.
Emily Kuroda summed up her reaction when she first read the play: “It’s my kinda play! It’s very real, deep and clever. In every show I discover something new; the possibilities are endless with this play.”
Her take on playing a white character: “There is so much hatred in the world today, so it was important for me not to do a stereotypical SNL [‘Saturday Night Live’] type portrayal of a woman in the Hamptons. I tried to create the character from a real base and explored her upbringing with wealth and the entitlements of the privileged. When you look at a character not as a cartoon, but as a human being, you come up with a character that has just as much love, hate, insecurity and needs as you or I, but in a different container.
“In fact, although many people see ‘Two Mile Hollow’ as a comedy, I do not. It’s a journey and adventure to walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes for 90 minutes.”
She added, “My character, Blythe, is still transitioning as I am lucky enough to have a great cast to bounce off of every night. As the run progresses, I think it will continue to grow and morph into something spectacular, I hope. I didn’t really channel anyone. She just pops out. It’s kind of scary because I don’t really plan what I am going to do and I just have to trust and embrace whatever comes out.”
Of the cast and producers, she said, “They are so talented and funny that it’s often hard to keep a straight face!”
She had high praise for her understudy, Rona Par, “a wonderful actress, writer and director who has created her own interpretation of Blythe.” The other understudies are Rosie Narasaki for Charlotte and Mary, and Eddie Liu for Christopher and Joshua.
It’s Kuroda’s hope that “the audience leaves with a smile on their face and a nugget of something to contemplate — a nugget from one of the many, many things we throw at them throughout this piece.”
Kuroda is best known for playing Mrs. Kim, mother of Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), on “Gilmore Girls” from 2000 to 2007 and in the web series “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” in 2016.
“I hope to do Mrs. Kim one more time, but we’ll see if another reboot is in our future,” she said. “What with the success of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ it may not happen.”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a new show by “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, has won multiple awards and has been renewed for a third season.
Next year, Kuroda plans to do another play with Jeff Liu, the director of “Two Mile Hollow,” in New York.
Showtimes for “Two Mile Hollow: are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $40. Purchase online at http://bit.ly/AAPTMH. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://artistsatplayla.blogspot.com/2018/08/two-mile-hollow.html.