(Playwriting) RAY YAMANOUCHI
Ray Yamanouchi is a New York-based playwright. His latest work The American Tradition is being staged at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre in Manhattan through February 16. In this interview, he discusses his path towards playwriting, his creative influences, and the play development and workshopping process.
When did you first become serious about writing? Was there anything specific early on that you wrote which made you realize this was a creative endeavor you wanted to fully devote yourself to?
January 1st, 2015 is when I decided I would pursue playwriting professionally. I had been writing screenplays for years but I basically defected to theatre towards the end of college (2011-ish) and started acting. I loved it but I always liked creating worlds rather than inhabiting them so I naturally shifted to writing plays. After college, I made a few short films here and there but the financial weight of filmmaking was too heavy for me. At the same time, I had immersed myself in theatre and I became more attracted to the community oriented and democratic nature of theatre-making. The shift was natural for me and one that formed in tandem with my political awakening of sorts. By the end of 2014, I decided that the following year was going to be the beginning of a new chapter. I adopted the name Ray Yamanouchi (Daigoro Hirahata is my legal name) to mark my entrance into playwriting.
What initially sparked your interest in dramatic writing? While you were growing up, did anyone in your family have an involvement or interest in theatre?
Initially, I wanted to be a filmmaker so I had been writing my own screenplays since high school. That was the start of my interest in dramatic writing. No one in my family gave any shit about theatre until me.
Who are some major playwriting influences for you? What theoretical frameworks do you like to use when you are developing a play?
Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Annie Baker, Nas, Biggie, and Raymond Chandler (also Yukio Mishima but for artistic philosophy, not playwriting). The framework for which I use as a guide depends on the play. For orthodox, American realism plays, I have a very clear three-act structure. Since I’ve been writing screenplays for so long, this format comes pretty easy to me. For The American Tradition, I also used this framework but incorporated elements from old farces and made sure the language and tone of the play aided the Brechtian alienation. I’m working on this new play called Pure//Love, which I’m sort of just winging. It’s a series of vignettes without much structure; not something I’m used to writing. It’s only 48 pages long but it took me like six to eight months to write the first draft. In comparison, Impact—which is 139 pages—only took me two months.
Your work directly explores social issues, such as ethnic identity, racism, sexism, and political repression. I think it can be tricky when writing about topical issues to not come off as overly didactic or preachy. What tactics or approaches do you deploy to keep the messages of a topical piece well integrated into the narrative, and also to prevent your characters from becoming too much like mouthpieces or symbols?
Research and empathy. If you do enough research with an open heart and mind, you will begin to see the very human side of any issue you are exploring. From there, I let the characters lead the way so (theoretically) it’s a human drama first, then an issue drama second. That being said, The American Tradition was a bit different. I approached the play with the same attitude but I purposefully made the characters more symbolic than realistic. I had no interest in bringing the audience into “the world of the play,” but rather to objectively look at how these characters mirror our reality.
Brecht's dialectical theatre seems to be a foundation for much of your work, especially with the production of your latest play The American Tradition. Has Brecht been a significant influence for you? Are there any other figures in political or socially conscious theatre who inspire you?
Brecht’s theory is obviously a huge influence on The American Tradition, but it pretty much stops there. Normally I take a much subtler approach, but for the topics I wanted to explore in this play his techniques were the most effective. With my other plays, August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry’s nuanced, character-driven dramas were much more influential in how I approached political topics. I think Dominique Morisseau carries on their tradition the most faithfully so I frequently look to her work for inspiration as well.
Your plays have been extensively workshopped. For example, your play Tha Chink Mart was workshopped through PlayPenn in 2018, and at The Blank Theatre as part of their Living Room Series in Los Angeles in 2017. Your play Impact was a semi-finalist at the National Playwrights Conference in 2017, and it was also developed through a residency at Ars Nova in New York.
What has been one of the most beneficial aspects of this process for you? Are there any frustrating or challenging parts to it? Any advice to playwrights who are embarking on the workshop/residency application process?
The most beneficial aspect from workshops is the feedback you get from people who are all honestly and earnestly trying to make your work better. Writing is such a solitary activity that you can really drown in your own work. Having other talented artists (directors, dramaturgs, and actors) work the play with you is an invaluable experience. Not having enough time for rewrites or time in rehearsal is always very frustrating. Also, getting feedback from people not on your creative team—who haven’t been in the process with you—can get frustrating in workshops/conferences.
Advice for (new/aspiring) playwrights: apply to as many places as you can and keep writing new plays. First round readers for applications are always different each year, so sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. That being said, don’t be lazy and keep applying with the same play every year. You only get better by rote. Keep pushing yourself to write new plays.
Various issues with Asian-American upbringing and identity are explored in your play Tha Chink Mart. I was especially intrigued by the character Mr. Chan, the middle-aged father to the troubled teenage Duke character. He came to the U.S. in the 1970s to pursue a jazz career. He cleaned office buildings by day and played in a jazz quartet at night, only to eventually have his dreams diminished by a dismissive music industry agent, along with the building financial pressures of his new family life. His original creative dreams add a unique dimension to the typical struggling immigrant worker story. What inspired this character? Anyone directly in your life, or someone you've heard about?
That entire play is very personal but Mr. Chan especially because he is based on my own father. My father came to New York City in 1976 from Japan with dreams of being a photographer. He was published a few times in the 1980s by Minolta Mirror and Zoom (a French magazine), now both out of print, but when my parents began to start a family, photography was not something we could live on. After a while, he returned to working in restaurants (something he did back home in Japan), eventually starting his own. By this time, I had started college but then dropped out for a year to help the family business in earnest. My father and I constantly fought at the restaurant, sometimes physically. Severe financial stress and overwork were taking a toll on the family. On top of that, my father does not speak English well so there was a constant language barrier. Even though I can speak Japanese, it’s a bit tough when I need to talk about complicated issues or deeply personal things so we couldn’t communicate on a deep level…Not like we made space for those feelings anyway but it exacerbated our problems. We’re good now, though! Once the restaurant started doing better and I was finally able to step away (around 2013/14-ish?), we were able to mend our relationship.
You explore the viewpoint of police officers in your volatile play Impact. The character Naomi Xiu is a NYPD probationary officer who accidentally shoots and kills a young black teenager while she patrols a housing project. Before this tragedy even occurs, she is already under enormous pressure from various social and institutional prejudices against her which are rooted in racism and sexism, and even from her own immigrant parents who had vehemently opposed her entering the Academy. I think you do a good job of providing a multifaceted view of all sides: the officers who work under flawed procedures and the constant resentment of the communities they serve, and the members of the community who feel more under threat by the police than they do protected by them.
There is an impressive balancing act happening between the various characters and their viewpoints. Was the development of this play especially challenging for you? How receptive and accessible were the police officers you consulted with during development? How did you initially approach finding officers to work with you on this?
The idea for the play came from the shooting of Akai Gurley by Peter Liang in 2014. I followed the case closely and by the time the verdict came down in 2016, I had so many feelings and thoughts that the play came rushing out of me. It’s interesting that you say “balancing act” because I never thought of it that way, especially when writing it. I’ll tell you unequivocally that the police are a racist institution and have too much power and immunity in this country. However, we must not forget that we, as individuals, adapt and react to the systems/environments we live in. All I did was investigate those systems and the characters’ truths organically floated to the surface. I didn’t write Impact to defend police officers but to shed light on the real problems of policing. This idea of a “bad apple” is ludicrous and offensive. It defers blame on an individual that the system has created without fixing the system itself, thereby perpetuating a culture of bad policing. The system must take as much responsibility as the individual, otherwise what changes?
As for getting interviews, I asked my friends if they personally knew NYPD officers. I had a bunch of responses, but when I reached out about half of them didn’t want to talk to me. The ones who did were very open, honest, and trusting.
Your play The American Tradition is currently being staged at the 13th Street Repertory Theater in New York. It was the winner of the New Light Theater Project's New Light New Voices development program. How much input did you get in choosing the production team for the play (actors, director, designers, etc.?) Was the play workshopped through any other organizations? What do you think makes the New Light New Voices program stand out compared to other programs?
New Light Theater Project is really great at supporting their artists and their vision. They generally want at least one of their company members involved in each show they produce, but otherwise they are very open to inviting anybody recommended by me or my team. Before The American Tradition won the New Light New Voices award, it was workshopped at Rising Circle Theater Collective’s INKtank program in 2017—shout out to Monet, Raquel, Nancy, Cherry, Donja, and Andrew! It was a three month intensive workshop that culminates in a staged reading. I met Axel, my director, through this program. The New Light New Voices award is different from other awards because they produce you. That’s huge. Granted, New Light doesn’t have a lot of resources but a production is an invaluable experience, especially for somebody like me who has never been produced before. Apply!
The American Tradition is set in the antebellum South, and it focuses on a married slave couple (Eleanor and Bill, played by Sydney Cole Alexander and Martin K. Lewis) who attempt to escape after learning that Bill is to be sold and they will be torn apart. Eleanor is light-skinned and she dresses as a man and portrays herself as a white slave owner as a cover during their travels. When you were developing the character of Eleanor, did you have any historical figures in mind who used similar tactics in escaping slavery? Or was it an amalgamation of different figures?
The play is inspired by the real life fugitive slave story of Ellen and William Craft. Around September of 2016, my brother was reading a book that discussed the Crafts and mentioned it to me in passing as one of the craziest things he’s ever heard. It struck me as incredibly poignant as a modern allegory and so I began my research…
Eleanor meets a slave owner named Mr. Walsh (Alex Herrald) who is an enthusiastic and loquacious part of a noxious public image improvement group called Not All Slavers. She also meets a train conductor named Buckley (Hunter Canning) who constantly proclaims that he is a part of a group called Abolitionists for America. Were you attempting to convey that these two are more concerned with their image as activists than they are with the actual issues they claim to be fighting for? Do you feel that this sort of "identity activism" has become overly prevalent in America, no matter how right or wrong headed the actual beliefs of the participants are?
I think both characters are genuine in their grand agendas, but within those pursuits lies a personal agenda and we should always be cognizant of that. In that sense, there is perhaps a performative element. We are now living in an age where we are gaining a better understanding of what historically marginalized communities have been going through and how our understanding of politics intersect with their (and other) identities, so I actually don’t believe “identity activism” is overly prevalent. At the end of the day, all politics is identity politics. There are simply more voices now than there were before and that’s a good thing.
There are many anachronistic aspects to the play, such as various contemporary uses of speech and clothing. What was your creative intent or strategy with the use of these anachronisms?
A collision of the past and present and how the past eventually becomes the present.
The elements of tragedy and pathos in the play are never undercut by its elements of farce and satire, which are also a significant part of the writing. The play moves at quite a fast pace and intermixes all these dramatic aspects well. How difficult was it for you to strike a balance between these elements to achieve a maximum impact? Do you think the pace and humor present are integral to successfully managing an equilibrium between the message/commentary and the entertainment aspects of the work?
This is a balancing act I was aware of! I wouldn't say it was difficult but I was hyper conscious of it. I wanted to show the absurdity of how we as a country never left the shadow of slavery without undermining the absolute horror, cruelty, and normalization of slavery itself. On top of that, I didn’t want the black actors in my play to feel dehumanized by playing the slave characters. This is why I figured Brechtian alienation with some contemporary levity was the best method to tell this story. I didn’t want the slave characters to be “real,” but rather have a modern detachment where the audience and the actors can experience the story objectively. The pacing is definitely crucial, I think. The horror, the absurd, the farcical, all kind of hits you like a whirlwind.
What's coming up for you in the near future? Any new works in development or upcoming readings or productions?
I’ll be going to Minnesota to workshop Pure//Love—which is about four POC trying to navigate their politics of desire—for a few days with Playwrights Center in late March. Also, you should check out my talk show RE: theatre where my co-host, Maria Paz, and I interview theatre artists and recommend great shows!
You might also like our interview with the performance artist Jennifer Vanilla.