jakub | July 30, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Sanaz Toossi, Aleshea Harris, Lloyd Suh: Finding Form and Who Their Plays Are For

Lloyd Suh, Sanaz Toossi, Aleshea Harris.

I’ve hosted a number of conversations among theatre folks that might fairly be described as lovefests, with praise gushing as freely as wine at a hosted bar and appreciative nods and laughter from all sides (including my own). But my chat with this year’s finalists and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama set a new bar for fellow feeling. Following a tradition we started last year with James Ijames, Sylvia Khoury, and Kristina Wong, we recently convened Sanaz Toossi, whose play English won this year’s Pulitzer, with Aleshea Harris and Lloyd Suh, whose On Sugarland and The Far Country, respectively, were Pulitzer finalists. These are three very different plays, stylistically and thematically, but based on our conversation, their authors could form a mutual admiration society (and I would consider joining as an honorary member). I’ve trimmed many of the compliments from the following transcript, but this trio’s sincere affinity still shines through.

A brief word on each: In addition to English, which follows the class and linguistic struggles within an English class in Tehran during the upheavals of 2009, Toossi has written Wish You Were Here and was recently named Manhattan Theatre Club’s Judith Champion Playwriting Fellow. Harris is the acclaimed author of Relentless Award winner Is God Is and the popular ritual theatre piece What to Send Up When It Goes Down; in On Sugarland she follows a fractious, multigenerational Black extended family in an unnamed Southern cul-de-sac where the dead from a long-raging war are commemorated. Suh is the author of the much-produced The Chinese Lady, as well as Charles Francis Chan Jr’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, Franklinland, and The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra; in The Far Country he traces the complicated, often devastating journey of a Chinese family from rural Taishan through California’s Angel Island through several decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations to you all. I want to start by asking you how each play began.

SANAZ TOOSSI: I started writing English pretty soon after Trump’s travel ban, also known as the Muslim ban. I was in grad school. It was a very strange time to think about one’s own artistry and one’s own responsibility and who I was going to be entering the theatre. I had to write something very quickly—and I actually would like to put that restraint on myself now, again, because I actually think it’s the only way I can create.

I had always thought about language, and I’ve always been so insecure about my English-speaking abilities. I grew up bilingual, speaking Farsi and English. I think I say this every time I talk about this play: I am sort of mortified when I speak—like, I never feel like I can find the right words or that I’m able to express what I really want to say. I do feel confident when I write. I think that’s kind of how I became a writer. But I knew I could write about that really quickly. I’d always wanted to write about an English class. So I think having not a lot of time to turn out a draft, feeling rage and grief and sorrow, but mostly rage, about the vilification of Middle Easterners and Muslims—I would say, especially as an Iranian and a first generation American, I just needed to scream a little. So I screamed and English was born.

Aleshea, your piece could be described as epic, would that be fair to say?

ALESHEA HARRIS: It is an epic piece, and it was born of a great deal of frustration. I too started it way back when I was in grad school, trying to adapt Philoctetes. I started out trying to find my analogous versions of each of those figures and it just didn’t work—it didn’t make sense as a play. I wasn’t writing from my gut. I was writing what I thought an adaptation of a Greek play was supposed to feel like. It wasn’t until after Is God Is and What to Send Up that I felt liberated to really change the assignment from trying to adapt that play and being very loyal to that source material, to writing the play I wanted to write having read that play. I just had to filter it through my own sensibilities and interests.

My mother was in the Army, and I’m first generation on my mom’s side—she is an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. And the Army figured so prominently in my life as a youngster; there were things that are so strange when I look at them now, like everyone having to pause and honor the flag. I really needed to come to understanding some things and articulating some frustrations about what it means to be a Black person who serves the country—a country that has targeted Black soldiers specifically. I mean, just reading harrowing accounts of soldiers being chased and lynched because they were such an affront to white supremacy by just being a Black person in uniform, and my mom’s stories of being ridiculed for her accent, and being a dark-skinned Black woman in the U.S. Army surrounded by, you can probably imagine, a certain kind of energy. I found the play by interviewing my mom. I remember asking her, “What is it that you want us to know, my brothers and I, about your service?” And she said, “I want you to know that I’m all right. I’m fine.”

Lloyd, you’ve written a number of plays about Chinese American history. How did this particular one come into being?

LLOYD SUH: It came by accident, this historical impulse. I was writing a play almost 10 years ago, and doing research about the history of where a lot of the stereotypes of Asian Americans come from, and I came across all these stories—there’s so much more scholarship around Asian American history than when I was in school, and I kept coming across the stories that just stuck with me, that almost haunted me. I felt like I needed to wrestle with them somehow. So a number of different plays prior to The Far Country were my attempts at wrestling with these stories that were lost or forgotten. The stories did kind of circle the Chinese Exclusion Act era—it felt like that was the fulcrum where so much of this comes from, so many of the stereotypes, and where the legislative history of the Asian American experiences was established. It was something that felt daunting to me for a long time, and then at the Atlantic Theatre Company, Neil Pepe and Annie McCray said, “You can write anything you want,” and I said, “Okay, I’m gonna write about the Exclusion Act.” Once I committed to that, it became a process of research and spending a little time on Angel Island and spending time talking to people, and reading as much as possible. I slowly began to come up with these themes of the way history is erased, the way history is lost, and what that does not just to a person but to a community, to feel the absence of a lost history. And what does that mean for those of us here in the future? How do I process that?

Hadi Tabbal and Marjan Neshat in Sanaz Toossi’s “English” at the Atlantic Theatre Company. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

These are three distinct plays, but I saw some common threads. Lloyd and Sanaz, your plays both include elements of translation, where multilingual scenes are rendered for English-speaking audiences with a convention where we hear thick-accented, “broken” diction when the characters are speaking English, their second language, which is contrasted with fluent, eloquent speech when they’re speaking their first language, Chinese or Farsi, respectively.

LLOYD: Most of those craft choices came out of practical necessity, of how you convey both of those vernaculars. Part of the fun for me was that the first scene is a performance, but we don’t know it yet; he is telling them what they want to hear, showing them what they want to see. The other thing—and Sanaz, your play does this so beautifully—is the difference between how one articulates themself in one language vs. another, and just allowing both versions of this character to exist. One who is out of his depth and awkward and kind of flailing and desperate, and one who can be incredibly poetic and forthright, and letting both of those exist, but letting language be part of the thing that makes it possible or impossible.

SANAZ: That’s so beautifully said. It’s funny, I get asked a lot, what made you think of this conceit? It was really practicality; like, there was no other way to tell the story. Language is something I come up against again and again whenever I write about Iranians in Iran, or when I write my never finished American family drama. My household was bilingual, but what is that going to look like onstage? I’ve had that big question: When we see people onstage speaking in broken English, do we fully see them as human? Do we understand intrinsically that they are as complex and interesting as any of us are? For this play, we can only know them through language, and we will only understand what they lose if we know exactly how they express themselves, and we know that in this migration that will be left in the home country.

LLOYD: There’s a sequence of lines in your play about how “a French accent is beautiful, an English accent is beautiful, but not yours.” I know there’s a long tradition with [Asian American Pacific Islander] performers in particular of saying, “I don’t want to do an accent,” and that comes from an understanding of what an accent has signified historically on an American stage, and what it means when somebody asks you to do that accent. But it’s complicated, because my parents have an accent, and I don’t feel shame about that. On the surface, this is not shameful, so how is it that we have internalized the shame, in terms of what that signifies?

SANAZ: I’m nodding my head so hard, I’m about to fall off my chair. It’s not shameful, but to be totally frank, on the first day of rehearsal, I had such intense guilt about making my actors do accents—even though the whole point of the play is that there is nothing shameful in an accent! My parents have accents. They are heroes, you know. I have an accent when I go to Iran and speak Farsi. It is so hard! But, as with everything we put onstage, all of us are coming up against histories and ways of expression that have been harmful to our communities, and we have to balance that with our own artistry and our own truths. Aleshea, you have this incredible note at the top of your play about meta-theatricality, and you address this expectation that readers might have about your play being in the style of realism or naturalism. You confront and disrupt this expectation so beautifully in your play, and in all your work. When I think of your play, it’s like a clarion call for joy in the pursuit to honor one’s own artistry. So I feel like we’re all kind of grappling with this.

ALESHEA: Thank you for that. Obviously, my play is not an immigrant play. I won’t pretend that it is; it is from my mother’s immigrant experience, but it is not an immigrant play. I hope that I am brave enough to write that play someday. But I was really struck by the throughline of figures having to prove belonging in each of our plays, in different ways. There’s something about these pieces that is all about a person trying to come into personhood, or an idea of full personhood, by way of conforming.

Lizan Mitchell, Charisma Glasper, KiKi Layne, Billy Eugene Jones, Shemar Yanick Jonas, and Xavier Scott Evans in “On Sugarland” at New York Theatre Workshop. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

One parallel I noticed between On Sugarland and English is the prominence of offstage characters or elements. In the case of On Sugarland, it’s the unseen government that is sending folks to war, which is not named, nor is the place they’re being sent to fight; also, there is the dead mother, Iola, whose spirit remains very present. In the case of English, which takes place in 2009, right in the midst of the Green Movement in Iran, that context is not referred to directly. I wondered how these absences or this indirection informed the way you wrote these plays.

SANAZ: I was really insistent that I call my play a comedy. Whether it is a comedy or not is up for debate. But I insist on the comedy of this play—I insist to a fault. I will say, this is not any more a political play than a play by a white American writer. Like, The Flick is as much a political play as English is. When writing for myself, I feel these tripwires around me. Sometimes I feel tempted to explain the politics outside the classroom to this audience—but in all my work, I’m not going to explain what’s happening outside more than I need to. I will not explain the Iranian revolution to you. To keep the play comedic, to keep the characters real—you know, Iranians are not going to come into the classroom and read you the day’s headlines. That just wouldn’t happen. So I feel really insistent that we’re not going to talk about it. We don’t need to; it would not be artful to do so. And I wonder, Aleshea, if there are maybe, in similar ways, expectations upon Black playwrights about explaining and educating.

ALESHEA: I have many feelings about that. I don’t think about On Sugarland as a race play necessarily. We don’t even speak specifically about an incident of racism until the very end of the play. I know that people politicize Sanaz’s and my work in that way. So I had a reaction to some of the reviews, because I was like: Oh, you’ve decided who Aleshea Harris is and what my stories are about, in just the same way people tie themselves into knots, even with Is God Is—“This is about a race war,” some reviewer wrote recently about a production somewhere. I feel excited to liberate myself as a dramatist. Suzan-Lori Parks wrote about this years ago in an essay, and so many folks have spoken about this—this idea that we can’t exist onstage as a person of the global majority unless the context is that we’re fighting against white supremacy. Sure, it’s there—it informed my mother’s decision to join the Army—but when my mother and I are talking to one another, we’re not talking about white supremacy, or very rarely, you know what I mean? There are so many relationships inside of On Sugarland that are just not primarily about white supremacy in the way I think people want them to be. There’s a lens that folks apply, and I think that’s problematic. It’s like cutting off dreams. I can go on and on. That’s one of my rants! Lloyd, I’d love to hear your take on these matters.

LLOYD: I think about this a lot. Maybe the best way I can articulate it is, it’s like trying to figure out how to modulate who it’s for. It feels different to be like, “I have to tell white people about this thing,” vs., “I have to tell my kids about this thing.” So it’s a question of, how do you modulate your stuff, and who do you modulate it for? I’ve had experiences in theatres where I’ve been like, “Oh, they don’t get this,” and then being like, “Do I care? How much do I care if they don’t get it? Who do I want to get it?” And Aleshea, it’s so interesting—I’d be curious to hear your take on this. I think about ritual and the way you use ritual, not just in this play, but in What to Send Up, and that question of who is what for? I had a teacher say that the writer’s job is to unify the audience. You want them all to have the same realizations at the same time, to gasp at the same time, to appreciate—Aleshea, you’re already shaking your head. But for a long time, I thought this was true! Then I had this moment where I was working on a play for young audiences, and there’s an interesting tension between the stuff that kids are laughing at that the parents think is juvenile, while the parents are laughing at stuff that’s completely over the kids’ heads. And I thought, that’s so interesting—the ways in which an audience can be divided in a way that creates an interesting theatrical tension. I feel like I don’t have a sophisticated take on that yet. I don’t know how to read that with an audience when I’m watching them. I feel like you might.

Jinn S. Kim and Amy Kim Waschke in “The Far Country” at the Altantic Theatre. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

ALESHEA: Lloyd, thank you, but I sort of have let that go. Now I am like: I don’t know what you came with, so I don’t know what is going to be a realization for you. I feel like when it comes to anti-Blackness, I’m on page 2023 and there are some people on page 10. So I don’t think, “This portion, these people will get.” I try to make with Black people in mind first, and just asking, “What do you need, Aleshea?” And whoever can get on this train is going to get on this train. To add another metaphor, I think of a play as like a cake, a multilayered, dense cake, right? Some people are just gonna get the icing. And then some people understand like the signification of a cul-de-sac and the way that configuration of homes goes back to the continent of Africa. And it’s okay; I can’t try to serve the white mind or the white lens. Like, I come to writing to get free, so I can’t come here and be trying to serve you. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work and it hurts. It’s really traumatizing. I really just have to write from my gut. 

Sometimes when you’re speaking with a theatre, you can tell they don’t get it. One of the problems I don’t think we talk about enough, that can affect a writer of the global majority’s bottom line, is that white people not getting your shit will fuck with you—it will mean you not getting a production, so that’s real, it’s a terrible bind to be in. Like, “Oh, they don’t get it, should I…?” I’m not mad at the playwright who’s like, “I’m gonna write this and make sure there’s exposition in here to make sure the white people get it.” I’m not mad at them, because they’re trying to stay alive. It’s ironic and awful, but it’s there.

SANAZ: I also think that some people are gifted educators, you know, and some people really know how to do that masterfully in their work. I do not, and I resent the implication that I should. I think about this with Middle Eastern work a lot. We have not had enough opportunities to create a large body of work—I mean, we do have a large body of work, but not one that an audience can pull from necessarily so it’s like, I don’t need to say this, everyone gets it. So the expectations of the world are put on one piece of work, and that’s just bad. That’s going to be the worst play in the world. I always have asked myself, do I want an audience to get it? Of course we want our audiences to breathe together and have those moments of unity. But at the end of the day, when I’m not coming from a place of fear, I wonder who I write for. And for me, it’s my mom. I wonder for you guys if there’s somebody or some group of people that comes to mind? Or if you’d like to disagree with the question, that’s great too.

ALESHEA: Thank you. That’s provoking, in the best way. Sanaz, I write for myself first. I really think that if I’m excited, if I’m juiced—I remember with Is God Is, I was like, “I’m gonna write the hell out of this!” I had no idea it would be produced. Same with What to Send Up and this play: I just really come from a space of, What do I want to see? What have I not seen? What’s sexy to me? I have to trust that there are other people on the planet who get something useful out of this piece. I have to serve my sensibilities as a writer; I have to go, Aleshea, what are you into? Writing is so hard, so that’s the fuel for me, asking myself: Girl, what do you want to see on a stage? And what are you ready to fight for? It’s always a fight.

LLOYD: For me it varies in different pieces. There’s something that happened to me while writing so much about the past. I’ve spent a lot of time living in and thinking about and dwelling on really painful cultural history, and it’s kind of weird to do that. The only reason, and the only way to make that palatable, is to have faith that there’s going to be something redemptive on the other side—that it’s going to matter somehow. And the way that has mattered to me is that I imagine some kind of future. Sometimes this manifests very directly as, I’m writing this for my children. Some days it manifests as, I’m writing this for an unknowable, undefined, almost speculative future person. That’s one of the things I love about writing for theatre. You know, some people think that film and television, something recorded, is more permanent. But I think that’s wrong. I think that when something is recorded, it becomes a moment, and it’s locked in the year it was made. But with a play, you can imagine somebody doing it 100 years from now. That might sound high-falutin’. But why not aspire? Why not imagine that maybe it can be transformative? That’s what I’ve been doing most of the time.

ALESHEA: I wrote this in the notes for On Sugarland: I think about plays as medicine. Do you all think about your plays in that way, as a balm?

LLOYD: Yes, I’ve thought about it in exactly those terms. I would say that with my play The Chinese Lady, writing that was simultaneously diagnosing and trying to heal a wound. I felt this pain, then I had to diagnose it. Then, once I was able to locate a sense of what it was, then I tried to somehow patch it up.

SANAZ: That’s so beautifully said. I’ve never asked myself or been asked that question. I don’t know. My first instinct is to say no, and to say that sometimes my plays have felt more like an exorcism. But I wonder if those two things are not so different. I don’t know. I’m gonna email you later.

Each of your plays has at least one character we just adore the second they come onstage. In On Sugarland, there is Evelyn, the ageless diva, whose every line is quotable. In English, Elham is the kind of free-wheeling audience magnet who says whatever is on her mind. And in Far Country, Gee’s wife, Yuen, enters late in the show and just completely pivots the whole play.

ALESHEA: All of them women, I’m just gonna say.

I’m not a playwright, but I can just imagine that characters like these are both a joy and a temptation—that once they walk into your play, you can have a blast writing them but you have to make sure they don’t walk away with the whole thing. Unless, as with Yuen, that’s what she’s there to do.

LLOYD: One of the things I always knew was that this is a play where we were following this young man as he made his way to Angel Island, lived on Angel Island, then made his way out. But I also always knew I wanted it to begin and end without him, to show what precedes and what is to follow. So there was a point where I knew that something would take over the play, and I needed that to be the thing that takes it to the next place. And that next place was always intended to be a place of hope. So yeah, it’s a good day when you realize that the thing you have to do with your play is to let hope take it over, and you get to write a character where that’s their job. That’s always a fun day.

SANAZ: Elham has always been in the play. She’s always been exactly the same. What was kind of funny was, when my friends came to see the play, they were like, “Oh, that’s you.” She’s the hero of the play. We realize she’s right; she’s been right all along. She gets totally shit on, she gets humiliated, but that last scene is hers. The play is about two women who have totally different ideas about what it means to survive, but it had to be Elham’s play, because it was born out of anger, and she has a really righteous anger. I just love her. She’s so many women I know. I think a lot of us write the people we love as a way of honoring them in a world that maybe kind of refuses to do that. The actor who played her at the Atlantic, Tala Ashe, brought her to life for me. I think the trick with playing Elham is, she’s not a buffoon, and you cannot play her like one.

LLOYD: I’m so curious about those friends who said that Elham was you. Is that something you were ever conscious of?

SANAZ: No, I didn’t really know. I guess, since I love her, I must kind of like myself—I’m not writing my self-hatred in my plays. And I was like, Oh, I must really value my anger. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? I mean, Elham is a total nightmare in the classroom. She bulldozes through that classroom, and I love it. I love that in women, and I love seeing that onstage. To me that is the defining characteristic of so many women. I love their anger.

ALESHEA: I love a rowdy woman! I’m all about it. As for Evelyn, I think part of it was, I did not want an elder who was like in a rocking chair on a porch. I found her because I had this impulse to not write toward an expectation. I wanted a beautiful woman who was in her body and in her sexiness at that age, and who was wise but not like a boring kind of wise, and judgmental and flawed. And I knew the gowns would be cute, so I had a great time. I didn’t have a hard time writing her, though it’s true—she could have her own play. All these women could.

I just want to close by asking, do you feel hopeful about the theatre field, and your place in it?

LLOYD: I feel more hopeful than I’ve ever felt. I’m constantly amazed at the work of my peers, and it’s an honor to call them my peers. There was a time I remember asking myself this question when I was young: How do I take what I want to say and put it in this form? And I see so often writers, like the two of you, that seem to start with the question, How can I create a form that can possibly contain what I have to say? I love that. It’s just so endlessly exciting. I feel like I’ve seen more creativity and theatrical imagination in terms of how to answer that question on stages over the past few years than I did in the 20 years previous. I feel incredibly hopeful, not just for this moment, but for how this work might live in the future.

SANAZ: I think all our plays end on the cusp of possibility. And also this question of, what will I do with all that I was given, the good and the bad? I’m very optimistic. I can’t speak eloquently on the material and structural obstacles that we face right now. But I can say the work is incredible. I trust playwrights more than any other artists with how we’re going to imagine our futures and how we’re going to push our form forward, as evidenced by you two. There’s something about this medium that calls to us. I love it because it’s ancient and simple. I feel incredibly optimistic, and I don’t know if that’s foolish—I’m gonna say it’s not foolish, because if Lloyd thinks that, then I’m not an idiot.

LLOYD: We might both be idiots!

SANAZ: It’s very possible. We shouldn’t rule that out.

ALESHEA: Neither of you are idiots. I don’t know; I’m a fairly cynical person. But I remain hopeful, because if I consider that the future of the theatre has everything to do with the state of myself, then it’s like, okay, Aleshea, what are you doing to push things in a direction you think they ought to go? I take pretty seriously the responsibility of pointing the way to other folks who haven’t come yet. There’s a lot of noise in our field—a lot of stuff that’s not about the simple act of creating a narrative that is meaningful in some way to somebody. And so, through the noise, so much is possible. So much can be beautiful. It’s hard to be here on this plane, but it’s also wonderful, and we can do good things for each other. I think we are doing that. And I think that we will continue to do that.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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