Like so many other theatremakers whose lives have stalled during the pandemic, Yilong Liu (he/him), a New York City-based playwright and recently announced Lambda Literary Award finalist, has been channeling his efforts into development. One of his most recent projects has been working on PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute, a new work in development with the National Queer Theater. Liu started writing it back in 2018, then picked it up again during lockdown in 2020. An intergenerational love letter between queer men of the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis and those that have come of age in the 21st century, the play tells the story of Erik, sent back in time to New York City in the ’80s at the height of the AIDS crisis, after starting to take the HIV prevention drug PrEP. It’s a provocative exploration of queerness, and the dangers and joys of nostalgia in an increasing globalized world.
I met Liu a few years ago during the National Queer Theater’s first annual Criminal Queerness Festival and was drawn in by his poetic prose and the beautifully intricate and interconnected worlds he creates. Last December, I attended a workshop for PrEP Play. At a time where we have all been grappling with histories both over- and under-told, it was a healing for me as an audience member to be in a space with others who viscerally and personally understand the gravity of these histories. Liu approaches his story with empathy and grace, asking how we might both honor and heal from complicated histories laden with both unfathomable pain and profound love.
Wanting to talk more with him about his approach to work as an international artist and to hear more about his playwrighting process, I (virtually) sat down with Liu recently to talk about making theatre in a pandemic, navigating the expectations placed on queer artists, and the urgent message PrEP Play has for audiences in an inter- and post-pandemic world.
LINNEA VALDIVIA: Could you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for PrEP Play?
YILONG LIU: I’ve always been wanting to write a story about a queer millennial immigrant grappling with their role and place in the American queer movement and history.
When I was in middle school, I started learning English, which opened a window for me into learning about queer culture, something that wasn’t very present in Chinese media. I turned to the internet and those searches quickly led me to read about the Stonewall riots and the AIDS epidemic. I felt a really strong and visceral connection—it was as if I was reading my own history. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in the U.S., I wasn’t even born, but it felt like a shared trauma that has been living and bleeding through me.
After I came to the U.S., I started to take PrEP around 2015, and I was having some side effects, mostly very vivid dreams, where my senses of touch, feeling, and smell felt so real, almost like reality, which ultimately inspired this play. I talked to my doctor about it and she mentioned that vivid dreams are a really common side effect after you start taking PrEP.
Really? Like what about?
I had many bizarre dreams and nightmares. Sometimes I would be back in my childhood, sometimes in the future, and sometimes in the fictional world of the story I had just read before bed. In one very vivid dream, this vision of someone descending on a parachute into a dark unknown place, like… into the ’80s. I think that’s related to how I feel about PrEP: It keeps us safe while allowing us to be in touch with a dark history, as if we, the younger generations, are descending into the past with the assistance of the blue pills, like blue parachutes.
However, at the same time, I felt a deep sense of concern and distrust from some of my friends from the older generations. I think that on the one hand, PrEP frees us from our fears, from the stigma, but at the same time I wonder if it is creating a divide and making what happened in the ’80s something like a forgotten or disconnected history—something we can only read about, not something that feels real.
I think, ultimately, I wanted to write a story that I could actually see myself in, that would reflect my experience or the experiences of people like me. It ended up being this play, which is something very personal and intimate, but at the same time, a very ambitious project that, like the characters in it, wants to have a conversation with the past, and with all the other plays addressing HIV/AIDS to figure out its own unique place in this new age of globalism and PrEP.
Thank you for that. You know, when we were talking a few months ago after the reading, you said something that really stuck with me. You said that between your learning secondhand about Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, then flashing forward to now, you said something like, “I often feel like I’m occupying this liminal space between generations.”
Oh yes, thank you for reminding me of that! I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember the sentiment. I grew up in Southern China, and I went to Beijing for college, then to Hawaii for grad school, after which I moved to L.A., then finally to New York. It’s like with every step I was going further and further away from my parents, my hometown, and who I used to be, both physically and emotionally. The idea of “home” has always been shifting. Meanwhile, I kind of think and act like someone from the older generations sometimes, like I’m an old soul occupying this younger person’s body, maybe because I grew up in the ’90s in Southern China, which in many aspects was kind of like NY in the ’60s and ’70s ?
As a result, I always feel like I’m living in that liminal space between generations, between countries, and between cultures. I think in the first few years, my writing was trying to make sense of that space. But now I feel like I’m starting to feel comfortable there—like, I am finding joy, beauty, and pride in that in-between space. It’s kind of like I’m writing to make my own home and my own identity when there are no existing boxes for me to fit in. (Laughs.) I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore; I’m just trying to picture that place or that feeling about the kind of world I want to live in, one play at a time.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. So you said that you started writing this play back in 2018, that the first scene was born in 2018, and then it kind of sat for a little bit. What inspired you to pick this back up now in 2020?
I like to compare the writing of a play to a road trip. I know where I am starting and where I want to go, but I may not always know what stops I’m going to make along the way or how long I’m going to hang round there. So as a writer, once I have a story that I know I want to write, I just keep that idea in my head and then I start to plan my road trip. I usually can’t write right away. It has to go through a few months of planning, but it’s usually a very casual process. So, when I first wrote this story in 2018, it was actually a short play, which ended up as the first scene of PrEP Play. I picked this back up because I was wondering if I needed to get on that trip again, and see if this time something would be different. After all, the play is looking back at a pandemic, and we are in one.
There’s something about the times we’re living through that makes this play feel more urgent right now. I remember having this conversation with [NQT artistic director] Adam Odsess-Rubin and [workshop director] Adin Walker. Since the play is set in 2018, we talked about whether I wanted to update the story to address the pandemic we are in right now. After that conversation, I had a few months to explore, but I just couldn’t write anything. It somehow felt wrong to force this current pandemic into the play. Part of me really doesn’t want to directly engage with it, as the stress was too much because we were—we are still in the pandemic. But surprisingly, once we were in the workshop, this sense of loss and the gravity of our time really helped me and the cast navigate the story.
It’s also quite healing to talk about the ’80s to help shed light on what we are going through right now. Even though we aren’t talking about the current pandemic directly in the play, it’s influenced how I approached the story so much; touch and intimacy, something we aren’t allowed to do, have suddenly become very present in the play. For me personally, I think my new reality in 2020 allowed me to be really vulnerable and truthful—it’s opened up something new for me as a writer.
Can you say more about that?
I think in the past I have been very curious about my role in American theatre. Sometimes I thought of myself as a bridge of some sort. When the pandemic hit, I was having this intense existential crisis as an artist. I just felt like, “Okay, where you came from is on fire and where you are now is opening the gate into hell,” you know? It was like, “What’s the point of being this bridge?” It’s just that the last year makes me question my reality as an artist making art here in another country. How do we bring people together when the world is falling apart? I just feel this is the time to write what I really want to say, instead of what the world might be expecting from me.
Can you say a little bit more about the audience reaction to the play? Was there anything that surprised you from the audience reactions, for better or worse?
I was very proud of how this piece inspired inter-generational/cross-generational connections, joy, and understanding among audience members. It seems that everyone who came to the workshop reading, no matter their age, sexuality, life experience, has found a unique way in to connect with the play. I wish I could have spent more time talking to them. That’s one thing I really miss about live theatre: the community, the conversations, and the post-show camaraderie.
This might be an unanswerable question, but do you have a vision for what theatre looks like post-pandemic? Or is looking that far ahead even possible?
I think we can look back at this past year for inspiration, what we can learn from the Zoom age, instead of trying to move away from it as soon as possible. I actually enjoyed my workshop on Zoom. Part of it was because, logistically, I didn’t have the stress of running around, traveling, page printing, all that stuff. You are saving the cast and crew the time of traveling, the stress of going around, or train fare, taxi fare, bus fare. Those things are not small for artists.
I also think Zoom provided me with a level of intimacy that surprised me. I didn’t think I was going to be so comfortable working in this media. I wonder if it’s because as international artists, we have been very used to having significant relationships existing online and carrying out uncomfortable conversations through a screen. I think there’s also something about being in your own space that makes you feel secure. I’m literally talking to you in my own bedroom right now. I feel comfortable in sharing and telling you things with a level of honesty which I might not have in a rehearsal room, or in a coffee shop near Times Square. It might take me longer to build that trust to be able to open up and be vulnerable, which is probably easier to do in our own homes.
All of those things can be inspirations for what theatre looks like when we are allowed to gather in person. I think there’s no reason why developmental workshops cannot continue to take place online. I also think there’s no reason why the first few weeks of rehearsals can’t take place online either. Like, if we’re just doing table work, why ask everyone to travel, you know?
I’ll just say, as someone who hates the train and commuting as much as possible, I’m here for the Zoom revolution. I’m there with you.
I love the term Zoom revolution! I hope this will inspire more international collaborations. For the PrEP Play workshop, our collaborators were all over the country and in Canada. I heard that for the National Queer Theater’s Criminal Queerness Festival this year, the audience were able to tune in from different countries all over the world. I think that’s something quite special that Zoom is allowing us to do. It’s freeing us from the confines of our locations. I think it can open up possibilities and bring more people together.
Linnea Valdivia (she/her) is a professional freelance dramaturg, producer, and playwright based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She also served as the literary manager for National Queer Theater in New York City.
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