The state of the American theatre is on my mind a lot, naturally—not only its material and financial condition, of course, but its aesthetic and spiritual health as well. The ledger is, as ever in my experience, wildly mixed, and if you happen to ask me whether the glass looks half full, half empty, or shattered on the pavement, my answer might depend on the quality of whatever production I happen to have most recently seen.
But whenever I need encouragement about the present and future of the U.S. theatre, my mind turns to the state of playwriting, and my hope springs eternal. I’ve written before about how pinch-myself grateful I am to have lived through a flowering of American playwriting, and what’s freshly heartening is that I see few signs of its vitality, immediacy, or unbiddable boldness flagging in the years I’ve been on the beat, especially as brash and interesting new voices keep flooding onto stages all over the U.S. Indeed one of the great privileges of my job at American Theatre has been to serve on the selection committee for the playscripts that appeared in roughly half of all print editions of the magazine; indeed, the eventual return of the print magazine will almost definitely hinge on the need for this unique publishing program to continue (alongside TCG’s crucial books division, of course). For that committee, I would read dozens of plays a year, then gather argue about their merits with a group of TCG colleagues. (This, by the way, is how I had the good fortune to read Clare Barron’s mind-blowing Dance Nation a year before its first production—one of my most memorable play reading experiences, though I ultimately couldn’t persuade my comrades to select it for the magazine.)
When, earlier this year, I had the honor of serving on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, I embarked on a super-charged version of this process, reading dozens of plays in a few months, then gathering for a full day in late March in a conference room at Columbia University, alongside jury chair Misha Berson and fellow jurors Alisa Solomon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and David John Chávez. From around 10 serious contenders, we came up with three stellar nominees and sent them along to the Pulitzer board to name one winner and two finalists. And on May 9, the Pulitzer board gave the top prize to James Ijames’s Fat Ham and the two finalist spots to Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul and Kristina Wong’s Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.
These three plays and their authors couldn’t be more different, and yet it’s striking how much each play in its distinct way seems to speak to live issues of the moment: Ijames’s exuberant queering of Hamlet wields the power of Black joy and love to triumph over trauma and cycles of violence; Khoury’s gripping family drama depicts the catastrophic fallout of U.S. imperialism, particularly on collaborators in places like Afghanistan who believed in our nation’s promise to liberate, or at least protect them; and Wong’s hilarious, moving plague diary documents both disorienting isolation of pandemic lockdown and the stunning generosity of mutual aid networks that sprung up in response.
I spoke to these three writers by Zoom last week about how their work took shape, how it has landed with audiences, and what they feel called to write. Fat Ham is still running at New York’s Public Theater through July 17, while Sweatshop Overlord is slated for a run at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in September and Selling Kabul will next be seen at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., in February/March 2023. Perhaps needless to say, I left this conversation newly sanguine about the health of U.S. playwriting, not to mention the good company of its playwrights.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations to you all. When I and the other Pulitzer jury members looked at our final selections, we were all struck not only by how wildly different all three plays are, but also by how all of them speak with such immediacy to different aspects of our current moment. Though there is language about “dealing with American life” in the Drama Pulitzer qualifications, up-to-the-minute relevance wasn’t a main criterion. Still, all of your plays have it (as well as, as far as we on the jury could discern, lasting value). Kristina, yours is in many ways the most literally of-its-time piece. Can you talk about how it began and how it made it to the stage of New York Theatre Workshop last fall?
KRISTINA WONG: This play started right here in Koreatown, in my messy home, which I haven’t fixed up in this whole pandemic. I was set to tour a show called Kristina Wong for Public Office. I actually ran and won a local office in Koreatown on the neighborhood council, an unpaid position. I had decided to run for that office because I felt like satire just wasn’t working anymore; commenting on the moment didn’t work. So I made this big political rally where I would touch people, and it was supposed to tour alongside all the real-life election rallies that we would have been attending up until November 2020. We all know how the story ends: The tour was postponed, I was deemed non-essential, as all artists were, and I sold the sets and prop pieces for my show.
I was trying to not feel sorry for myself, because there are worse situations I could probably be in, so I started sewing masks for frontline workers. I was like, oh my God, it’s the one useful thing I do. And then I over-promised to the Internet—I naïvely offered that I would make you a mask if you are immunocompromised or a frontline worker, not realizing that everyone who’s ever had a cold thinks they’re immunocompromised. I’ve never been in this position, where my labor and time has been the difference between life and death for other people, so I could not say no to people; I couldn’t say, I’m sorry, I need “me” time, because here people are dying to deliver the mail, right? People are potentially risking their lives to go to work. So I started a Facebook group called the Auntie Sewing Squad. It was started in a rush, so the acronym is ASS. And people were like, “This is gonna be your next show.” And I was like, “No, this is not gonna be my next show. We’re all living through this pandemic. No one wants to relive this in the theatre.” But it became so clear that what I was witnessing through the lens of being this unlikely pandemic war general leading this army of aunties—it would become 800 aunties across 33 states by the end of it—and directing these big relief vans to the Navajo nation and other parts of the country, that the lens by which I was witnessing the pandemic, and witnessing racial solidarity and care work happen in a time of heightened anti-Asian hate, felt quite remarkable, and felt like something I needed to share in a new show.
So I started to create it on Zoom. It was a lot of me in the apartment, moving my camera around and giving snippets of life across a year and a half. And then New York Theatre Workshop asked for it to to be the first live performance to open their season. And here we are now. So it’s this crazy, crazy thing that I don’t know how I’d ever replicate with any other piece. And I don’t want to, right? It was so painful and so hard.
ROB: James, can you talk about how Fat Ham got made, and in particular how it had its first production not on the stage of the theatre where you work, but in a filmed version?
JAMES IJAMES: Just before the pandemic shut everything down, the Wilma had announced: We’ve got this new leadership model, it will be the three of us, and we will rotate, and it’s going to be amazing. When we were setting that up, we brought Morgan Green on as our first member of the cohort, and she read through all of the plays we had on file, and one of the plays was Fat Ham. And she’s like, “I think I have something to say with this play.” We were planning to do it onstage, and then when everything shut down, we decided to do two of the shows we had planned that season as essentially movies. We created a bubble in the Poconos to do Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which was gorgeous; Blanka Zizka directed that production, and we were really proud of that. And then Fat Ham, because we were shooting in February, we had to go further South. So we had to go to Virginia—though I was on Zoom, because that was one person too many for the bubble, and I trusted Morgan completely with the play. They went down and they shot it over the course of a month and some change.
It was a particularly difficult time in our community at the theatre, because we experienced a great deal of loss. I had lost a sister, our resident stage manager had lost her mother, one of the actors lost a family member during the process of shooting—it was a really intense time within the organization. And out of that came this really joyful, jubilant play about people trying to change the cycles. Which is the happy mistake of me looking at Hamlet and going, what’s the story about this play that hasn’t really been told? I keep fixating on, like: Fortinbras is coming because Hamlet’s dad did something awful to his dad. So the whole play is about, what are the things that you keep taking from the past and then trying to reinvent it, when ultimately you’re making the same mistakes over and over again? I wanted these young queer people to say, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I think my life could function really differently.” While also doing karaoke and playing with VR headsets and dreaming about gingerbread men.
KRISTINA: I cannot get “Creep” out of my head.
SYLVIA KHOURY: Same! I’ve been listening to it on Spotify over and over.
ROB: Sylvia, can you tell me a little bit about how your play got made?
SYLVIA: The play was first inspired by conversations I was lucky to have with people that trusted me with their stories at a very risky time. That was back in 2016, so it was a while ago, the first iteration of the play. I was mostly struck by the fact that I, as an American, was not aware of this betrayal and these promises unfulfilled. As I started speaking to people in my community, no one else knew. And I had one memorable conversation with someone who told me that his brother was making him crazy in a shared space where his brother was providing shelter. I just thought, that is so human, to be frustrated and angry, sometimes comically angry, with the sibling you’ve been staying with for months who is protecting you. So from that came the impulse for this play.
Folded into that is, my father is Lebanese and my mother’s French by way of North Africa, and we have a lot of these stories, of people fighting on behalf of people that actually don’t recognize them. My great grandfather fought for France and died of gas inhalation, but he was Algerian, and so considered like a fifth-class citizen. So that idea of people whose bodies we use and then throw away felt really urgent to me, and just the responsibility on our part to not perpetuate this. The play was first picked up by Mandy Greenfield at Williamstown and was done in 2019 in the summer there. Then it was meant to go directly to Playwrights Horizons, where we made it about two weeks into rehearsals when pandemic halted it. We then picked it up again last fall. And in the interim, what happened in Afghanistan was shocking, so there was a lot of attention paid to, how do we still tell the story with the reality in the background?
ROB: I want to ask about the form of the shows, and how you each found that. Kristina, you perform in your own shows, and in this case, you made it in real time as life was happening to you. How did it find its shape beyond a sort of diary, and how did you know when it was done?
KRISTINA: It was hard to figure out how to condense, because there were so many stories. In my past work, I often played a character named Kristina Wong who’s very obsessed with fixing something. And to go from the project of an Auntie Sewing Squad, which was so invested in each other and supporting other people, I was super self-conscious about how much I would have to edit out. I knew that the show could not be a bunch of rolling credits, “So-and-so did this, so-and-so did this,” because that’s not interesting. As a group, we were like, we have a book out—we have other ways to share the labor of our group. So it was hard to figure out, where does this end? New York Theatre Workshop brought me into their Dartmouth residency, and I read a first act that only covered the first 40 days of the pandemic. And I was like, how am I going to get 540-some days in it? Right before we went into rehearsal, the last scene of the show played out in real life, which was the retirement party that we had as aunties, where they gifted me with a quilt. It sort of had to end because we needed to start rehearsing. It’s so strange, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a play where the last scene happens literally a month before the audience is hearing about it. It’s like the nightly news almost. It feels immediate for theatre.
ROB: Sylvia, your play unfolds in one location in real time, and very suspensefully. Can you talk about the decision to put us in that room and just stay there?
SYLVIA: This was the way it came out. I think in one side of my head, I was like, this is a formal challenge I’m interested in. And then the other side of my head was: There is no other way that it would have come out. What I’ll say is that keeping it real time allows for a building feeling of chaos and order slipping away. I think were I to have broken it up, that feeling would have dissipated. And I think in my own family history, there are many of these stories, whether it’s Algeria to Paris, or Turkey to Lebanon, Lebanon to France—there are all of these stories about that one night, or that one morning, like a three- or four-hour period where everything changes. You were this there, and suddenly you’re nothing here, so what are you going to do? I wanted to honor the reality of how turbulent that is by not interrupting it. Then the challenge became, on a technical level, how can I build in moments which are also real and human, where something funny happens, right? Or people are making each other crazy. There’s a tender moment between a married couple, and I think the orchestration of that was what a lot of my editing was—kind of like, how much can we endure, and when do we need a moment as an audience to kind of… [Moves hand up and down] I’m just making hand motions. [Laughter]
ROB: James, I remember reading your play, and the wonder and pleasure I felt when it dawned on me that it wasn’t going to track the entire plot of Hamlet but instead just keep everyone together in more or less real time from basically the second scene of Shakespeare’s play. That decision seems like the key to how the play works. Can you talk about that decision?
JAMES: I mean, I love that big scene where everybody is there and it’s, “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death the memory be green,” and Claudius is being Claudius. I did that scene in college—if you talk about when the theatre bug bit you, for me it was doing that scene. I played Hamlet poorly and didn’t understand anything about it; I don’t even think I’d read the whole play yet. So when I went back to work on messing with the play in my own version, I got to that scene and I was like, “Oh, everybody’s here.” So if you put a picnic table out and say, “Okay, we’re just going to just hang out, I’m not gonna send anybody away, the play could continue in this moment in time.” I felt like by keeping everybody crammed in the wooden O, if you will, for that amount of time, that created a different kind of pressure, which Hamlet sort of diffuses over three hours. You know, whenever I see productions of Hamlet, the music of the language is glorious, the characters are beautiful, but I always just want Hamlet to say, “My feelings are hurt.” And I always want Gertrude to say, “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about you; I love you. So let’s talk about that.” That doesn’t happen, and so they all die. On some level, it would heal a lot of things if people were just vulnerable and transparent about how they were feeling and what they need. So I was like, what if they do that? The ghost is going to come, all of these things are going to happen that normally happen in Hamlet, but then at some point, Juicy has to make the decision about what it is that he wants to do to move forward. And he thinks about it—we get right up to the edge of, let’s kill each other. And then they ultimately all decide they don’t want their lives to function in that way.
You know, I had a great deal of loss of my family, and I felt my family dealing with the stuff that we hadn’t been talking about, the patterns of behavior and relationship patterns that were going from generation to generation. And then there was this moment where we were like: “We’re going to do this all differently. I’m not going to ask this of you anymore just because my mother asked this of me or my father asked it of me.” It’s been really liberating to see my family choose joy, pleasure, collaboration. You know, I love my family, but we’re usually like, “I’ll do it myself”—we’re those kinds of people, so it’s nice to see them say, “I actually need help; I need you to help me right now.” On some level, it’s about my family’s journey to a healthier collective relationship. I come from a big family of people who are very funny and very loud, so that’s why the family in this play are very funny and very loud. But they’re also people for whom it’s difficult to ask for help. So I’m glad I was able to depict that.
KRISTINA: I just have so much appreciation for your play, James. It helped me understand Hamlet so much more, because every production I see I’m usually like, “Oh, I get it. It’s about cycles.” I appreciate that your play is like 90 percent James and 10 percent Shakespeare, as opposed to these cheesy contemporary versions of Shakespeare, where they just put everyone in urban clothing and throw in some slang here and there. And I had so much appreciation for you taking the liberty to just rewrite the ending. I remember thinking, Oh, God, they’re all gonna die at the end of this, it’s gonna come out dead and dramatic. And it was so not that ending, and I just feel like it’s okay—you can have the Pulitzer, I’ll be fine.
SYLVIA: I felt the exact same way, like: what a brilliant person, to take a tragedy and identify that the tragedy here is the cycles that we keep perpetuating. It’s really difficult not to perpetuate them. I see this in my own family in a way that is, like, creepy, and I’m sure a lot of people do when they see this play. Then for the younger generation to be bonded by: We all see what’s happening here, right? We all see the trauma. And then to go, hang on, we don’t have to behave this way. It’s hard, but we don’t have to do the same thing. Being oriented so clearly toward joy and hopefulness and compassion just felt like the thing we needed to see. I left the theatre a couple nights ago just blown away.
JAMES: Thank you. I wish I could have seen both of your plays, because honestly, sitting in my house and on the train and everywhere else I was reading them, I just couldn’t get over how present-tense they felt. Selling Kabul felt propulsive—it felt like, “I need to breathe, I can’t breathe,” in this really beautiful way of trying to keep up with a thing that is moving at a clip where I’m struggling to hang on. I just love that in a play. And then to sit through that journey of being in a pandemic, Kristina, and everything I remembered about what that was like, every touchstone, every person that I met in that time, came up in reading your play. I have so much respect and admiration for you as writers. I just wanted to say that.
ROB: Jumping off something James just said: Kristina, I think people wondered, and I certainly did when I started to read your play, do we really want to relive the first months and days of the pandemic in the theatre? It turns out, in the case of Sweatshop Overlord, the answer is yes. Were you concerned, though, about getting some resistance to the idea?
KRISTINA: My early memory of the pandemic is mostly me tracking the price of elastic over the months; I don’t talk about that as much in the show. I will say that making this show over Zoom was so low-stakes for me, and in a weird way more freeing than if I’d been set up in a cottage somewhere where they’re like, “Just write,” and I’m like, oh my God! It’s like, no one’s career is going to end on Zoom. So it was very freeing to just sort of write stuff down, and I’m glad I wrote it down, because I think it’s so crazy that this was two years ago, and yet we forget these very basic things: The CDC first told us, “Don’t wear masks,” then, “Okay, wear masks.” Remember handwashing and singing “Happy Birthday”? The post office told us at one point that they would send masks to everyone. All these little things that I would have forgotten had I not written them down. What’s surprising is how much we’ve forgotten, and maybe deliberately, because it’s not a fun thing to reminisce about and remember.
SYLVIA: Kristina, one thing that really stuck with me is when you were saying that you already wear a mask as an Asian American, so you were reluctant to wear another mask and get harassed. I just thought that was so devastating. I remember from my own experience, I was wearing a mask early on in Central Park, and two different people were like, “You look like a terrorist.” And I was like, not only the mask that I have normally, but then also the mask that I’m trying to wear, how much more it makes me a target for everything that everyone already thinks about me. When you said that line, I was just like—I felt it in my chest. I just thought it was such a remarkable piece.
KRISTINA: I felt like a lot of this play was tweets that I perform, trying to record this moment. It was also just a lot of anger at, like, what am I doing? Am I just replicating the invisible labor that usually Asian women do, sewing, and now I’ve just volunteered myself to do this for free? A lot of it was the anger of wanting to demand a certain respect back, and to lay out this other narrative, that we’re not just cutely a bunch of aunties sewing.
JAMES: Which is this thing that people do, like, “Oh, look at this initiative that these people of color have started, aren’t they great? They’re saving us.” That’s a thing that I see over and over again. I’m glad that you’re like, “Yes, and this is work. This is a thing that we’re doing to try to make the world better, but it’s not our responsibility to make this happen. It’s all of our responsibility. So don’t treat it as if it’s like the thing we’re made to do.” You know?
KRISTINA: Totally. I mean, a lot of it was just trying to put a face to the labor. I remember thinking, this time is going to be remembered as: Trump, all of us inside, and Asian people getting killed. But what I was witnessing was this really profound generosity, like my mother and all her friends were sewing. I could never get my folks to come do a rally or protest things with me, but this—I just wanted to celebrate this that I got my mom to do something, when she normally is telling me to stop doing things.
ROB: James, what response to Fat Ham most surprised you?
JAMES: The biggest surprise was winning the Pulitzer. Honestly, when my managing director at the Wilma said, “We want to submit this, are you okay with it?” And I was like, “This weird-ass country play?” They convinced me to do it, and that’s the biggest surprise in the response. I’m also really touched by the range of people who are like, “I see myself in this.” You know, it’s been marketed as a comedy, but it’s really just a family drama where all the people are very funny. I have a family of people who probably all could have been performers but none of them decided to do it. So they’re all very lively, eccentric in some ways, entertaining people. That feels very normal to me. And I think people see their families in it. I also think that—I shouldn’t say coming out of the pandemic, because we’re still very much in it—but the most visible part of the pandemic was a kind of craving for something that felt like joy or felt like it had some hope in it.
Which I think is another thread that runs through these plays. I felt like at the end of both of your plays that we’re gonna be okay, which is all I ask for from a play. Like, when I get to the end of a play and I feel like the world’s over, I’m like, my God, why did I see that? It’s too expensive to go to the theatre and not leave going, Okay—we’re okay.
SYLVIA: The response that really moved me was from the people that I really wanted to honor: the women from this part of the world, who really are the people without whom the center cannot hold. Even when sometimes the men are the outward faces of what’s happening, like the interpreter or husband, who has made a compromise with the Taliban to keep his family safe, it’s actually Afiya, the woman at the center of the play, who holds it all together. Too often I see people from my community having to play parts, especially women, that are very subservient, but when you actually look at these real families, the women are the people that keep it going. So I wrote that part with my mother, all my aunts in mind, and I poured as much of myself as I could into that. And people felt it. I had people coming up to me being like, “That’s my mother,” “That’s my aunt.” That felt the best.
ROB: The classic definition of tragedy as I understand it is that, while characters may repent for their mistakes, they still have to face consequences. We’re forgiven but we still have to die. Put another way, how much darkness and disruption do you feel you want to put into something that’s still, after all, called a play?
JAMES: I look at it like this. Darkness is subjective. The darkest moment in this play is when Juicy outs Larry. That is tragedy; that is a catastrophe. It is a death. Nobody reads it that way. They’re like, “Oh, that’s so sad that that happened.” But in a small town in the South, something like that being said is very, very, very bad. So I’m not anti-darkness; I do think that darkness is sort of understood by the light—the light sort of objectifies the darkness in a way. This is why Hamlet itself works, because there’s funny stuff in that play, so when we get to this death march to the end, it’s heartbreaking for us because we see them unable to stop themselves from doing the things they’re doing.
In terms of how much darkness I’m willing to include? I love Martin McDonagh and I work at an Irish university, so I can take a good bit of darkness. But for me, the writing of it and having to sit with it and live with it—there’s only so long that I can live with it. What’s that Lucille Clifton quote? “Come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.” That’s my jam right there. I know there are people who actively hate people like me—Black, gay, kind of successful—and yet, somehow every day, I keep waking up and cooking an egg and going to the gym. That to me is dramatic. I feel like we can get into a space of nihilism with American plays sometimes, and I’m just like, come on, a little of that goes a long way. That’s just about my own mental health and what I can live with when I’m working.
ROB: That resonates with something you said, Sylvia, about balancing the heaviness of your play’s subject matter with humor.
SYLVIA: This is something I was constantly thinking about. On the one hand, the relentless nature of it does wear you down, and I was very aware of that when I would listen to it. So it was pretty deliberate, the places where those brakes are put on. But I also wanted the action to feel cumulative, so that once it all started going, there was no stopping it. There are moments that are quite dark and news is brought in from offstage. That was one thing that I decided with this play: that these are all good people in a terrible situation. And some things that were happening that would have been actually impossible to watch, I kept offstage; the delivery of the news onstage was enough. And so then we could see the heroic, pretty inspirational way in which these people use the information at their disposal to make the best decisions for their family. I worried that the relentlessness might be too much, and I really calibrated it so that there were enough moments of reprieve that we could finally land at the place and the end of the play, where I really think we feel like this family will continue, and that, you know, in these situations, families are rearranged but everyone keeps going, and I think that is very hopeful.
ROB: As we mentioned earlier, each of these plays speaks to the moment in a way James named “present-tense.” Is relevance something you always have in mind when you write?
SYLVIA: I think that if I were to take that on, to say that I always have to write about the current moment, it would be so crippling. Instead, I will endeavor to write about what I find interesting or important to shed light on, through myself, wherever I am, and I hope that will translate into whatever people are also feeling now about things. But if I tried to put the word “relevance” on everything I was writing, I would never write.
KRISTINA: I agree. I feel like if it’s a response to what isn’t working, I can sort of come to it right. Like, I came to decide to run for office after two stabs at writing a play about the current moment, and saying, “Isn’t this political moment we’re in so absurd?” It didn’t make sense to drag everyone into the theatre to tell them that. Even in this particular situation, I was confused most of the time, up until the Aunties gifted me with the quilt, and we sort of felt like I had this moment of closure. It still doesn’t feel like there’s closure with this pandemic, because we’re still in it. But I felt that what I witnessed was worth sharing, which was generosity like I’d never experienced before. It took a crisis for me to see that. And I know that not everyone experienced it, so I felt like it was worth sharing.
JAMES: I have two thoughts about this. One is, I write about things that I can’t stop spinning, so if it’s just on a loop, on a loop, I need to like exorcise it—just get it metabolized out of my body into a form that I can handle. So Kill Move Paradise was about metabolizing anger and fear, so it’s out of me and I can manage my relationship to it in this form.
I also feel like I’m always curious about the things I can’t see or that don’t exist. So how the family reacts to Juicy, like Juicy’s mom being real chill about [his sexuality], is rare. I was writing kind of what I hoped, or what I didn’t think existed. You know, I waited until I was an adult and could take care of myself before I came out to my family, and then they were like, “Okay, fine, we don’t care.” I’m trying to write up a world in which that doesn’t have to be the case. So it’s a little bit of how the imagination allows us to build the spaces and create the things that we don’t see. History is also a part of that; I think history helps us see the present better.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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