You just had a play reading and we were just talking about how stressed you were the night before. Is this a typical experience when you show new work?
Maybe not 100 percent of the time, but it’s pretty common for me to write up to a deadline and be in a panic.
What goes through your mind?
“You should be better at this. People will think I’m a phony. No one will come to one of my readings ever again. I’m going to be fired from the institution I’m doing this for. I’m a big fuck-up. Why do I do this every single time? I need to change my life.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Your run-of-the-mill script. But you said that changed once rehearsal started?
Yes. Fast-forward a few hours and I’m at rehearsal thinking, the actors are going to laugh at me. The director is going to be like, “Is this actually the script?” [Laughs] Of course, none of that happened. The actors were wonderful. The director asked the best questions. I realized this wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought. It’s not great, but it’s okay to not be great.
That’s exactly how readings should be. Well, now they’ve sort of taken on what productions should be doing. That’s awkward.
It’s awkward and it’s really hard for my brain to understand that. Some part of my brain is telling the other part, this isn’t a presentation. This process is for me. But another part is like, this feels like a show. It feels really high stakes, but I’m sure a lot of that is just my own neurosis. I don’t think every writer is this extreme about readings.
I don’t know. Given the right amount of sleep deprivation…
Yes, sleep deprivation is a dark thing.
I’ll survive one night, but if it’s multiple nights, I start not be able to function.
I’ve been sleep deprived pretty much every night for four or five months since I started my new day job.
Because of the new job?
I think so. It’s just teeny tiny differences in my everyday life. I have to get to work a half hour earlier, and my commute is an hour long.
I’m sure that can be draining.
It’s very draining and I’m the type of person who doesn’t get sleepy at an appropriate bedtime. I keep wanting to do whatever I’m doing right then. If I’ve been at work all day I just want to keep doing non-work things. So it’s really hard for me to make myself go to bed, which is a big self-care issue.
I’ve struggled with that in the past. My mind is always going 100 miles an hour.
I feel like the city is part of that too.
Yeah, you’re always stimulated. So how did you discover playwriting?
Well, I was painfully shy as a kid. So I really liked to read. My dad would take me to the library a a lot. As soon as I learned how to write, I’d try to emulate books I liked. As I got more expressive through writing, my parents got really encouraging.
Did it seem unusual that they were that encouraging?
In a way, I think it was unusual, but it’s hard to know for sure. They come from a culture where people do love the arts. It’s not like the weirdo part of the culture is into the arts. It’s mainstream and everyone has a favorite poem or folksong. It’s very different from American culture in that way.
Do you consider yourself to be a playwright through and through?
My parents were involved in performing art events when I was a kid. Their community would put on plays and I would play child roles where I’d either be dancing or pretending to be someone’s child. My older brother would have speaking roles. He was really outspoken and bold, and he did theater in high school. So it was just a thing that was present in our lives. It wasn’t until college that I actually wrote a real play.
I was an English major but I took an acting class. I realized in acting class that theater was very different from what I thought. I thought of writing plays as if they were literature, as something you would read like Shakespeare. But I realized the performing arts was totally different. I found that idea really romantic for some reason.
What’s your favorite part about writing and what’s the most difficult part about writing?
My favorite part is that moment of discovery. This is the thing I’ve been trying to say and this is how to say it.
Which can happen throughout the process of writing.
I mean, it’s great when it happens in the beginning. [Laughs] I find that if I’m writing for a commission or trying to fit into a structure someone else has given me, it takes a little time.
Who are writers that have really influenced you?
That’s such a good question. I could name 100, but of course I can’t remember a single name right now. [Pause] I really love Dael Orlandersmith. She wrote the Pulitzer finalist “Yellowman,” but the one I really loved was at New York Theater Workshop last year, called “Forever.” It was a one-woman show about her growing up with an abusive, alcoholic mother. It’s about her relationship with all of the artists she experienced at that time. She talked about how these artists parented her because she had a mother who was stunting her growth. They were the ones who made the person she became. That story deeply resonated with me. While my parents encouraged me to express myself, I felt completely alienated from everyone.
Growing up with that sense of isolation, what is the biggest misconception about you now?
I feel the misconceptions have stayed the same to some extent. The misconceptions come from stereotypes about race [and] stereotypes about Asian Americans. I can use some of them to my advantage, like, “You must be very hardworking and trustworthy. I’ll leave you alone.” But then there are stereotypes like, I must be very conventional. Anything that’s even slightly out of the ordinary surprises some people.
Like interesting ideas you might have or…?
Interesting ideas, tastes, or lifestyle choices. [Laughs] I was on the phone with my dad a few weeks ago and I told him that I started taking boxing lessons, and he lost his mind. “What? I can’t believe it! Really?!” They have the idea of me being a shy kid who is inside of a shell.
Boxing must feel very empowering.
Yes! I was in a situation where I felt like I was operating out of a position of fear and weakness, and that’s not who I am. You can tell yourself that you have agency, but there’s nothing like feeling that in your body. There’s a part of your brain that doesn’t understand language and it’s important to address it.
So you’re constantly trying to break out of the stereotypes that are placed upon you?
Yeah. It’s difficult because just being myself feels like some kind of act of assertion. I’m not making a statement most of the time. I’m just living.
What’s the hardest part of self-care for you?
The biggest difficulty for me is that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and that keeps me from doing things that I mean to do simply because of a lack of attention. [Laughs] That’s a really hard thing for the other people in my life to understand.
When did you get diagnosed?
In 2006, I was going to a therapist because I had gone through a bad breakup. Of course, you go to therapy for one reason and you realize you have all these other problems. [Laughs] My appointments were always in the morning before work and I’d always get there late. I have a big problem with lateness. I’m very good with space [but] very bad with time. It feels like this big mystery that everyone understands except for me. My therapist tried to help me with the time issue for a long time. He also had ADD and eventually he said, “We’ve talked about ADD right?”
He had me read a book and the first chapter says something like, if you can’t get through this chapter, just read this. In the media, all we hear about is little kids taking too much Ritalin. There is the hyperactive version of it, but what I have is just ADD without the hyperactivity. That often manifests itself in a very shy, daydreaming person who can’t pay attention in class.
So without the hyperactivity, it appears as if you don’t have a problem.
Or you’re just absentminded. My other obstacles are anxiety and depression. I haven’t experienced depression in a long time, but anxiety is very ongoing and present. For example, I forget to take my anti-anxiety medication most of the time, and it’s not because I don’t want to take it.
Does making lists help with that?
That helps me feel less anxious, but the truth is I don’t then look at that list. I just go make another list. [Laughs] The most effective tool is if I make a structured appointment with another person. For example, if I need to clean my apartment, I will never do it if I just write it down. However, if I make an appointment with someone to come over, then I will do it. Some part of my brain understands that when I make an appointment with another human being, I have to show up and do what we’ve planned on doing. There was a time when I was having a hard time going to exercise, and I got a personal trainer so I had to show up.
I know you’ve really set out to try new things this year.
I have, but it hasn’t turned out well so far. [Laughs]
This year has been very intense, at least for me.
In what way?
Well, job hunting has been one area I’ve had to deal with, and that specifically made me think about my relationship with money. Also, current events have been so intense that I need breaks from social media. I can get overstimulated, even online.
That’s a good one. I was even thinking in the past 24 hours that maybe I should take the summer off from social media and experience my regular life.
I’ve gone back and forth. On the one hand, I don’t want to go up to the mountains and pretend nothing bad is happening because no one is around. I have to draw boundaries and be vigilant about social media.
I’m interested to see how I’ll handle getting what I need from social media from other sources. How do we process and bond over news in a way that’s not on Twitter? Will I discover a way to do that or will I deprive myself of that connection?
Is there a routine that you ascribe to?
I wish I was more of a routine person. With the ADD, something has to be deeply ingrained and repeated before it becomes a habit, and it’s just hard to start that. If I do form a routine, it’s usually an addiction. [Laughs] I live next to this gorgeous park, and I’ve gotten used to getting home, dropping my bag, and going on a long hike through the park.
There are worse addictions. Probably. [Laughs]
There are issues you wish to discuss through your writing. What are those issues and why do you care about them?
I write a lot about perceptions of women, race, ethnicity, and what it means to be American.
Do you feel like theater has done a good job of addressing the issues you care about?
[Pause] Yes and no. I know a lot of writers personally who are doing a kickass job of writing about these issues. I wish powerful American theater institutions who could make these voices heard would do a better job at producing these voices.
I’ve heard people say the theater audience isn’t changing with the demographic of this country. Do you think that’s true?
I think it’s a chicken and egg thing. Theater is very expensive, so it’s not accessible to everyone. It’s not just a financial thing, it’s also a cultural thing where it’s not made to be a sexy art form to everyone. Especially in New York, producers are scared that they’ll try something, fail, and go bankrupt. However, I think they’d be met with a lot of success if they tried [something new]. There’s a theater in Minneapolis who free or pay-what-you-will nights for every production, and all kinds of people show up. They still exist and they haven’t gone bankrupt.
The thing is, the public doesn’t know what it wants. It’s going to consume whatever you give them. But if you present them with a better option, they’ll choose the better option. I have a friend who lived in the Bedstuy/Crown Heights area before it got as gentrified as it is now. While living there, they opened up an organic food co-op. I guess they opened it because white people from the Midwest were moving into that neighborhood. But the generations of Caribbean people chose the organic produce, and they didn’t expect that. Well, give people access to something better and they will choose it. Don’t just decide that they don’t want something better. I think all people of color want to see people of color on stage and relate to them, and white people want that too whether they know it or not.
If you saw another person struggling with similar issues that you relate to, how would you react?
If someone told me they’d been diagnosed with ADD, I would tell them I have it too, and it’s hard. [Pause] I would just talk to them about the things they’d done that have made things easier for them. Let’s share ideas about how to make this easier on us.
Anything else you want to add?
One of the best things I’ve read about self-care recently is mistaking self-indulgence for self-care. The tweet had a list of things she’d that she thought was self-care, but was really self-indulgence.
Dang. Way to end this interview on a doorbuster.
That’s what I thought too! [Laughs]