After a hectic time trying to get our schedules to match, I finally spoke with Wesley Du, a Taiwanese American playwright over the phone. Du is currently busy working on his new one act play, Jupiter and Nebula, which opens on August 9 and runs until the 25th at 8 p.m. at the Actor’s Playpen Theater in Hollywood. But Du warned with a laugh, “No ‘Asian people time’ because it’s a small theatre. If you come in late, people can actually see you coming in. You have to walk through the stage, right in front of the actors.”
He also seemed very friendly and was forgiving that he had to wake up early Sunday morning to speak with me. 🙂
Q: Explain a little bit about yourself—what inspires you, and how did you get into theatre?
A: Well, I got into theatre because I was trying out for the basketball team, and I got cut all three years in a row because I was never very athletic. So then I auditioned for the play called, One Mad Night, and I got cast as this horrible, stereotypical Asian guy named Wing. I recently emailed my drama teacher telling her how irresponsible it was of her to put me in that part along with the part of Ho Jon in Mash. She had no idea how exploitive she was being. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. So at that time, being young and impressionable, I didn’t know how degrading it was to play a caricature and all the white people actually gave me a standing ovation. They were actually affirming my bad acting. How appropriate huh? That’s how I got into the theatre, and then from there, I auditioned for schools to get into their theater programs.
I went to California Institute of the Arts for a year and a half, and they basically said to me after the first semester of my second year, “Wesley we don’t think you’re an artist.” They weren’t giving me much attention anyway because I was pretty much like the token Asian boy, you know what I mean? The only Asian actor really there. Basically I said to them, “I think you’re crazy. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I’m going to do this.” When I look back on that time I probably wasn’t as good as I could be but I think my whole circumstance of leaving home, being the only Asian person in the program, being 18 and confused about myself played a factor into their decision. So I transferred back home to Virginia Commonwealth University, and I did really well there: I produced, acted and wrote a play called American Chinks Reborn. That took about a year to get done. We got an undergraduate research grant. It wasn’t like a little two month student production. We actually built the set, got the theatre, did all the publicity—which took about a year to get in shape.
My mentor, friend, teacher, the late Marvin Sims, former president of the Black Theatre Network directed the play. We got standing ovations all three nights, and the reason why I wrote it was because I wasn’t getting cast in anything. Neither was the other Asian guy in the theatre department, so I said, “I’m going to write something. I’m going to do it myself.” My mentor, who was an African American man, said the same thing, “Wesley you’ve got to do it yourself, because no one’s going to give you anything.” That’s what we did, and that’s how I got started writing. It was a real testing point for me. I could have given up and gone on to get some general education degree and work at my dad’s restaurant but what kind of life would that be?
Q: I’ve read about you working with Philip Kan Gotanda, the playwright. Explain a little bit about that.
A: I moved to San Francisco after graduation for three years. I was mentored by Philip Kan Gotanda, and he helped me with my play, Shui Jiao, that had readings at a lot of the Asian American theatres in the United States. I kept hounding Philip to read my stuff and I finally broke him down enough that he agreed to meet with me. He’s been more than just a mentor and I am forever in debt to him for all the help he’s given to me. While in college they never made us read Asian American plays so it was something that I sought after. I really liked Philip’s plays and I felt a lot of them spoke directly to me and how I was feeling at that time.
Q: Who else was involved in your projects?
A: When I moved to San Francisco, I was a part of this group called the New Works Incubator Group at the Asian American Theatre Company. It was basically suppose to be a throw back to the way people like David Henry Hwang, Philip Gotanda, and Frank Chin started out. I developed friendships there. That’s how we had readings for the plays—we got the actors from that Incubator Group. The play going up really soon, in about a week, one of the actors, Jared Asato he was also in the New Works Incubator Group.
Q: The topics for your plays have often included Asian American themes. Did you start out knowing you were going to be involved in writing about Asian American identity, or did it grow out of a more personal experience? Are there any other plays you have written that focus on other themes?
A: I believe all of my plays are at the heart about love and why we love one another and to what extent we love one another. Of course it’s about Asian American identity, racism, internalized racism, but it all come out of my own personal experience because really that’s all I have to work from. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, but at the heart of it, it’s really about the relationships. Shui Jiao’s a relationship play about a father and a son, and between a husband and a wife. American Chinks Reborn is a relationship play between two brothers (basically about the relationship I have with my own older brother), and Jupiter and Nebula is a relationship play between two lovers. All I have is myself to use. It comes down to what I want to say about the world and humanity.
Q: Do you try to be politically correct when you write?
A: I don’t necessarily think about being politically correct. The first line in my play Jupiter and Nebula is, “The bitch called me a cunt!” and I know it can be offensive to some people. But we did a run through for my producer. She’s a woman, and at first she was unsure about the piece. My producers were both a bit skeptical about producing it because of the content. But at the end of the run though she was crying.
I never try to be “politically correct,” I’m just trying to tell a good story. At the same time I’m trying to tell a good story, I’m trying to be responsible in telling that story as truthfully as I can. I don’t necessarily have a responsibility to anything except telling the story as best as I can. And if I to tell the story as best as I can, I will avoid stereotypes because my characters won’t be generalized people. My characters will be three-dimensional.
Q: How does being an Asian American affect the way you see the world? Do you think there is a difference in being Taiwanese American as opposed to another type of Asian ethnicity?
A: Being Asian American does affect the way I see the world especially growing up in Richmond, Virginia. I always wondered why people thought being Asian was like being white. I had someone say to me in high school that she always thought of Asians as being white. It was like there were the black people and then there were the white people and Asians were included in that category. I think that’s why a lot of the Asian kids I grew up with back home are white washed because they let themselves forget who they are. The way I grew up is going to be different than the way Asian Americans grow up in California, which is going to be different than the way they grow up in New York. We’re all people. We’re all different. I feel that my experience is going to be different than any other Asian American experience because we are not monolithic people.
Q: Is there anything else you’re involved in right now?
A: I work part-time at a club called Lucky Strike. I’m also working on a one-man show that I’m trying to get up eventually, called China Kid Blues. It’s about an Asian kid growing up in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, who is basically mentored by a black bluesman from the south. They form a father-son relationship. In many ways it’s a homage to my mentor, Mr. Sims. I think about him often.
Q: Please explain about your upcoming production.
A: My play Jupiter and Nebula, is going to be with “Elevator by Jason Fong and Peanuts by Judy Soo Hoo. My cast is only two people, Jared Asato and Andy Apuy. Every play is personal to me and this one is no different. It’s a love story about what people will do for love, and to what extent people will love. And why these two people, who seem to be complete opposites, love one another. What never changes in this world, I believe, is that we all want to be loved, and we want to give love to others. I’ve been trying hard to capture that in this play.
I dedicate it to my mom and dad. It’s my first production, so I’m dedicating it to them. They’ve been very supportive of me, and a lot of Asian American parents aren’t supportive of their children in the arts. I think a lot of Asian American have been brainwashed into thinking they need to be doctors and lawyers and make their eighty thousand dollars a years so they become afraid of following their own path. My parents don’t necessarily understand what I do, but they’ve definitely been supportive. They’re coming out from Virginia to see the production and they’re bringing a lot of their friends too. It’s the first time my mom is going to see my work.
I’m excited. I’m really nervous, but I think it’s going to be good, actually I think it’s going to be great.
Q: The play started out at UCLA?
A: This play had a reading at UCLA because I was a first-year graduate student in the playwriting program. The faculty and I agreed that the program wasn’t right for me. I was not getting the help I needed from my teacher and I felt cheated because I was paying for an education and not getting the attention that I needed. I raised hell because of that and the faculty got fed up with me. I’ve moved on since then. I’m on my own. I don’t think that I need them to affirm my talent. A piece of paper from that school doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t think school defines who I am as a person. I know I have talent that is God given and I am going to keep using it to tell stories that are important to me.
Connie enjoys crème brûlée, international journalism, ba wan, Muppets, singing dogs, dancers’ ugly feet/bunions and chills from Chicago winds. This Sagittarius is currently a third year journalism student at Northwestern University.