By SUZANNE SATALINE
Who owns a politician? The voters? The donors? What about friends from the past or the image-conscious handlers who massage away problems?
Those questions fester in Kenneth Lin's Warrior Class, pressing the audience to decide if we're complicit in corrupting our politicians.
Running through August 11 in Second Stage's Uptown series, the play follows the blossoming political career of Julius Lee, a young Chinese-American lawmaker in Albany with Obama-like magnetism and Congressional aspirations. In the midst of his ascent, he's faced with his college flame, an ambitious beauty who harbors grudges and a damaging secret, and in order to contain the situation, Lee must confront the person he was, who he is, and who he wants to be.
To understand the backroom deals of state politics, Lin, 34, sat down with a friend who had worked for a successful gubernatorial campaign. The friend explained how alliances are formed and decisions are made and that the people surrounding a candidate are not necessarily friends.
As a playwright, Lin was captivated by those ideas. "I'm interested in politics in terms of how an ethical society is engineered," he says. "The play begins with the idea, here's a person on the precipice of getting what he wants in life and something from the past threatens to take it all away. Is that ok? Can we escape from our past?"
Lin, a Yale School of Drama graduate, says the play is his most personal work, dreamed up after he and his wife lost a child late in a pregnancy and he began ruminating on what he had accomplished in life. (Happily, the couple welcomed a son just a few weeks before Warrior Class began performances.)
"It is a play about a person who wants to be accepted," he says. "Here you have an outsider and he believes if he's successful in his campaign, successful in getting this political kingmaker to believe in him, it will prove he's been accepted.''
Like his political protagonist, Lin says he frequently negotiates the world as an outsider in unfamiliar terrain: "I struggle… as an Asian man in America and the theatre. The play is so much about a person that's on the outside trying to get to the inside.''
This is hardly Lin's first play to explore the contours of being an outsider in American society. Fallow, commissioned by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., examines migrant labor life in California. Po' Boy Tango, a tribute to his restaurant-owning parents, imagines the personal history of a Taiwanese immigrant and an African-American soul food chef.
However, despite the backroom dealings in Warrior Class, Lin says his work is becoming more personal, focusing on family. "I'm working in the realm of politics, but I think this is my first piece that is more about me as an individual, as opposed to me as member of my family,'' he says. "This was a story living in my heart and soul."
Suzanne Sataline, a freelance writer, has covered politics and Albany for The Wall Street Journal
Photo by Carol Rosegg