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Washer/Dryer blends laughs, laundry, and cultural critique
You may not think a romantic comedy about a combined washer-dryer unit could provide a platform for subversion. But in Ma-Yi Theater Company's uproarious new play at Theatre Row, Nandita Shenoy hides hot-button issues beneath laughs and laundry.
Washer/Dryer, which the playwright says "bobs back and forth between romcom and farce," follows recently married couple Sonya (played by Shenoy) and Michael (Johnny Wu) as they navigate the somewhat insane requirements of a single-occupancy New York City co-op. That the two characters are of Asian descent isn't a big deal in the context of the story; in the context of Off-Broadway theatre scene, however, that detail is crucial.
"Most of my plays are comedies and have some element of romance in them," Shenoy says. "But I never see Asian- Americans portrayed in that light. So it was really important to me to have a central, romantic-comedy couple who are both Asian, and who are both sexy, and who are both viable romantic partners. That was my main motivating force in writing the play."
The Ma-Yi Writers Lab, where Shenoy developed Washer/Dryer, is the largest resident company of Asian-American writers ever assembled. For Shenoy, that means belonging to a community of storytellers similarly committed to making characters like Michael and Sonya – everyday Americans who happen to come from Chinese and Indian backgrounds – less rare in mainstream culture.
"'Asian-American' encompasses so many different ethnicities," Shenoy says. "We're not a monolithic cultural chunk at all. So it's great to have so many different perspectives in the room." Having said that, she adds, there is one largely shared experience among Ma-Yi writers: invisibility on most screens and stages in the country.
Shenoy, who began in the industry as a performer before resolving to create her own roles onstage, sees playwriting as a form of activism. "I will always write plays with more women than men, more people of color than white people," she says. "Not because I don't like white men! But because I think there's a lot of work out there for them."
The stage, she continues, provides an ideal space for pushing back against the preponderance of white male stories in America: "I hope my plays can allow different people to experience something outside of themselves."
It's meaningful, too, that Shenoy makes her political points inside a comedy. For instance, when Michael's mother, Dr. Lee (Jade Wu), removes her heels to don indoor shoes each and every time she enters the apartment, it's culturally specific -- and hilarious. It's a reminder that cultural inclusion doesn't have to be difficult or even "serious" in the way we might expect. Comedy is Shenoy's most subversive weapon.
"There are a lot of 'diversity issues' in my play that happen in a funny way," she says. "I think people have more open minds and hearts when they're laughing."
TDF Members: At press time, discounted tickets were available for Washer/Dryer. Go here to browse our current offers.
Follow Jack Smart at @JackSmartWrites. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Top photo: Nandita Shenoy and Johnny Wu.