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Leah Nanako Winkler on her new play God Said This
Leah Nanako Winkler started writing God Said This while keeping her cancer-stricken mother company during chemotherapy sessions in Kentucky. "It just came out," the playwright recalls -- though not all at once. Each week Winkler traveled between the Bluegrass State where she grew up and her current New York City home, she would return with new pages to present to the writers group she was in at Primary Stages.
After having its world premiere last year at Louisville, Kentucky's prestigious Humana Festival, God Said This is now back where she started honing it, at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The story revolves around Masako (Ako), a Japanese-born matriarch whose cancer battle brings her estranged family together. Her husband, James (Jay Patterson), is a Kentucky-born white man and recovering alcoholic, who yearns to reconcile with his adult daughters. Their eldest, Hiro (Satomi Blair), who moved to New York City long ago, has returned for a rare visit. Their youngest, Sophie, is a born-again Christian who struggles to maintain her faith. The latter's efforts to comfort her mother with passages from the Bible ("God said your health shall spring forth speedily") give the play its title.
Winkler was born in Kamakura, Japan but spent her formative years in Lexington, Kentucky. Her mother is from Japan, her father is from Kentucky and her sister is a born-again Christian. Yet she doesn't consider God Said This autobiographical. "It's just inspired by the circumstances," she explains. "Nothing in the play actually happened. You always have to write from an honest place. In each of my plays, something seminal happened that served as a jumping-off place."
Now in her mid-thirties, Winkler says she's wanted to be a writer since about age 7, though she says, "I didn't know playwriting was a profession until I became one." Winkler took a Greyhound bus to New York in 2006, knowing no one though she had arranged for a low-paying job as an assistant director of a musical. Within three weeks, she had formed her own theatre company, the now-defunct Everywhere Theatre Group. Shortly thereafter, she heard about avant-garde Korean-American playwright and director Young Jean Lee (now best known for her play Straight White Men, which recently ran on Broadway). Winkler e-mailed Lee and became her intern.
In 2016, while she was finishing up her MFA at Brooklyn College, Winkler's play Kentucky, featuring the same family from God Said This, was produced at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Set seven years earlier, it followed Hiro's attempts to stop her little sister's marriage. Both productions shared a director, Morgan Gould, as well as the actors playing Hiro, Masako and James.
Yet while Kentucky included a dozen characters in addition to the central family, God Said This is more insular, with just one outsider: John (Tom Coiner), Hiro's acquaintance from high school, a single father who wonders what legacy he will leave his child. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, who chose God Said This from more than 1600 submissions for the Yale Drama Series Prize last year, the play's five characters illustrate how "the approach of death can order the meaning of a human life."
Winkler says so far, the theatregoers who have approached her after the show usually offer one of two reactions: They either talk about their personal experiences with cancer, or remark on their joy at seeing three characters of Asian descent on stage, especially two of mixed race and the other over age 50.
Winkler sees part of her "mission" as a playwright is to upend stereotypes and expand opportunities for Asian-American performers "beyond Miss Saigon and The King and I." She's long linked art and activism, most famously in 2015, when a blog post she published helped spearhead the protest against the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players' overwhelmingly white production of The Mikado, which was ultimately scrapped in favor of a multicultural mounting the next year.
But the stereotypes she challenges extend beyond Asian Americans. "People from Kentucky," she says, "can be smart and educated."
To read about a student's experience at God Said This, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Emma Kikue and Satomi Blair in God Said This. Photos by James Leynse.
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