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When's the Last Time You Saw Poor Teens On Stage?

Date: Jun 04, 2019

Carla Ching's new play Nomad Motel is a different kind of coming-of-age story


One of the worst days of Carla Ching's life took place when she was living in New York City. At the time, the Los Angeles native was a struggling dramatist working six jobs. Eventually, she decided to move back to her hometown, hoping to find work writing for television. The only problem was, she didn't have any money for a plane ticket. So she gathered all of the jewelry she owned "that was worth anything," and went to the diamond district. She began "walking around, going to each place, feeling smaller and smaller, asking people, 'How much would you give me for this pocketful of stuff?'" Ching recalls. That moment burned into her brain and is now a poignant scene in her new play Nomad Motel, currently running at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the drama centers on two lonely teenage classmates: Alix (Molly Griggs), whose homeless family bounces between motels, and Mason (Christopher Larkin), a Hong Kong native whose striving parents sent him to the U.S. alone to get an education. While Ching no longer has to work half a dozen jobs to make ends meet thanks to her TV gigs (Preacher, The First), writing Nomad Motel transported her back to that difficult period when she had nothing. "Class and poverty is something we don't deal with enough in America," says Ching, noting that on stage and screen there's a lack of "people who are living paycheck to paycheck and how scary that is."

Despite being from wildly different economic and ethnic backgrounds, Alix and Mason bond while collaborating on an English assignment. Both have been forced to grow up too quickly and are grappling with feelings of isolation. Alix's mother is often absent, leaving her to balance school and waitress work. Mason lives in a McMansion all by himself and worries about getting deported. "There are other ways to have nothing, which I'm trying to explore with Mason," Ching explains. "You can have a big house, but you can truly not have family and be all alone."


Media is awash with stories about income inequality. California, the so-called Golden State where Nomad Motel is set, has a 19 percent poverty rate, one of the highest in the country. "It's so tenuous to be middle-class now," Ching says. "In a second, a sickness, losing a parent, anything can happen, and all of a sudden you find yourself in dire financial circumstances." With Nomad Motel, Ching aims to challenge the widely held notion that poverty is a moral failing. "I wanted to have people be able to lean in and have empathy for those of us who sometimes find ourselves in those situations," she says.

Despite its hot topic themes, Nomad Motel feels fresh because Ching focuses on a demographic that's typically overlooked: impoverished and marginalized adolescents. "I was hoping to create an alternative coming-of-age story," she says, adding that in entertainment, these types of tales usually focus on wealthy, white kids. "There's a heroism to people who make it all work when the chips are stacked against you. Even as adults, we come of age again and again, and are growing up, changing, evolving."

Ultimately, Ching makes Nomad Motel an uplifting journey as the teens find ways to support each other. She hopes audiences leave the play inspired to do the same.

"These characters have only a little bit of something, but they're willing to share that barely anything that they have," she explains. "I hate this cynicism that exists in the world today, and how everybody is out for themselves. I wanted to put something on stage where people are generous even though they don't have much to give."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Nomad Motel. Go here to browse our current offers.

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Top image: Molly Griggs and Christopher Larkin in Nomad Motel. Photos by Ahron R. Foster.