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A new play pushes beyond Southern stereotypes
If you've never been to Kentucky, you may still think you know what it's about: bourbon, horses, bluegrass. However, playwright Leah Nanako Winkler would beg to differ. Growing up in the state, she had a wildly different experience than the one we might imagine.
"I think people think that it's very conservative and there's white guys on horses going to church," she says. "I went to Japanese school in Lexington. My mom was a teacher in a Japanese school, and I went there Thursdays and Saturdays. And my high school was predominantly African-American."
And it's that version of the Bluegrass State that defines her play Kentucky, running through May 22 at Ensemble Studio Theatre, who co-produce with The Radio Drama Network and Page 73.
Specifically, the show follows a woman named Hiro, who works in a marketing firm in New York City. When her 22-year-old sister Sophie, a born-again Christian, announces she's marrying to a man she's only known for six months, Hiro flies home and tries to cancel the wedding. Suffice to say, things don't go as planned.
Winkler began the play three years ago, during the wedding of her own younger sister, who is also a born-again Christian. "At the time, I was single, and I was wondering, 'Will I ever find love, do I want these things?'" she recalls. "I think any time you have a reunion with people you haven't seen in a while—be it friends or family or people from your past at home—you have a lot of feelings that come flooding back."
Along with these intense emotions, Hiro also confronts an abusive father, an emotionally fragile mother, and a sister she doesn't recognize. "It's very much about Hiro's Kentucky and how the awful and beautiful people in her life have shaped her," Winkler says.
But the play isn't the story of just one family: it's a tableau of a community. Kentucky contains 16 cast members, who play Hiro's childhood friends, her high school crush, and even a talking cat. "Growing up, you don't have four people at a dinner table shaping you," the playwright says. "You have millions of people that you encounter."
And again, in this production, those people are decidedly different from the common Southern stereotypes. Similar to Winkler's family, for instance, Hiro and Sophie's father is white and their mother is Japanese. And Sophie is engaged to a black man.
This diversity also makes Kentucky the rare Off-Broadway play about an Asian-American family that is not produced by an Asian-American theatre.
"I've never seen a HAPA [partially Asian] main character, so I wanted to selfishly make that," Winkler says. "There's nothing about Hiro that says she has to be Japanese-American. It was important for me to see that. It was really important for me to give that opportunity to an Asian actress too. It's not a play about diversity but it is a diverse play, because that is the world we live in."
To that end, Winkler made national news last year when she wrote a blog post that went viral, about the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players and its production of The Mikado. The production attracted controversy for having a mostly non-Asian cast, and it was subsequently cancelled. Though Winkler still receives hate mail about the incident, she continues to inject activism into her art.
"When you're a female minority playwright, you are an activist sort of by default, just by putting [Satomi Blair, who plays Hiro] onstage and having a ton of Asians in your plays," she says. "I like to make my contributions by creating those opportunities, where they're not defined by race."
This philosophy girds the larger ideas in Kentucky. "I think this isn't a play about Kentucky," she says. "I think everyone has a complicated relationship to home. Especially in New York, there's a lot of transplants from the arts. I think it's a story about the idea of home, what home means to you. How we all make our own home."
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Photos by Jody Christopherson. Top photo: The cast of 'Kentucky.'
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