As the family gathers where the loons call them back, the sunset cascades down onto the muddy bank while simultaneously piercing through the Lake House window. And as the night grows darker, so do the secrets. Moonlight is thrown onto the blanket of water, white wine is consumed, and as those secrets are inevitably revealed, well-to-do white people will be shaken to their blue-eyed core.
This synopsis fits into a genre that won’t be found in any traditional descriptions of theatre, and there is certainly not a mask for it. This genre can simply be described as “white people by the water.”
When playwright Leah Nanako Winkler and her fellow colleagues were at a writing retreat a few years back, they noticed something when it came to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s season announcement. What began as a casual observation became an all-out discovery of a company’s commitment to a genre that may or may not have been an accident. Hence, the aptly named “white people by the water” was born.
“I really thought it was extremely funny at first, and then I got really disturbed,” said Winkler. “It’s sort of one perspective that gets ingrained and manifests itself in the rich, white narratives. There’s a big body of water and tensions spill out over drinking.”
So, after Winkler noticed play after play of this newfound genre was filling up an entire season, she took her shot at writing one.
“I finished half of it in one day.”
What began as a bit of a ruse moved quickly into a critically acclaimed play, making its Bay Area debut as one of four world premieres around the country. “Two Mile Hollow,” is making its way to San Francisco, produced by Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. The show begins previews on Saturday, June 23rd and officially opens on Monday, June 25th.
There is one major change in Winkler’s script, however. The white people by the water have been replaced by the Asian Pacific Islander people playing the white people by the water. With the play, Winkler addresses a matter of equity – in the script’s introduction, she states that as of 2016, only nine percent of casting decisions on and off Broadway involved actors of color.
The show’s director Lily Tung Crystal remembers her first thoughts when she participated in a staged reading of the play.
“I thought it was funny, and I liked how she’s no-holds-barred in sending up these narratives we are inundated with in American theatre and in Western culture,” said Tung Crystal, who is also the artistic director of the company. “What I love about ‘Two Mile Hollow’ is it’s so fun, so entertaining, and yet it also has a powerful message. We can look at this work in terms of what stories get told, especially for people of color and people who are marginalized in terms of race and gender.”
For Tung Crystal, a play that redefines what it is to play an “American” character is thrilling.
“The other thing I like about the play is that artists of color don’t often have the opportunity to play these well-rounded characters,” said Tung Crystal. “We’re often asked to play a very specific cultural role, and we’re not afforded the opportunity to play a “mainstream” American character. Those roles are more often than not cast with a Caucasian actor because that’s the default race to go to. This play is a way to give opportunities to actors of color to play these funny, exciting, quintessentially American roles.”
Winkler has carved out a stellar career thus far. The young, 32-year-old playwright who was born in Japan, raised in Lexington, Kentucky and resides in New York City has been on multiple Kilroy’s Lists and has had her plays workshopped nationwide. Her latest play “God Said This” won the 2018 Yale Drama series prize, which includes $10,000 and a private reading at the Lincoln Center this October. The play was selected out of 1,600 entries.
Still, despite the acclaim of her other works, “Two Mile Hollow” may be the most confounding. It has been her best reviewed show so far, a show that has received nightly standing ovations, but it’s also a play that has not seen a New York premiere. Winkler has noticed that, because the play skewers the rich, white New York theatregoer, it takes a bit of ferocity to produce the show. Which makes perfect sense – the play, after all is being produced in the Bay Area by a company with “ferocious” in their name.
“A trend I’ve noticed outside of New York is that smaller, fierce theatre companies are taking it on, wanting to do something important, something current,” said Winkler. “The show is just a really fun comedy and says a lot of things people are thinking.”
For Tung Crystal, who these people are is what makes the play so exciting to produce.
“One of the challenges of the play, which speaks to the richness of Leah’s work, is that the whole play is a sendup of theatre, white narratives and canonical works; these are caricatures, which is where the humor is, but the story lies in the grounding of the piece,” said Tung Crystal. “The challenge is balancing that line between the grounded, naturalistic story and the over-the-top comedic nature of the show. We want it to be funny, but we also want people to care about the characters.”
If history is a guide, Winkler’s play is one where an audience can view the vices of society through that house on the lake’s bank, and have a great time doing so.
“Initially, the sendup can be very broad, but the way Leah has structured the play, all of the sendups go deeper and deeper into the heart of what each satirical moment is challenging,” said Tung Crystal. “To be able to have the freedom to make fun of these mainstream narratives is freeing and joyful.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, along with Intersection for the Arts, presents “Two Mile Hollow”
Written by Leah Nanako Winkler
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal
June 23rd – July 15th
1695 18th Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $40
For tickets, call (415) 322-0859 or visit www.ferociouslotus.org
For the playwright, visit leahwinkler.org