Robbie Short

A glass house lights up in a dark theater. A simple set — a bathtub, a bed, a dining table. Four Asian women stand center stage; their presences fill this wood-paneled home, a space of family, loss and grief.

“The thing about dead people,” Allison Du’s ’20 voice is trembling and strong, “is they didn’t use to be dead. There was a split second when they went from un-dead to dead, from a person to a body. We are either living or dead. There is no in between.”

Written by Stefani Kuo ’17, “Architecture of Rain” is the first play in the Yale Dramat’s history to feature a cast of all-Asian women. Starring Du, Arya Sundaram ’20, Evan Billups ’20, and Emily Locke ’19, the play is about loss and memory. It tells the story of an Asian family grieving the death of their daughter, All-Grown-Up, and invokes themes of remembering and forgetting.

In the summer of 2015, Kuo worked as a stagehand at The Public Theater in New York City. In between handing props to actors, she wrote monologues, crouched behind curtains, her notebook illuminated by blue light. After work, she would sit in her apartment, on a plastic chair, writing into the night.

Kuo’s first monologue, which she eventually chose to exclude from the play, was a poignant contemplation of death. It reads, “We are either living or dead. Missing is just an idea of what people think we are. Another airplane has gone missing, another capsule, another time, another people have gone poof into midair. I don’t like the word missing. There is no such thing as a vacation of empty space. You are not allowed to take a leave of absence from being. I miss people enough already, it is small enough inside to fit just one heart.”

Kuo did not always envision an all-Asian cast. She felt intimidated by the seeming lack of Asian actors on campus.

Kuo wanted to cast her play race-blind, until Margaret Spillane convinced her otherwise. Spillane is a lecturer in the Yale English Department, and was Stefani’s mentor at the Yale Playwrights Festival 2016.

“Stefani is telling a story that’s very specifically and intimately about the Asian and Asian-American experience — something too rarely seen on American stages,” Spillane said. “The fact that Stefani has found four Asian-American actresses for these roles means that their own intimate and specific connection to the material should bring power and authenticity to their roles.”

The turnout at the auditions was unprecedented. “I was shocked that 40 people auditioned for the play,” Kuo said. It was a revelation that so many Asian and Asian-American actresses existed at Yale.

“Our auditions demolished the preconceived notion that there aren’t enough Asian women on this campus who act and can act,” Gregory Ng ’18, the play’s director, said. “We had to turn away so many amazing actors.”

Alexa Derman ’19, the producer of the play, detected a similar fervor among the production staff. “People are so excited for this,” she said. “I still get emails asking to work on this show.”

It became clear to Kuo, Ng and Derman that the theater community at Yale was viewing “Architecture” as more than just another Yale play. Rather, for Asian-American theater artists, “Architecture” is a triumph of minority representation and visibility.

Hannah Worscheh ’17, president of the Yale Dramat, agreed. “This is an incredibly important step forward, and we are excited to continue toward seasons that better reflect the wide range of narratives within our community,” she said.

* * *

Like many Asian-Americans at Yale, Jae Shin ’17 had never sung, danced or acted before college. But in his freshman year, he was asked to work the spotlight for a Dramat musical.

“I was sitting up in the catwalk, shining a Source Four light onstage for eight hours a day,” he said. “I looked down and saw what the actors were doing, and thought: I want to do that.”

Shin’s passion pushed him to audition for as many plays as possible. In his sophomore year, he was cast only in ensemble roles. In his junior year, he received his first big role as the writer in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical “Hello Again.” He describes the moment with great pride: “That was the first time my voice was on its own. I had my first song on stage. And it didn’t matter that it was a traditionally white role.”

Shin credits his growth as an actor to sheer resilience and commitment. “People lament that the same white people are cast again and again, but that’s because these actors have been training and working all their life,” he said. They can do it because they’re white, but also because they’re good. I see so many people give up. I’m going to catch up.”

This semester, Shin will be performing the role of Sam in the Dramat’s production of Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party.” In his time at Yale, he had not seen another Asian-American actor on the Dramat Mainstage, apart from Crystal Liu ’16.

“One of my biggest goals, the reason I want to succeed in this field is because I never saw faces like me on the Western stage or screen. And if I did, it was roles I would never want to play,” Shin said. “Theater is a white-person thing. And that happens because you grow up without exposure. That’s why things like Architecture of Rain are groundbreaking. You’re going to go in there and see what you’ve never seen before. You’re going to see four Asian actresses who’ve never done this at Yale. You’re changing that frame that has been set up.”

* * *

In a high school creative writing class, Kuo wrote a story about a grandmother and her granddaughter. A classmate read it and asked, “Can you write anything that isn’t Asian?” As a result of this question, Kuo began to doubt her writing ability. She began to ask herself if she was writing stereotypical stories. “People don’t realize that in saying such things, you shut people’s identities down,” she reflected.

Kuo began writing white characters who lived in the suburbs and owned pets. She didn’t think people wanted to hear Asian narratives. It wasn’t until she worked with the National Asian American Theater Company that she realized that it was possible to create visceral, moving stories about the Asian experience.

Kuo found kinship in Asian Potluck (formally the YSD Asian and Asian American Theatre Coalition), an affinity space for Asian-identifying artists at the Yale School of Drama.

Ashley Chang DRA ’25, co-director of Asian Potluck, said that the group’s goal is to advocate for Asian directors, playwrights and theater-makers. The group is founded on the principle of color-consciousness, rather than color-blindness.

To Chang, the now common catchphrase “color-blind casting” is an “erasure of people’s lived experiences,” in particular a history of violence and oppression. Color-consciousness involves acknowledging a collective past, and creating art with that past in mind.

Professional playwright and theater studies professor Deb Margolin, co-founder of the theater group Split Britches and Kuo’s thesis advisor, believes that playwrights of color, in particular, need to share their stories.

“People come to Yale and think they have to ignore aspects of their culture that aren’t mainstream,” she said. “They think, it doesn’t matter that I’m Asian, a woman or African-American. In fact, these are the voices we need to hear. It’s very beautiful when students accept not only their prerogative, but their responsibility to speak from this space.”

* * *

Some members of the Yale drama community expressed confusion about Kuo’s decision to cast only Asian women, since her play deals with universal themes not specific to any race.

“I understand what they were saying,” Kuo said, “but it is specific to Asia. This play was written by me, and I was raised in an Asian culture. I had an Asian family in mind.”

Perhaps, the question of staging an “Asian play” indicates a deeper problem: The tendency to associate “Asian-ness” with chopstick-wielding, kimono-donning caricatures. In the past, Asian actresses have played geisha girls, dragon ladies and Lotus Blossoms, roles that were both stereotypical and underwritten.

In the present, Asian-Americans have to deal with new stereotypes that are often updated versions of older ones. The “model minority” myth positions Asian-Americans as exemplars of socioeconomic success. It served as a political tool that pitted Asian-Americans against other ethnic minorities.

“Architecture” attempts to resist such tropes.

Ng said that the production presents fully fleshed-out representations of Asian women. While plays like “Flower Drum Song” reduce or exoticize Asian women, Kuo’s play showcases authentic individuals.

“This play is about loss, about how we construct and deconstruct ourselves, and about the ways we personalize loss,” Sundaram, who plays the character Sol, said. “There’s something placeless, genderless and timeless about this play.”

Locke, who plays Silina, added, “This play is not just about Asian people. It’s about life and family life. It’s not a role I have to play just because I’m Asian.”

* * *

Zi Alikhan, the New York-based director of “The Wild Party,” found that as the son of Indian immigrants, his background shaped his practice as a theater artist.

“I’ve grown up feeling kind of like an other, like an outsider to the story at the center,” he said. “Whether that be having a name people have trouble pronouncing, whether that be me having to change my name, whether that be my mum packing leftover Indian food for lunch and me feeling a certain kind of shame about that, whether that be me finding an intersection between being queer, and a person of color, and one that is not a majority-minority, but an underrepresented minority.”

Alikhan grew up in suburban Northern California and later graduated from New York University with a musical theater degree.

He is the first Asian-American to direct the Yale Dramat Mainstage production in more than 12 years. Alikhan said that his personal history pushes him to create an environment of acceptance and empathy in his rehearsal room, where every cast and crew member is comfortable being themselves.

“What is supremely exciting about plays like ‘Architecture’ is we are creating that space, for people to continue to occupy. And this space can only get bigger, and feel more comfortable,” he said. “It’s sometimes uncomfortable because it’s like we’re drilling a nail into wood. It’s hard to even get the screw in, but once the screw’s there, the space is always going to be there. It can only get bigger and deeper and more occupied. That feels so thrilling to me.”

* * *

Patricia Fa’asua DRA ’18 dreams of playing Rose in August Wilson’s “Fences.”

“There’s a beautiful monologue by Rose,” she said. “Every time I hear that monologue, it sends chills down my spine. I’m washed by it. I want to do that monologue.”

Yet, Fa’asua acknowledges that there are limits to the roles she should play. “Wilson wrote that the only people who can be part of this production are Black actors. Non-Black actors cannot be in these roles, or direct this play. This is their story. No one can understand this story except African-Americans.”

While transformation is at the root of acting, playing a character of a different race carries a variety of social and political implications. Asian-American theater is colored by a history of yellowface. This practice abridged the East Asian experience to reductive caricatures and erased real experiences with cartoonish imitations.

Yellowface should be an archaic phenomenon. Yet, the April 2016 casting of white actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters in upcoming blockbusters proved otherwise. To the outrage of Asian-Americans, Johansson is slated to play the lead character, Motoko Kusanagi, in the Japanese franchise “Ghost In the Shell,” while Swinton will play the Ancient One in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.”

Fa’asua believes in giving people the agency to tell their stories. As a San Diego native of Polynesian descent, Fa’asua said, “There are things I could tell about the Samoan culture. And people may say, I relate to that. Yet their version of it will always come short, because it’s missing the specific jewel that is the Samoan experience.”

In staging A. Rey Pamatmat’s “Thunder Above, Deeps Below,” Chang and her production team faced a casting challenge. The play a features a Filipina transgender woman named Gil.

“In the case of the historically marginalized or oppressed, it’s about recognizing that other people have told their stories, or co-opted their stories,” she said. “They haven’t been the dominant voice of their own history. And to actually have a platform on par with a Shakespeare play. That’s important. We wanted to be very intentional. We didn’t want to cast a cisgender person, or someone who’s not of that experience.”

Chang and her team were committed to the integrity of Gil’s identity. They sent out a casting call to all of New Haven, which proved futile. Finally, in New York City, they found a willing actress who fit the role.

Margolin agrees that it is important to place minority voices at the center of their stories.

“In an ideal world, race won’t matter,” she said. “We’re far from that world. Right now, race matters a lot. You cannot ignore race. Identity politics will stand in for an ideal world. Right now, it matters that [the actresses in ‘Architecture’] are Asian.”

* * *

Asian-American actors interviewed expressed anxieties about being typecast. They found that they were often cast as the “Asian character,” and never got to play roles that were historically white.

“I’ve hardly seen Asians onstage being anything other than maids, nerds or doctors,” Kuo said. “[Before Yale], I’d only been onstage as a maid. And I only had three lines. And one of them got cut.”

Chang had a similar experience. In high school, she attended the Yale Summer Conservatory for Actors program and got paired up with the one other East Asian woman to be sisters. This casting decision aggravated her; she wanted to be able to transform as an actor, and not be restricted by her race.

Billups, who plays All-Grown-Up in “Architecture,” yearns to transcend conventionally Asian roles.

“There are more ways to be onstage [as an Asian-American] than to be in ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘M. Butterfly,’” she said. “There are more stories than the cliched ones people think about.”

Alikhan, too, articulated the need to embrace ways of reinventing the Western theatrical canon. He spoke of a need for minorities to assert themselves in traditionally white roles.

“We, as theater-makers, sometimes, accept American-ness as whiteness,” Alikhan said. “We allow that to be a characteristic of these characters in the theater. But there’s no reason why my Indian-ness couldn’t be a huge part of my American-ness, and make me the most American Harold Hill [from “The Music Man”], who just happened to grow up eating samosas and curry.”

Victoria Wang ’18, a member of Jook Songs, Yale’s Asian-American spoken word poetry group, champions the act of Asian-Americans occupying legendary roles. “I want to play King Lear. Have you ever seen an Asian-American King Lear? No!”

* * *

Ng emphasized the importance of acknowledging the diversity within the Asian-American community. “Asia is not a monolith,” he said. “Something really moving to me was that [in ‘Architecture’] we did not present a singular idea of what it means to be Asian.”

Ng and Derman made it a point to spread their casting net wide. When actresses of mainly East and Southeast Asian descent were auditioning, they got worried.

“Once again,” Ng said, we were falling into the trap of people seeing ‘Asian’ and thinking ‘East Asian.’”

In their second casting push, when Sundaram entered the audition room, Ng knew he had found their Sol.

“She’s incredible,” Ng said. “We couldn’t have cast anyone but her in this role.”

Maxine Dillon ’17, actress, playwright and stage manager of “Architecture,” said, “The question of ‘Who is theater for?’ is answered in spaces where you don’t see yourself in. You think that may be the answer, until you realize there is a space for you, that there are people who look like you.”

The stage is a mirror of reality. It reflects and affirms who inhabits the world. Seeing ourselves in art reminds us that we exist, that our voices matter and that our stories deserve to be heard. More than that, the stage iterates what is possible. For a young Asian-American boy to see someone like him play a romantic lead, for an aspiring Asian-American actress to see someone like her on a Broadway stage, is to expand the notions of what is possible.

Alikhan emphasized the importance of diverse programming. He said theaters should prioritize staging plays that allow people of color to experience their own narratives, their history, their past, present and future, in a way that doesn’t feel arbitrary, that feels thoughtful, that represents who these people have been, who they are and who they can be.

Fa’asua shared similar sentiments.

“By allowing people to tell their stories, it’s almost a tool in decolonization,” she said. “In our past, once colonization came, our ethnic religions were stripped away; for some cultures, stripped of their language, their identity. What’s empowering about telling our stories, is that it’s a generation looking for themselves, and defining — again — who we are. I don’t want a white man to write my story, because he doesn’t know what my story is. My story can only be told by my people.”

“It’s a radical act for a playwright like [Kuo] to arrogate to herself the right to speak about the cultural and emotional experiences that tell her stories,” Margolin attested. “It’s new and I do not take it for granted. It’s a radical act. A new privilege.”

Indeed, “Architecture of Rain” is trailblazing. On Thursday to Saturday night, four Asian-American women will stand center stage, telling a story that is both intimate and universal. In the faces of Scy, Silina, Sol and All-Grown-Up, Asian-American audience members may see joy, heartbreak, sacrifice, pain. They may see hope. They may see love.

Most importantly, they may see themselves.