Justin Samuels: Award winning playwright Kenneth Lin’s latest play Warrior Class,
comes out in New York’s Second Stage Theatre on July 11th. It’s playing Off
Broadway. Kenneth has done a number of plays and has won awards such
as the Princess Grace Award, TCG Edgerton New Play Prize, Kendeda
Graduate Playwriting Competition Winner, and the L. Arnold Weissberger
Award. He attended Cornell University undergraduate, and for grad
school attended Yale University School of Drama.
What was the inspiration for Warrior Class?
Kenneth Lin: A few years ago, the actor Louis Changchien and I got together to write a ten minute play for Second Generation Theatre Company. I was about to get married, and I didn’t have any inspiration. Louis, who is an action movie star, had mentioned that when he went to a shooting range noticed that there were a lot of Asian families hanging out there target practicing. So we decided to write a short play about Asians and guns. This got me thinking about Asian men, violence, and Virginia Tech. I thought of other incidents involving Asian men like the Hmong hunter in Wisconsin, the shooters in Binghamton, Oakland, the Discovery Channel, and Yale. Was there something about being Asian that fed into these violent acts? I conceived of a character, Julius Lee, who is a successful politician, but his life could have taken a very different path after a bad breakup in college. Now that he is about to open new territories of success, will he be able to breakthrough, or will he be dragged down by the past and a world that isn’t ready for him to fully succeed? After I began to do more first hand research about the inner workings of politics, I discovered that the entangling nature of American civil service is anything but civil.
JS: The lead character, Julius Lee, is called the Republican Obama. Do
you think we’re seeing major breakthrough of barriers for Asian
Americans in politics now? We’ve two Asian American governors now
if you count Indian Americans as Asian American.
KL: This is a question for history to answer. I’m too close to it now, but I’m not seeing a defining breakthrough. The ice is cracking slowly, but I can’t say that I feel that there has been a sea change in the way that Asians are participating in American media and politics. Things are changing, of course. Eventually we will be able to point to a generation of Asian Americans and say that they continued the fight of their fore-bearers, demanded, and finally attained a prominent, rightful place in all aspects of American life. I’d like to think that I’m playing a small part in the continuum of this movement.
JS: Were you a theater person all your life, or was this something that
developed later on?
KL: I’ve always liked theater, but I had a lot of other interests. People ask me what they should study to be an artist, but I think they’re already lost it in the questions. To be a good artist, one must be a good reader and/or listener.
JS: Your plays explore a number of political, racial and economic themes.
Po Boy Tango is about a Taiwanese immigrant who teams up with an
African American soul food chef. Said Saïd is about an Algerian
political prisoner and his French torturer. Do you see yourself as
an activist of sorts? Or you simply bringing to light stories that
need to be told?
KL: I always think that it’s odd that the immediate reaction to a play that contains geo-political themes is that the writer is an activist of some kind, or has an agenda besides telling a good story. It strikes me as odd because it’s not as though geo-political problems happen to aliens on another planet. They happen to people. Personally, my family has traced a path from China to Burma to Hong Kong to Taiwan to Argentina to get to America. Tales of military juntas, cultural revolutions, flight to new homes are an essential part of the story of who I am. So, do I want us all to work harder to make the world a better place? Yes. But, I am doing what all writers do. I am telling the stories that are within me.
JS: Did you study political science or a related field while at Cornell?
Where did your affinity for political topics come from?
KL: I studied psychology at Cornell and I was actually a Psych 101 TA when the class was the largest lecture in North America. People think that studying psychology makes you good at character development, but it actually makes you good at plot. A psychological experiment is a contained system. You place subject in the system and based on their reactions to set parameters of the system, you try to make an inference about human nature. Plays are the exact same thing, except now I get to pick the subjects. I would say that I have an affinity for political topics. I have an affinity for learning how things work. At heart I’m an engineer, but I’m interested in how people work. I’m interested in how society works. Politics the the machinery of humanity.
JS: What upcoming projects do you have? Are you exclusively a
playwright, or do you write other things such as books, screenplays,
lyrics, etc? If you’re currently exclusively a playwright, would you
consider other types of writing?
I just finished a new commission for Ensemble Studio Theatre. I’m trying to get a new musical off the ground, and I just sold an new limited television series to Universal Cable for USA Networks. That and raising my new baby is going to be my life for a while. My dream when I retire is to travel around the world as a journalist who writes about people that are making a positive difference in the world. Someday, I’ll get back to writing essays for my blog.