A young playwright's quest to ask difficult questions about race, class and gender

Leah Nanako Winkler’s new play “Kentucky” is a comedy about a Japanese American woman raised in the South. Like her protagonist Hiro, Winkler is half-Japanese and grew up in Kentucky. Like Hiro, she left  for New York and didn’t return for years. And like Hiro, Winkler found her sister’s embrace of evangelical Christianity puzzling and alarming.

“It was like she’d joined a cult,” recalls Winkler, who clarifies that she wasn’t entirely like the Hiro of her play.

“I didn’t actually try to stop my sister’s wedding,” she says with a laugh.

Speaking from the dressing room at East West Players’ theater in downtown L.A., where the West Coast premiere of “Kentucky” runs through Dec. 11, Winkler says the new work is “circumstantially autobiographical.”

“It started from a place of reality, but the events that take place aren’t real,” she says. “It’s like a bizarro-world version of my life.”  

Her story happens to touch on so many cultural divisions — racial, economic, religious, rural vs. urban — heightened by the recent presidential election, the new play feels especially timely.

For Winkler, though, one of her goals for “Kentucky” was personal: to shed what she calls “the angry playwright label.”

“When I first started writing this play, I thought it would get produced because I’m not outwardly criticizing anyone,” she says. “I just wanted to write something that addressed race and class without doing so directly, in part because — and I don’t know if this was a positive thing — I didn’t want the ‘angry’ label anymore.”

Soon after she arrived in New York City on a Greyhound bus about a decade ago, Winkler founded the Everywhere Theatre Group with friends. None of them had grown up with money, and they struggled to finance their dreams in the downtown arts scene, which to them seemed like a playground for rich kids.

They had been putting on shows and getting attention when their 2012 production “Flying Snakes in 3-D,” a satirical exploration of class divisions in the arts, provoked the community.

“For us this was a comedy,” Winkler says. “But so many people got so angry. A critic for a smaller downtown blog wrote a huge Facebook post that was like, ‘Don’t blame the white man for your critical failures.’ We got bad reviews, like, ‘These whiny people are mad because they have to do jobs and do theater.’ Which was not the point.”

Everywhere Theatre Group disbanded, but Winkler kept writing plays and asking questions about diversity and representation onstage. She found herself at the heart of another flap in 2015 when she asked the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players about an upcoming production of “The Mikado,” featuring  mostly white cast made up to look Japanese, in what Winkler called “yellowface.” A blog post she wrote about the conversation urged others to protest. In the end, the troupe decided to do “The Pirates of Penzance” instead, postponing “The Mikado” until a “reimagined” production could open later this season. 

“I used to not want to talk about this because I got a lot of backlash,” Winkler says. “I got featured on Lookatthatstupidgirl.com and a lot of conservative blogs.”

 And the “angry” label stuck.

Winkler says her point wasn’t to stop a production but rather have the company explain its choices. “I don’t think anyone has the power to say, ‘We can’t do this text.’ I think the issue now is that if you do it in a way that is obvious ‘yellowface,’ you can’t expect people not to have a reaction. If you’re fully prepared for it, then go ahead. I think with ancient texts like ‘The Mikado,’ it’s a question of who’s the the best person to do it, and how can you reinvent so it’s relevant. Show us what this play is in the context of this ever-changing world.” 

During an interview she comes across as friendly, witty and not angry, just self-possessed. “I’ve always been outspoken,” she says. “I’m not always right, but if I see something wrong, I’ll ask a question about it.”

She remembers that during her orientation at Butler University, the liberal-arts college in Indiana, she raised her hand to ask, “Is everybody here white?”

“Back then I think it was disorienting for white people to hear that,” she says. “But Butler was where I first experienced the culture shock of how white theater is. Those were the first kernels of, you know, what can I add to the conversation: How can I change the landscape.”

Born in Japan, Winkler spent some of her childhood there before moving to Kentucky. She won’t say how old she was at the time. “I don’t like to answer that question because there’s a lot of judgment placed on that,” she says. “There’s a big difference if I say 2 or if I say 12. People like to peg you on how Japanese or how American you are, when you're mixed race.”

She will say that she was old enough to experience “a double identity crisis.”

“In Japan I was a child model because of my Western looks,” she says. “I was considered gaijin, which means foreigner. But in America I was the girl from Japan.”

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The Kentucky of Winkler’s childhood was far more diverse, ethnically and socioeconomically, than outsiders might imagine, she says.

“I grew up in an extremely diverse Kentucky, an artistic Kentucky,” she says. “I’m from Lexington. We have an openly gay mayor. There are people of color there, a lot of them. I went to Japanese school on Saturdays. My public high school was extremely diverse, in class as well as race. We had kids who were driving Mercedes into school from the horse country parts of town and kids who were walking from the projects.”

 One of the issues she explores in her play is how cultural stereotypes get in the way of understanding: Hiro’s contempt for her “old Kentucky home” is as simplistic and limiting as her family’s disdain for so-called New York values.

Even if she weren’t naturally outspoken, Winkler points out, writing plays based on her own experiences would pose a challenge to the theatrical status quo. “I put two hapa [mixed-race] sisters front and center,” she says. “That’s a political act, but it just happens to be my life. I love creating opportunities for actors who normally don’t get to play roles.”

Efforts to increase diversity in the American theater, if well-intentioned, says Winkler, are still fairly rudimentary. “I’ve been noticing a trend in new plays recently, where white writers want to put diverse characters in their plays, but they do this hilarious thing where the diverse characters just talk about being diverse. They’ll come onstage and be like, ‘I’m Asian.’ That’s what I’m not interested in. I’m more interested in universalizing and normalizing stories that are we all experience.” 

The solution, she suggests, is to bring more writers of color on board and not just in a token way. “A lot of writers’ groups on the theater circuit, and MFA programs for directing, are curated like the Spice Girls: one white woman, a queer white woman, a black woman and an Asian woman. A lot of my Asian friends and I cancel each other out for fellowships. It’s like, ‘OK, Susan. I guess it’s your turn.’”

According to East West Players’ artistic director, Snehal Desai, only 20% of the plays produced in Los Angeles and across the country are written by women — “1 in 5,” he says for emphasis.

As a corrective, his company — established in 1965 and billed as the longest-running professional theater of color in the country — has dedicated its new season entirely to female artists and their work, partnering with community groups such as the L.A. Female Playwrights Initiative.

Winkler encourages other theaters to follow suit.

“Women of color lose opportunities because there’s usually one ‘female’ slot in any theater season,” she says. “Right now I think theaters with an older white subscriber base aren’t taking the risk to program plays by people who are marginalized because they don’t think their stories will be universal enough to resonate with their subscriber base. But it’s simply not true. I look at audiences here at EWP and I think that’s the dream. They’re young and old, men and women, from different backgrounds, as diverse as the subways I ride every day.”

After “Kentucky,” she adds, “I’m not afraid of any label anymore. Especially in light of this election, it’s important to be honest. I’m a fun person, and I know that my voice is important, and I don’t feel any shame. In this political climate, I actually feel more motivated to tell stories about people because how else are we going to humanize each other?”

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‘Kentucky’

Where: East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 11. 

Tickets: $30-$50

Information: (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org

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An earlier version of this article implied that playwright Leah Nanako Winkler didn't see her family for years until her sister got married in Kentucky. Although the family is from Kentucky, the wedding was held in Michigan. Also, the article said New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' 2015 production of “The Mikado” featured an all-white cast; it was a mostly white cast.
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