Mike Lew is an accomplished playwright whose works include Teenage Dick, Tiger Style!, Bike America, microcrisis, and Moustache Guys. He also wrote the book to the musical Bhangin’ It. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Lark Venturous and NYFA fellowships and the PEN Emerging Playwright Award. He was an artist in residence at La Jolla Playhouse, Ma-Yi Filipino Theatre Ensemble, and the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. We were lucky enough to be in contact with Mike for part of the rehearsal process. Dramaturgy Apprentice Katie Ciszek reached out to Mike to ask him some questions about his personal artistic journey and the process of creating Tiger Style!. Please enjoy:
What inspired the writing of Tiger Style! -- how did it fit into your personal artistic journey as a playwright?
One of the frustrations I've found coming up as a writer of color is an expectation from mentors or artistic directors that I address my culture but in a way that coheres with narratives about my culture they've already seen. It's a really complicated problem because while you're still finding your voice as a playwright you have these outside layers of cultural expectations placed on top of your voice. So "Tiger Style!" came out of wanting to talk about my version of Chinese-American culture but from a perspective that felt true to me; I wanted to address and rebuff those expectations (and stereotypes) and try to move the conversation about Asian-Americans forward.
I read that Tiger Style! was written in part as a reaction to the discourse surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Can you address what you were reacting to?
I feel like a lot of the discourse and think pieces around Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother were over-reactions based in stereotypes. I mean somewhat understandably given that Professor Chua was trying to provoke. But just the gut responses were so overblown, like "All Asians hate their parents and all Asians raised this way commit suicide!" And here I am, someone who was actually "tiger parented" and I love my parents and by golly I'm still here. So I wanted to address some of that overreaction not as a defense of the book but as a rebuttal to those overheated reactions.
Tiger Style! was developed in part at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Can you talk a bit about how the script evolved throughout the writing process?
The O'Neill is just such a magical place, so steeped in history. We put the play through its paces and made a ton of changes. I actually got a huge assist from my wife Rehana: at one point we stopped rehearsal so I could rewrite the family dinner scene and I was like "I just can't crack it, would you consider spending no more than half hour writing the 'crappy' version and I'll edit over it?" And she DID and it was a MUCH fresher template. And then for the reading itself during the scene where the kids are in prison there was an actual thunderstorm brewing outside - the actor playing Tzi Chuan had to shout his lines over the storm - it was like Lear. We had to relocate the reading to the indoors theater and 20 minutes later after everyone had been reseated the actor playing Tzi Chuan was like, "As I was saying..." and got this HUGE laugh. I'll never have a reading like it again.
Your plays are highly political, but layered in comedy. What do you see as the role of humor in addressing political issues?
I've always felt satire was the scariest, most brutal way to get to the heart of a political problem - to lay the hypocrisies bare and imagine how we might attempt to rebuild. Humor's the only way I know how to write a political play. My problem with political dramas is that they either run the risk of preaching to the choir or they let you do all your weeping and purging at the theater so you can go home satisfied and do nothing different. But with a political comedy - for whatever reason even if you've been laughing a ton - you leave the theater with this bitter aftertaste that follows you home, and I love that.
What kind of theatre excites you?
I think we're living through an enormously fecund period of new playmaking in America and I feel blessed by the absolute wide-open range of aesthetics and perspectives we're getting to hear right now. Like I remember last fall being like, "There's too many plays, I can't catch all of this!" So rather than a specific kind of theater I'm just excited by the vast output of my peers. Playwrights are constantly in conversation with each other and so the more new work that gets produced the better I get as a writer by stealing from them.
What are you working on now?
My wife Rehana and I are cowriting The Colonialism Project, a trilogy of interrelated plays commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse. The first one's a "comedy" about the history of British Raj that I wrote, the second's a melodrama with songs we're cowriting about pre-independence Trinidad, and the third is a contemporary American drama about the ghosts of colonialism today that she wrote. We're also co-book writers on a brand new musical, "Bhangin' It," about intercollegiate bhangra (Indian folk dance) competitions - like a Bring It On but with Indian dance that explores biracial identity. And then I'm writing a new musical with Adam Gwon about recent protests around race and inclusion at Yale.
Your play, Teenage Dick, is being produced at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - another DC area theater - next season. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Oh yeah! It's an adaptation of Richard III that takes place in high school, and examines disability today by re-examining the most famous disabled character of all time. It's got several of the original cast members who performed the world premiere in NYC with Ma-Yi Theater at the Public. The play's also headed to London this fall in a separate production with Donmar Warehouse. I hope you'll check that out!