I want to share a guilty secret. All of my plays – my full-length plays, anyway – are about me. That’s probably not unusual; if my plays didn’t include part of me, they’d probably be pretty lifeless.
I want to share another guilty secret. I watch YouTube below my age bracket. Specifically, I often watch Ryan Higa (Nigahiga) and Kevin Wu (Kevjumba), both 20-something Asian-American comedians who are YouTube superstars. I don’t get everything they do, but I probably enjoy about three-quarters of their videos. Higa has the more off-the-wall sense of humor while Wu’s humor is often on the edgier side. Both have millions of YouTube followers and Higa has over a billion views (for his channel; none of the individual videos are a Gangnam Style hit).
For being such a comedian, Higa has just put out a seriously touching video, Draw My Life. Check it out, then come back to this post.
I don’t know that I would be that willing to share my life’s details (I will say that my gym clothes were regularly strewn about the school bus over much of my school life save for the few years I walked to school) but somehow, my life seems to make it into my plays, often without my realizing it until I’ve completed my first draft.
I’ll give one example and then I’ll shut up: Rice Kugel, my first play, is the story of Richard Wong, a gay Chinese American who converts to Judaism but keeps it a secret from his white, Jewish boyfriend. Like much of my work, it is a comedy-drama; if I can make the audience laugh, they will accompany me to very dark places.
Ultimately, the story is about Richard’s feeling like an alien in America despite being born here, something I discovered about halfway through writing the first draft. I was so sad when I realized that, I couldn’t touch the play for a week.
I knew the play was inspired by things in my life: during my egg period (white on the outside, Asian on the inside), a Chinese American guy I went out on a date [yes, one date], challenged me saying that I knew so much about Asian culture, but what did I know about my own Jewish culture.
It was also inspired by a fight I saw in Chinatown from about a block away. Two guys were fighting. One, white, threw the other guy, Asian down on the sidewalk. The Asian guy got up ready to fight some more.
By that time I was there. The Asian guy had a streak of blood dripping down his forehead. The white guy just shook his head and walked away. I just stared stupidly and wanted to say “Are you all right?” to the Asian guy but couldn’t. The Asian guy got in his car and drove away. And the cable car that had stopped for the fight clanged away.
That planted the seed for the play. What was the fight about? What if I had said something? And I can’t be Asian, but an Asian guy could be Jewish. What if the guy who said something where I didn’t was an Asian American who was converting to Judaism? And over the course of ten years the plot of Rice Kugel hatched in my head.
But it was only after I had completed the play and had been revising it for some time did I realize the play really was about me after all, about my growing up Jewish in a Christian country and as gay in a straight world, and feeling out of place for that.
Kind of what Higa (who is, so far as I know, straight) talks about in his video about growing up in Hawaii.
He became a videographer. After a long time of trying other forms of writing, I became a playwright. His form allows him to be a lot more obviously personal. My form requires some disguise, which, being the private person that I am, is probably a good thing. His form lets him get his work out there himself. My form takes more work and the cooperation of others, unless I want to do solo work, which I don’t.
I’ve put a bit more into this essay than I’m fully comfortable with – and the Internet is forever – but sometimes it’s good to put yourself out there.
Higa has done that with his Drawing My Life – Ryan Higa video. Good show, Ryan.