Interview: Playwright Ming Peiffer
By Alex Chester
Imagine you are an audience member of a play. For the first time, you don’t just relate to the character because of the story, you relate because you are watching another mixed-Asian actress bring a mixed-Asian character to life. For the average theatre patron this is not existential, but for someone who’s experienced little to zero representation of the mixed-Asian experience, this is mind-blowing.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to be living in NYC right now, where there are a handful of mixed-Asian female-identifying playwrights, creating amazing theatrical works based around Hapas. One of them is Ming Peiffer.
Ming’s play Usual Girls received a New York Times Critic’s Pick at the Roundabout Theatre’s run, and she was profiled in the Times as well. She is a woman who is changing the stage, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for all the amazing opportunities headed her way.
What makes you Hapa?
My mother is an immigrant from Taiwan so that makes me first-generation Asian-American on my mom's side. And then my father is a white American mutt (Irish, Scottish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, etc...) and that side of the family has been here for decades.
The other thing that makes me Hapa, outside of [it being ] a genetic reality, is that I consider myself and my identify specifically as mixed-race. Which is a completely different experience than growing up and identifying with one culture/race.
Where did you grow up?
I moved around a lot growing up. I was born in New York, but then I lived in New Jersey, San Francisco, then Connecticut, and finally Columbus, Ohio, which is where I spent my formative years. So the long answer is the one I just gave you. And the short answer is Columbus, Ohio.
How has your Hapaness influenced you as a writer?
For my entire life, I've always felt that I was allowed to say things that other people couldn't say due to the fact that no one could easily categorize me. And, more specifically, because I am mixed with white, I have occupied the world in a position where I'm not only oppressed because of my Asian race but simultaneously benefit from my proximity and claim to the dominant white race. To be simultaneously oppressed but also to benefit from the dominant white culture is an incredibly confusing and upsetting, but also very illuminating, position to be in.
For example, I have been able to make observations and statements regarding “whiteness” that other whites were not able to dismiss due to the fact that I am white. Even though I've watched white people successfully gaslight other people of color who don't have the same claim to whiteness. Or try to use reverse racism to refute any observation on whiteness from a non-white lens. Luckily, that card can't be pulled with me. Simultaneously, I feel like I've been privy to conversations and scenarios where I wouldn't normally be included due to my whiteness and proximity to whiteness. For example, I've had white people express racist notions to me (either not realizing I am a person of color, or by erasing my color) that they wouldn't say in the presence of someone they perceived as "fully" a person of color.
This is both a blessing and a curse. As a writer, it's often a blessing because people are constantly showing you their truths, even the ugly ones. It's a curse because your identity is constantly being dictated, challenged, or not accepted by those around you which is very psychologically and existentially painful.
So, this idea of "saying the unsayable," because I've witnessed what is usually unsaid, or because I've been thus far saying things that no one could quite refute, is 100% derived from my Hapa identity. And, was further fueled and nurtured while growing up in situations where people didn't quite know what the hell to do with me or my ideas. So, instead of growing up in a world where people went, "you can't say that," the remark was always, "wait… can you say that?" And, that little bit of wiggle room between "you can't" and "can you?" is where I, as a writer, exploit and take charge.
I don't allow anyone to give me permission because I already gave it to myself.
I remember seeing your play Usual Girls and I immediately connected to it. I felt traumatized and elated all at the same time. Could you elaborate on the process of writing Usual Girls? Was it based on your life growing up? Do you think the #MeToo movement helped fuel the need for this play or was it the other way around? And what is next for Usual Girls?
Usual Girls was a very interesting process because I started off writing a play about a male misogynist and serial abuser. Even though I entered the creative process knowing I wanted to write a play about the female experience, particularly in terms of the experience's relationship to sex and gender-derived societal standards, I started writing about this guy. And as much of a villain as I was portraying him to be, one day it just hit me, that no matter how bad his behavior, no matter what type of ugliness I show in him, I am still architecting my story around a man. And a pretty shitty man at that. So, once I realized that, I threw the play away and started to interrogate my own impulse to center a story about a female experience around a man. And then I started a brand new play that was heavily based on my own personal experiences growing up.
Regarding the #MeToo question… I think the need was always there, but the effect that the #MeToo movement has had was that it turned the play's "need" into something that was undeniable for men. And it's sad to say, but men still dictate, for the most part, which stories are worthy ones to tell. I know this because women had read the play (which was written over a year before #MeToo), were championing it, trying to get it produced, talking about its necessity. But, it wasn't until #MeToo happened that the play went from an "interesting viewpoint" to a "necessary" one in the eyes of white men. And it is also when it was programmed. And, that's not every white man. There were plenty who championed and supported this play from Day One, but I have also observed a marked shift in how men generally react to the play now, as opposed to how they did when I first started having readings, workshops, etc. before #MeToo.
As far as what's next for Usual Girls? There's some interest from theatres on the West Coast and London for productions. And, I've had numerous inquiries from a lot of big-name production companies and studios to develop the piece into either a movie or TV series. Stay tuned…
You were mentored by David Henry Hwang in your MFA program. What’s is the most valuable advice he has given you so far?
David is a fucking boss and the most valuable advice he's given me, which wasn't necessarily advice he gave in a verbal way, so much as it was leading by example, was: to fucking persist; know your worth; be dope at craft; and don't let stupid, small, inane, racist, homophobic, whatever people and comments ever stop you from saying what you want to say and getting your piece of that pie.
Also, a friendship with David just opened my eyes to the fact that, even though things seem really shitty, we are progressing as a culture. When I was in a really dark place, David told me some really eye-opening stories of racism he experienced as a writer. I don't know that I would've been able to recover had I experienced that level of blatant and vulgar racism he experienced within the industry as someone just starting out. David is an absolute pillar of strength and not in a stereotypical stoic Asian way but in a badass trailblazer way. Dude was stabbed in the neck and lived to tell a (crazy, musicalized) tale of it (that just got a bunch of awards). Boss status for real.
As a writer of color, and someone not only involved in theatre but also TV, what are your thoughts of representation vs. presentation? Especially for the Hapa actor.
So it's really interesting—this question—because I still feel that Hollywood and theatre do not understand at all what the mixed-race experience is. In theatre, it's not really even discussed. For example, in the Roundabout production of my play Usual Girls, we cast the character as Hapa and cast the father to be white to reflect that, and not one review even thought to bring it up or noticed. Either way, that was an erasure, even if a non-purposeful one.
In TV/film, there seems to be an interest and desire in Hapa narratives, but to your question of "representation," the desire does not come from a true "representation for representation's sake" place. It comes from an "ooh that sounds new and cool and salable" place, not to mention from an exoticizing place.
Moreover, seeking out Hapa actors does not seem to be a priority for anyone, even though they write Hapa characters and exploit that experience.
Look no further than casting in Aloha where the script literally outlines someone's race, down to the mix, and they choose to cast Emma Stone. Like that was a real decision casting directors made!!! They actually thought it was chill to cast a 100% white, not even ambiguous-looking person to play half-Asian. Or casting a fully Asian woman to play the written-as-Hapa character in the film To All The Boys I've Loved Before. I like that actress a lot, but it was so interesting to see the backlash about the Crazy Rich Asians casting of the male lead as Hapa, and the vitriol attached to that, even though the actor's identity matched the character, not only locale-wise but in terms of how race manifests in that specific locale. Compare that to when a full Asian took a written-as-Hapa role? There was much less backlash. Which is… interesting.
So it's pretty frustrating I would say, in both realms, TV/film and theatre. Because when they specifically ask for the Hapa experience, they are willing to erase it immediately. But when the Hapa experience is brought to a story? It's seen as not worthy. Not even noticed. Or it is posited, by whites and Asians, that we have not suffered enough to deserve a story because of our mixed-race-ness. Completely ignoring that we do experience racism that other Asians experience, in addition to experiencing some very unique to being mixed-race racism.
Basically, there's no rhyme or reason to how they ingest our identity and our stories, which seems oddly fitting as that's exactly the confusion of growing up mixed-race. People don't know what to do with you.
Do you have a favorite genre to write?
I like many genres. And luckily, I get to flex those muscles in my various projects. The one core that must stay the same in any project I write, however, whether it's the fantasy graphic novel The Divine I'm adapting for AMC, or if it's the romantic comedy Chemistry I'm adapting into a movie for Amazon, it’s that the stories must be about real people and real things that matter. I do not entertain for entertainment's sake. I feel that I've been blessed with a talent, and I must use that talent towards creating a more inclusive, more peaceful, less hate-filled world. And, I think you do that by creating real characters from every walk of life, going through real shit that any human can relate to.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
I've got a show in development at F/X and AMC and am currently writing my first film script for Amazon. Additionally, I start a play soon commissioned for Roundabout which I think I might write a musical for!
Any advice for the Hapa writers out there?
Your experience is valid. Your personhood is valid. Your pain is valid. Your identity (and identities) are valid. Never ever question whether or not something you experienced, particularly if it's through the lens of your mixed-race identity, is worthy. It is. So stop worrying about that and start writing.
End of Interview
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.