Welcome to the charm, intelligence, and unconventional magic that are part of the playwright Elizabeth Wong. In a continuing series illuminating the lives of women theatre artists, I explore her life and literary journey.
When I think about her, the words idiosyncratic and distinctive come to mind. She writes important stories that wrestle with ideas about culture, governmental politics, identity, fame and infamy, and a multitude of other topics for which she feels passion as an artist. While she has had writing commissions, the bulk of her work is that of an original artist who grasps character and story without borrowing from history’s glorious Western male writers. Some examples of this are plays such as Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Kimchee & Chitlins, China Doll, and Dating & Mating in Modern Times.
In addition to her playwriting, Elizabeth is a director, theatrical producer, and social essayist; and has shared her literary acumen with younger generations of artists as a professor. Elizabeth is a dyed-in-the-wool, working playwright, one who has been applying her craft over decades and continues to create with vigor. Fearlessly and with a commitment to authenticity, she writes original plays and expands her journey to the global scene as well. She navigates these pathways with charm and kindness for the artists with whom she interacts.
While we always have supported each other’s work in a discipline that is often unwelcoming to female voices and the voices of people of color, we had the opportunity to collaborate and deepen our ties on a project with Silk Road Rising called The DNA Trail. Not only was I able to witness Elizabeth’s artistic creation vis-à-vis the play that she wrote for the collaboration, but I also observed her work ethic and collaborative spirit with the other playwrights working on the project (David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jamil Khoury, and Lina Patel).
The Early Years and the Dream of her Father
Because Elizabeth’s mother was pregnant with her when she emigrated to the United States, her mother likes to say that Elizabeth was born on an airplane. The very image of that seems appropriate to Elizabeth’s dynamic aura. In reality, however, Elizabeth was born as a Gemini in a hospital in South Gate, California. She was reared in a corner store called the Golden Star Market in Huntington Park. Her father had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in electrical engineering, but the military-contract-rife World War II era did not engage him, so he became a grocer like his father before him. She and her little brother Will strove to help at the store. Her brother would push cans (sometimes backwards) onto the shelves. Known by customers as the “worst cute bagger,” Elizabeth bagged groceries, but was too young to realize that it isn’t a good idea to put bread and chips at the bottom of a bag. Her father never scolded them for their youthful efforts.
[Elizabeth and her brother Will]
The death of her father had a deep impact on Elizabeth. At the age of five, her childhood as she had known it permanently shifted. At the end of a fun night with neighborhood children playing hide-and-go-seek, Elizabeth heard a loud thump and then heard her mother screaming her father’s name. Elizabeth watched as paramedics wheeled her father out on a gurney; the next time she saw him, he was lying in a casket. The young Elizabeth had trouble absorbing and processing what death meant.
“I had nightmares about needing to dig my dad back up,” she said. “I thought he was still alive, buried alive.”
Elizabeth feels that the loss of her father influenced her towards writing; in fact, it was something in her DNA when later a cousin told her that her father’s true ambition was not to be an engineer, but a journalist. She accepts this legacy wholeheartedly. “It makes perfect sense,” she said. “I thought I was living my dream, but it’s actually the dream of my father.”
The artist-to-be was getting an experiential education at the Golden Star Market. Elizabeth heard many different languages and accents among the customers, which inspires the presence of them in her plays. “I love to explore the interactions and intersection between cultures,” she stated in an interview with me. She remembered the first time that she met a Black person, which also happened in the Golden Star Market. That encounter informed a scene in her play Kimchee & Chitlins. Early, she began to learn about the diversity of humanity. “My early plays reflected the world I grew up in,” she stated. “I lived the American melting pot, and it was friendly.”
Elizabeth and Will were close even with regards to their arrivals in this world. At birth, they weighed about the same and were born about the same time. “It was like we were twins but born one year, twenty days, and one minute apart,” she said.
Elizabeth’s mother had her hands full raising a family. She worked long hours, kept the apartment clean, and shared her love with her children. Unlike many Chinese mothers, as Elizabeth noted, her mother wanted a girl, not a boy, so she celebrated Elizabeth’s birth, telling her later, “Girls take care of you when you are older, and I wanted to dress you up like a princess.”
[Baby Elizabeth as her mother’s princess]
In reflecting upon her journey, Elizabeth considers the experiences in her upbringing that inspired the future artist.
Her father’s scholarship and ownership of many books and vinyl records were big influences on Elizabeth (she knows the words to the Rodgers and Hammerstein music canon). After her father died, his books and records became even more a part of her life.
“I would sit surrounded by his books and earnestly pretend to read them,” she recalled. “I think it was a way to remain connected to him.”
In the books’ margins, she found many notations from her father in his own handwriting. Over the years, there were snippets of memories such as her father calling her “Bee” or “Yellow Rose.” While she tended to gloss over things “with a broad patina of rose colors,” she said that her father’s notes were starkly straightforward about the truth of a fatherless upbringing by a single mother, the life he had led before becoming a father and husband himself.
The Immigrant Daughter’s Sandwich: Human Being/Daughter/Artist/Liaison to American Culture
Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother (her PoPo) was a significant support in her life. In the Wong family’s multi-generational home, she was a second mother. An immigrant from China, she added maternal structures to their lives, such as waiting for the Wong children after elementary school and walking home with them. “She even let my brother and I visit every public phone so we could reach into the slot and check for forgotten change,” Elizabeth stated.
This maternal support was needed because Elizabeth’s mother, a widow in her twenties, worked three jobs to ensure the family’s financial stability. She had to sell her husband’s belongings and struggle with an uncle who cheated her out of her inheritance. Elizabeth recalls secretly recording her mother and uncle on a reel-to-reel tape as her tearful mother begged for a fair share for her family.
That incident triggered Elizabeth’s protective instincts. From that point forward, she became her mother’s shield to the complicated world. At a young age, Elizabeth had to rise above being a child and help her mother with paperwork, forms, and documents; she was her liaison with the world. The behavior of her uncle – her father’s brother – in his dismissive and poor treatment of Elizabeth’s mother, ignited in Elizabeth the need for social justice, particularly for women, an interest that continues to find its way into her artistic creation.
Despite the family betrayal and the financial hardship that they often faced, Elizabeth’s mother also strove to make life enjoyable for her children. “After Sunday dinners, my mother’s idea of fun was to go for a drive after a home-cooked meal,” Elizabeth recalled. During the week, Elizabeth prepared TV dinners and had fun “smashing all the Chinatown cockroaches that fled the oven.” The playwright reminisced about her odd adventures spiritedly. She loved the drives and the smashing.
There was societal education, too. Elizabeth’s mother took her children to Skid Row, the public library, and the book-mobile. She encouraged them to study hard and reveled as her daughter checked out the maximum number of books. “Back then, I loved fantasy and science fiction, and books about animals like ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web,’” Elizabeth said. Calling herself a “bookish egghead,” she spoke about her love for Nancy Drew mystery novels. Elizabeth loved books so much that she saved her milk money and went without lunch at school in order to be able to purchase more of them.
When her family lived in Chinatown, the book-mobile was her favorite escape. The library was supposedly a safer place (“better to be in there than to get beat up,” she surmised), but it was actually at the library that Elizabeth and her cousin were accosted. A group of elementary-school-aged Latinas led by a middle school girl assaulted them in a library, introducing Elizabeth to the “F” word for the first time in her life. She didn’t know what it meant at first, but she learned quickly. Bothersome, too, was the fact that girls of color were attacking other girls of color.
New words were gold. While the “F” word wasn’t at the top of her list, Elizabeth did like learning other new words. “I was always trying to use them, but, having never heard them uttered before, I often mispronounced them,” Elizabeth noted. Her love affair with new words nearly was aborted by an English teacher who told her to stop using big words. At the time, the admonishment hurt her feelings, but today she hears that voice in her head sometimes and it motivates her to write plays with economy. She feels that gives her audiences “terra firma.”
[Elizabeth in high school as the girl most likely to succeed]
You Are a Playwright
Elizabeth’s writing was informed by other experiences, too. For her twenty-fifth birthday, her then boyfriend gave her two gifts: a new red bicycle and a meeting with Truman Capote. Capote signed a first edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for Elizabeth, including the words, “Keep writing!” After a round of a happy birthday song, Capote told her that he liked to write prone and on yellow-lined legal pads, and that “he always tried to write simply, like a ‘clear country creek.’” She loved that he pronounced “creek” as “crick.”
Another celebrated encounter for Elizabeth was with the late August Wilson, whom she met in a New Haven, Connecticut, stationery store. At the time, she only had written as a journalist, so she was awed to meet an actual playwright. The encounter inspired her to quit her journalism job and give herself “the gift of one year to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.” She did tell Mr. Wilson of her aspirations and he made a declarative statement: “You are a playwright.”
Elizabeth then wrote her first play, a one-act called “The Aftermath of a Chinese Banquet,” about a dysfunctional family. The play garnered her a place in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “August Wilson ignited a fire that still burns to this day,” Elizabeth said. She jokes that she wrote her first play “because I didn’t want to make him out to be a liar.” She didn’t. He was right.
What Are You? Native SoCal Beach Girl!
Culture is a complicated animal. Are Asian Americans Asians who happen to also be U.S. citizens (sometimes) or are they Americans who happen to be of Asian descent? Elizabeth defines herself as an American of Chinese descent. Of course, that hailing confuses some people who have trouble understanding that someone who looks like what they think Asian people look like can’t be an American. “When people ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I know they are referencing my heritage,” Elizabeth stated. She said that, even as people asked the question, they were uncertain because she tanned so easily. “I could be mistaken for many Asian phenotypes, even African American, Native American and Inuit, but I always responded, ‘Los Angeles’ as my answer, or I’d just say I’m a native SoCal beach girl, which invited further conversation and investigation.”
Even though Elizabeth grew up in Los Angeles, she didn’t see the Pacific Ocean until she was a teenager. Her mother only drove on surface streets, so Elizabeth’s world was as wide as her mother’s ability to read street signs. That small world and the fact that so many asked her the “what are you” question became ingrained in Elizabeth’s DNA. “That innocent question was/is the insidious catalyst for a long-held feeling of being the outsider, of not belonging,” she said.
Elizabeth’s mother moved her family from Huntington Park, California, to Chinatown so that PoPo could live in a community where Chinese languages were spoken. For Elizabeth, however, the move caused her feelings of isolation to worsen. Chinatown didn’t feel like her community either. “I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere or was accepted anywhere,” she said.
There was one place, however, where she felt she belonged and was accepted – the world of literature. Young Elizabeth took refuge in books.
“The library was a sanctuary, a place of adventure and discovery,” she recalled. She loved the smell of old books and the sound of a new book’s spine cracking as she opened it to read it. “I would peruse the stacks, find a book title that interested me, read the first paragraph, and, if it was a great first paragraph, I’d check the book out,” she said. What was important were stories that validated her existence. “I was seeking a friend in those books,” she declared.
Her zeal for reading led her to the other community in which she felt she belonged – the theatre. When she found a life in the theatre, she could “breathe and find out what it meant to be me,” she stated. She discovered the meaning of home and community, and a greater ease and understanding of her Chinese heritage. She learned to accept herself.
When you have what most U.S. citizens think of an Asian face, how does one navigate the pigeon-holing and marginalization that can occur from that view? When she was working as a journalist, Elizabeth found that she was shielded by her professional purpose. Even though many Whites called her “Suzie Wong” after the character played by actress Nancy Kwan in “The Wonderful World of Suzie Wong,” Elizabeth enjoyed being a journalist first, with questions about her identity being relegated to second status.
Once she began writing plays, that shield was lost. She said that, in order to create a place for herself in the theatre world, she had to adopt a cultural perspective. “To stake my own claim, in my early work, my artistic Copernican view is always Asian female-centric,” she said. She even embraced the “Suzie Wong” moniker as a sign of her own comfort with who she was, not what other people thought she was. As many writers of color note, the predominantly White media watch-dogs them to try to intimidate them to write only from their personal cultural perspectives while, at the same time, chastising them for doing so; viewing their efforts as not authentic, or ignoring them altogether in favor of other’s views of their cultural realities. (I believe such actions are not only the work of the media.)
Elizabeth’s Asian, female-centric view insinuated itself into her work. She devised stories that included people who looked like her and used variations of her name in her plays. In her early work, she explored gender issues such as female workplace experience including the glass ceiling, women questioning convention, pigeon-holing of women, and other issues that can generate long-term headaches. She sought to explore limitations placed on women by societal circumstance.
“Slay the stereotypes!” she exclaimed. “Define womanhood beyond the niche!”
Elizabeth, for example, confronts this in her play China Doll, as an actress struggles for success in Hollywood. In her play Kimchee & Chitlins, an ambitious television reporter swims with sharks in the newsroom. In Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Elizabeth tackles a coming-of-age story about a U.S. cub newspaper reporter and a young Chinese student discovering life; and the fact that they are shaped by their families, jobs, partners, and places in which they live and work, to the extent that it may be impossible to be masters of their own fates.
Elizabeth still sees gender as an important theme. Noticeably, she pointed out, drama critics rarely mention issues of gender vis-à-vis a play.
“You have to make history or be mowed down by it,” Elizabeth said. “Gender has always played a part in the architecture of my work and my thinking even though most reviewers don’t ever mention what seems obvious to me. And it’s how my work transcends being fixed to a particular social upheaval, whether it be the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Black boycott of Korean bodegas. I think if my plays achieve a timelessness and longevity, the answer is tied to gender and a yearning to belong.”
Often people talk about artists catching the theatre bug. For Elizabeth, the introduction to theatre was like that. “I was hooked right away,” she admitted unreservedly. “I heard the call to theatre.” Part of that call was seeing Equus at the now-defunct Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood. A high school Jewish American friend Joyce White took her to see the play and they had seats on stage. “It was like being in a jury box,” Elizabeth said. For Elizabeth, something magical happened on stage, something that engaged both her mind and heart. “Yup,” she said, “by the gills — hook line and sinker.” She barely could bring herself to leave the theatre after the performance. Over the years, she saw other theatre magic such as Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, and Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box. “I always lingered in my seat, the last to leave,” she recalled.
The Life of the Mind
Elizabeth knows that the artistic life is a tough one. “Aspiring to it is too scary to contemplate,” she said. However, in Elizabeth’s view, seeing as many plays as possible is important to that process. She found inventive ways to see numerous plays over the years, but experienced a tremendous transformation when she saw her first Asian American play. “I saw Wakako Yamauchi’s play And the Soul Shall Dance and saw people who look like me with profound problems that weren’t me and yet were,” she said. “I was so moved.” Seeing similar cultures of people on stage as characters exploring challenges that Americans of Asian descent face was powerful for Elizabeth.
The audiences in attendance to see the plays were equally as powerful. She saw playwright David Henry Hwang, someone she had seen at high school debate tournaments. She recalled his wonderful debating skills. “He was a formidable debater with his partner Gleam Davis, and it was a certain defeat to go up against them,” she said. “David’s success with [his play] FOB made me believe that our stories, our faces could live in the mainstream world and be accepted by that world.”
When she decided to follow her artistic interests, her brother was her biggest supporter and a severe, no-holds-barred critic. “He’d say things like ‘That’s boring’ or ‘This is stupid’ or ‘How dumb is that?,” Elizabeth reminisced. “He wasn’t always diplomatic, but I trusted his Everyman point of view despite his balls-out honesty.” She remembered, after a workshop reading at the Mark Taper Forum of her play Kimchee & Chitlins and a Taper reading of her play China Doll, that her brother spoke to her as if delivering a mantra: “Don’t listen to all those people giving you advice. Stop trying to please everyone. Stay true to yourself. You know what you are doing.”
Elizabeth’s last journalism job was with The Hartford Courant. When she resigned on an April Fools’ Day to take a year off to write plays, her mother wished it was just a holiday prank. To appease her mother’s concerns, Elizabeth decided to enter graduate school.
“If there’s one thing Chinese people value, it’s education and higher learning,” she said. “My mom dreamed I would be a lawyer or a doctor, so I was already a sorry disappointment, and highly unladylike for choosing to be a journalist. Journalists ask questions and my mother believed that ladies don’t ask too many questions.” Elizabeth, however, says she is not “lady-like” and emphasizes that she likes asking questions.
“I always ask questions,” she declared. “I’m good at asking questions. I love learning new things. Seeing new things. Experiencing new things.”
When she dedicated herself to a year of writing plays, her mother asked why she was “throwing it all away.” At the time, Elizabeth said that she couldn’t answer that question. “I can hear her fear in my head,” Elizabeth said. “I hardly could blame her. To a woman who worked three jobs her whole life, a writer’s life looked like sloth. Thinking looks like laziness! Who could blame her fears for my future?” However, playwriting is far from idleness. It is a rocky ride, but Elizabeth said she’s tried to convince her mother to “be Zen with the ups and downs of my artist life and be cool with my stubbornness.”
Part of the challenge of being an artist is finding ways to carry on in a sociopolitical environment that throws a lot of speed bumps one’s way. An artist must stay motivated. Elizabeth acknowledges that she contemplates giving up often, even with successes, productions, and the glory of opening nights at the theatre. “I enjoy it all for about one hour and then I’m onto the next writing project,” she said.
However, time is a great teacher. “I’m better now at living in the present and enjoying the moment, even stretching out the moment and the enjoyment,” she said. What keeps her going? The passion for stories that are yet to be written. “All I know is I still have stories to write,” she said. “I’m motivated by some weird, unseen, ineffable feeling I can’t quantify, let alone explain.”
Along with these ethereal motivations, artists must find ways to sort out the financial demands of life. However that is sorted out, the ethereal motivations remain and are louder than anything else. “I can tell you that, whenever I try to get a normal job, the Universe won’t let it live long in my life… and all I’m left with is the blank screen and the dancing cursor calling my name,” Elizabeth said. The blank screen and the blank page, however, are the writer’s call to action and Elizabeth Wong answers it potently.
Writing an original play takes genuine artistic muscle. With adaptation, there is a story on which to hang your transposition. It’s like getting on a train at Point A and riding to Point Z without having to work hard (don’t fall asleep). However, when you’re writing an original play, you must exert blood, sweat, and tears to create and build your own characters and stories. No, there is no train with a specific destination to ride. There are no traits of historical characters to use as (yes, a different metaphor) ingredients. You must start from scratch. It’s hard work, not that adaptation isn’t, but adaptation provides a recipe and, with original work, there is no such thing. Blank page, blank screen; may the gods and muses be with you. For such reasons, playwrights like Elizabeth are true treasures of the genre.
Elizabeth is a playwright who not only succeeds at being a brilliant artist, but who also strives to be the best human being she can be and to attempt to make this world a better place.
“At the heart of it, I’m just trying to understand what makes life worth living, how to have a worthwhile life, how to be happy,” she stated. “And if I’m honest, I want to change things, hold up a mirror, do my part to make things better than I found them.”
Working towards artistic success is one thing, but creating original theatre motivated by heart, mind, and soul – something that enhances one’s humanity and the world in which one lives – is altogether a different matter. She calls her playwriting a “call to action,” and it is a call that Elizabeth continues to answer with resoluteness and vibrancy. “I like it when people have conversations about my work in the parking lot on their way home and maybe are motivated to do something,” she said.
The Two Faces of Drama: Cry and Laugh
Along with wanting to have an impact on the way that audiences think about a given subject, Elizabeth also wants her work to entertain. “I like to make people laugh through their tears,” she emphasized. “Pretty simple really. Making people laugh is a way to disarm, to unclench the fist, to find commonality, and the surprise that lies inside.” Through her writing, Elizabeth hopes to reveal truths about human nature and ask the question, “How can we do better?” She feels that, through comedy, people can build community more expeditiously. “I think comedy helps reveal our common humanity,” Elizabeth noted. “And it’s healing. Laughter is good medicine. That is the prescription I am scribbling when I write a play.”
Motivations come from diverse sources. Elizabeth described uncommon gods and goddesses that organically feed her writing spirit. “I lay fruit at the feet of the Goddess of the 4 a.m. Wake-up Eureka,” she reflected. “Also, I pay homage to the God of Internalized Anger.” In the early days of her writing journey, Elizabeth said that injustice in society and the internalized anger that emanated from it were ardent muses. As her journey continued, she felt that those feelings sometimes paralyzed her and finding the comedy in life’s sometimes tragic circumstances allowed her to blend her stories into original plays that had something important to explore, but also entertained. “To get unstuck, I write to sort it all out through the filter of the comedic lens,” she said.
Moreover, she noted that this sorting it out isn’t something to procrastinate about. “There’s no time to waste,” Elizabeth declared. She expressed that a writer must write and not behave as if they have all the time in the world. “I came to know the preciousness of life via the mortality of loved ones so early in my life,” she stated. “Time is a fleeting thing.”
Art in Action
Elizabeth describes her art as her citizenship in action. She said that it allows her to be a useful human being as she strives to advocate change through story. Her art and activism combine in a potent way that inspires her audiences. As an example, she mentioned her play, Code of Conduct.
“I took on the challenge of writing about Guantanamo Prison in order to pull back the rug, to implore the audience not to avert their gaze; to look at this open wound, acknowledge it, and then ask the hard questions,” she explained. Last year, Elizabeth also accepted a writing commission from East West Players to write about undocumented students in a play called Tam Tran Goes to Washington. “Both plays incorporate my love of music and a sense of humor to help me rip off the bandage fast,” she said.
While muses come from various sources, the foundational muse for Elizabeth is her mother.
The reasons for this are numerous: “her story, her hardships, her triumphs, and how she overcomes them; how she forgives while never forgetting, how she bore the cruelties of war; the sacrifices she made coming to the U.S. in an arranged marriage, leaving behind her true love, bearing the stigma of being labeled as a gold-digger and treated so unfairly by my paternal family.”
Describing her mother as a pretty young widow “saddled with two babies,” Elizabeth said that many potential suitors considered her mother to be bad luck. “I admire my mom’s strength and fortitude, and her compassionate, forgiving, light-hearted nature,” Elizabeth mused. She marveled at her mother’s ability to be able to continue to find humor in life despite the tragedies she faced. Her forgiving nature is something that Elizabeth finds inspiring and tries to re-create.
“Within hours, she forgives transgressions,” Elizabeth stated with admiration. She called this a “Buddha nature.” “In my writing I try to dissect how my mother turns no to a yes, a frown to a smile, and pain into triumph,” she said.
Art and Life
Sometimes audience members are surprised to find out that playwrights also may have other jobs that help them pay the bills. Usually, they are not writing jobs because that, Elizabeth affirmed, can diminish one’s acumen for the art and craft of playwriting. Still, however, audience members are surprised. Perhaps it’s like finding a favorite actor waiting on one’s table at a Los Angeles restaurant. Yes, the individual is a fine actor, but auditioning and securing employment on a television show or film may not be constant. Not that the bill-paying work is easy, but Los Angeles has a lot of restaurants.
For Elizabeth, the bill-paying job once was in retail. When her play “China Doll” was in New York City at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Elizabeth was working in a store in SoHo. With astonishment, a customer accosted Elizabeth because she recognized her from the “China Doll” opening night talkback. “Are you the playwright?” the customer asked. “I was at your opening night!” She surged on to tell Elizabeth how the play moved her. As Elizabeth thanked her for coming to the play, the customer awkwardly shifted to retail mode and asked if she could try on an item. Although Elizabeth was embarrassed by the intersection of art and economy, she then felt embarrassed for being embarrassed.
“The SoHo event is a memorable experience because the customer was so surprised to find a playwright ringing up the sale,” Elizabeth shared. “People don’t know that they are surrounded everyday by amazing humans doing beautiful things.” At the same time, she noted that “doing beautiful things” is not solely in the realm of artists. Addressing the rigor and commitment that retail salespeople face, Elizabeth stated, “Nothing humiliating about an honest paycheck. Nothing humiliating about a survival job.”
She said that the experience taught her not to take herself too seriously. She said that, with regards to another event, the same opening-night talkback and reception deepened the lesson of humility.
“An audience member came up to me and chastised me, saying my characters were callow and my politics too facile,” Elizabeth recalled. “And, a second later, a different audience member gushed, saying the play moved her to tears.” That is the nature of creating art. As the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure. Elizabeth described it as a hit in the head with a brick at the same time that a compliment showers you in gold dust. “I learned to accept both the insults and pats on the back with equanimity,” she said. It also taught her that an artist must value her own consideration and judgment of her creations. “If I achieve my artistic goals for a play or if I do not, my own opinion is my true barometer of success.” To many success may mean money or being produced at a theatre considered to be “it” by the dominant society, but to Elizabeth it means making an impact on an audience with a coalescence of meaningful reflection and entertainment. It is not the reviewer’s consideration that is of importance to a genuine playwright, but the attainment of an artistic endeavor, measured by the artist and her audiences, not civilians.
Harkening back to her awareness that every artist must find a way to create and pay the bills, she noted that, while she had many female playwright colleagues during graduate school, most have “defected to other media because they couldn’t make a living just by working in the theatre.” The hope is that these women writers keep writing plays, too, but, as most of us know or will learn, reality bites.
Elizabeth can’t stress enough the importance of audience in the playwriting experience. In her very first production, a workshop of her play Letters to a Student Revolutionary at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Elizabeth was struck by the palpable power of the audience, particularly as a first-time playwright.
“Their applause washed over me like a wave,” she said. “I had never received an acknowledgment like that before.” She said that she relished that first moment of recognition because it was appreciation from strangers. Learning that she wanted to be understood via her playwriting, she also realized in that instant that “I had been invisible before that moment.” In that production, she also met an Alvin Ailey Dance Company performer, actress, director, and screenwriter, the late Elizabeth Fong Sung, who became her good friend and also was a friend of this playwright. (Elizabeth Sung passed away in 2018 at age sixty-three.)
The Female Playwright in a Male Theatrical World
While Elizabeth Wong navigates the world of theatre with aplomb, she is confronted with what she terms as the “deafening” reality of the challenges that women playwrights face in being produced in the U.S. theatre.
“Look no further than any season anywhere,” she challenged.
However, she pointed out that such misogyny is not exclusive to the theatre. “The misogyny is pervasive in every facet of our society,” she exclaimed. “It’s as if men hate their mothers! Perhaps they were weaned from the breast too soon or not soon enough. Perhaps the resentment comes because they didn’t suckle at the breast at all. Perhaps it’s jealousy because women can bear children, the ultimate in creation.”
It is an interesting thought that women are often second-class citizens in U.S. society (other societies as well), but yet all men are born of women. An ideological quandary indeed. Elizabeth wondered if the source is not the men born of women, but the women themselves.
“Maybe mothers with their own self criticisms and self-loathings teach their children this misogyny themselves?” she wondered.
Still, she sees some degree of change in U.S. society, be it with regards to women or, one of the other supreme ideological quandaries, race. “I’m glad to live in a time when a biracial man can be elected president (biracial Black-White President Barack Obama), when more than one strong woman sits on the Supreme Court, and that the #metoo movement is calling attention to what women have had to live with and put up with,” Elizabeth declared. “It was buried under the proverbial rug, so just acknowledging the gaping open wound is a start.” With dismay, she noted that “Wrong and immoral have been normalized and institutionalized, and in our current climate, reinforced… so it’s no wonder that misogyny has been an accepted cultural norm. Given these circumstances and the circumstances of history, Elizabeth stated that she applauds “brave women stepping forward, speaking out, and telling their stories.”
Elizabeth acknowledged that many women playwrights may have learned from plays written by men, of course often because the mainstay of published and produced plays to learn from were male-written plays. However, good plays come from all sources – including women and people of color – so enlightenment for playwrights like Elizabeth means embracing marginalized voices with the same respect with which non-marginalized voices are embraced. Elizabeth also extends this consciousness into her teaching. “In the classroom, I am equal opportunity,” she said. “I am ready to be impressed by the brilliance of all students, male and female and non-binary.”
Reflecting upon my long-held desire to uphold women playwrights (not just women, of course, but they often need intentionality in a field that historically has marginalized them), Elizabeth addressed the need for women playwrights to support each other through mutual validation, particularly in public forums and essays – and, in education, also in readings lists for syllabi.
“It’s stacked against women playwrights,” Elizabeth stated. “We get trotted out during women’s month and, in the case of writers of color, heritage months. What about the rest of the time?” She pointed out that theatre reviewers exacerbate the problem by focusing “on the personal, never the politics.” Often, I have found that the focus on politics is on their view of politics, so that the truth is obscured in critical misconstruction.
Despite the hurdles that women and playwrights of color face, Elizabeth Wong continues to navigate the theatre world with achievement and fulfillment.
“I’ve managed to live a life in the theatre, steadily, under the radar,” she mused. Her desire is that more audience members can experience her plays and her “cock-eyed view of the world” and explorations for social change.
Amused with the ups and downs of a life in the theatre, Elizabeth declared, “I continue because I’m an idiot. When I’m in the quiet of my thoughts, I hear a voice saying ‘You aren’t done yet’ and I think maybe I’d rather be a forest ranger or a marine biologist. But I get lost in the woods and I get seasick in a boat, so I figure, I’ll stick to writing plays. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. And I’m definitely not done yet.”
I WANT YOUR MONEY
The fast buck does not lure Elizabeth.
“I write what I want,” she said. “In the past, I’ve walked away from high-paying TV shows. I take commissions only if they challenge me personally, have a social justice component, and are fun.”
Elizabeth’s definition of “fun” isn’t in the dictionary; she has fun when there are writerly problems to solve. For instance, she was commissioned by Honolulu Theatre for Youth to adapt an oral tradition, Filipino bedtime story about the Ibong Adarna, a songbird “whose song makes people fall asleep and whose precision poop turns people into stone.” A musical for young and family audiences, the original story involves a child trying to catch the bird by cutting his wrists and pouring lemon onto the wound to stay awake. Well, that didn’t seem appropriate for the projected audience so Elizabeth had fun coming up with a proper solution. “After months of thinking on this and no solution, the answer came to me in the dead of night: the character should just snap a rubber band on his wrist” instead of slashing his wrist. “Finding solutions like than is my idea of fun,” she affirmed.
[Elizabeth in India]
Not only is Elizabeth passionate about women’s voices in the theatre, but she also feels enthusiastic about the voices of people of color in the theatre. While more women and people of color have picked up their pens or are poised at their keyboards, Elizabeth feels that their desire to respond to the human condition, which she feels is at a crisis point, is stymied by the fact that theatres are not dealing with all dimensions of that crisis beyond “lip service.”
“The emergency is real,” she avowed, “and the crisis is approaching critical mass, so theatres must respond with velocity and courage… or die.”
She said that theatre producers often discuss how they can attract more people of color to the theatre.
“Lip service isn’t enough,” she stated. “One play by a playwright of color every other season will not cut it. If you want to sustain the theatre, you’ve got to serve up new perspectives, new stories by playwrights of color and women.”
She said that is one of the easiest and most straightforward steps that theatres can take to be truly relevant. When theatre producers tell her that their older audiences don’t want to watch plays by women or people of color, Elizabeth responds with her view that those audiences “don’t want theatrical pablum either.” “Theatres should stop serving up re-hashes of longings for the good ol’ days when white male privilege wasn’t a question,” she said. Calling this approach “colonialism porn fantasy,” she said it’s a definite way to bore audiences rather than engage them.
[Elizabeth with me and others (including Wakako Yamauchi, Momoko Iko, and Jeannie Barroga) at a book signing for Roberta Uno’s “Unbroken Thread,” University of Massachusetts Press, 1993]
Humanity First and True Gifts
Even though Elizabeth’s 1040 tax form states her occupation as “playwright,” she said that, in reality, she’s a juggler. Along with writing, directing, traveling, and teaching, “I take care of my mother,” she expressed with openness and commitment. “I lift and tote for her and I still read all her paperwork; she’s still sharp and mostly hale, but I am her resource and her support system as she is mine.”
Three years ago, Elizabeth’s mother lost her only son to lung cancer and Elizabeth lost Will, her only brother. When he struggled with cancer, Elizabeth also integrated his care into her life. “I was there for him as he had always always, always been there for me.” Not only did she cook special meals for him, but she also prepared juices. Consumed with her brother’s healthcare for three years, she read numerous articles about cancer nutrition and alternative cancer treatments.
While juggling all those activities, Elizabeth also kept writing and working day jobs to support her writing. “I balanced it all by marrying work with art and play,” she said. “If I was away from home at a theatre, I’d always try to go horseback riding, paddling in a kayak or canoe, spelunking in a cave or exploring a lava tube.”
Also a golfer, Elizabeth often asked theatres at which she was working to ask a board member to invite her to play a round of golf. She was motivated by a need to be in nature. However, life’s demands also influenced her choices about work. “I’d take jobs that kept me closer to home and refused jobs that took me away from home, or I’d shorten the periods I was away.” The artist also grew as a human being.
[Elizabeth and Will]
Elizabeth has found that the most important aspect of learning to be a better human being – indeed, even caring about being that better human being (thanks, Elizabeth) – is to be more present in her relationships. She said that she credits her brother for this life lesson. She remembers the intricacies of caring for him: fussing with medications, rearranging his tray, cleaning, cooking, shopping. “He’d tell me, ‘Hey, stop doing things. Just be with me,’” she recalled. “OMG, he was so right.”
Now, she said, her objective is to just be with people, to be as present as possible.
“That’s the true gift,” she said, “and the gift that I now more readily receive.”
Photographs courtesy of Elizabeth Wong.
Photograph of image of “Kimchee and Chitlins”: A poster designed by Fox Smith for a production of “Kimchee and Chitlins,” Directed by Elizabeth Wong. D/L June 30, 2019 @ http://www.elizabethwong.net.