Tiger Style! is a new comedy premiering this month at the La Jolla Playhouse. Actor Raymond J. Lee, who appears in the play as Albert, interviewed playwright Mike Lew and director Jaime Castañeda.
Raymond Lee: I would love to get some history on Tiger Style! and how it came into fruition and how it came to La Jolla. Mike how was this show birthed?
Mike Lew:: This show was a really long time coming because throughout my early theater education, I kept on getting these suggestions that I should write about my family or I should write about my culture. It kept coming up and I thought, "What does that mean?" And then I figured out I should write an Asian immigrant story, but I don't have that because I'm third generation Chinese and I don't have access to those stories. So for a long time I wrote any other story I could. At a certain point with all the kind of backlash around the concept of Asian tiger parenting I realized that there were a lot of people coming out saying that it's a terrible way to raise your kids and I realized that I grew up like this. I was expected to be a high achieving kid and I have a tight relationship with my parents and I realized I could write a story specifically about that.
RL: Jaime when did you come on board with the play?
Jaime Castañeda: I've always been a fan of Mike's and we were kicking around several different projects when I was at the Atlantic Theater Company. He had sent me this play and I immediately fell in love with it. I thought it was super sharp. I was laughing out loud when I was reading it. And shortly after, we ended up working on it at the O'Neill for several weeks, spending hot summer days and nights in the Northeast doing some work on the play. That was the summer before I came out here.
ML: Yeah it was 2014 and you immediately moved out to LA. And then you immediately moved to San Diego!
JC: Yeah and we had this intense summer experience working on the play. It was one of the plays I started talking to Chris [Ashley] about. I knew Mike was from out here. I knew the play was set in Southern California. I felt I had a strong personal connection to it. I felt like a story about racial conflict and tensions with some nuance was what San Diego and La Jolla Playhouse needed. We kicked it around here. Chris and the team really loved it. Mike's a writer that I really believe in and I've always been excited about his writing. I've been yelling at him for years and I'm excited for all his plays to be making the rounds in different parts of the country.
RL: Can you explain the themes of the show and how it relates outside of an Asian American audience?
ML: I think we're at a really interesting moment right now nationally in terms of how we think about race relations. To me, the play is a split between this internal journey of coming from a multicultural perspective and how that is woven into the American fabric, and this external question of how we address unconscious bias. How do we give everyone their fair shot? And I think that at its most severe you see that nationally. But in no less consequential is the fact that for Asian Americans we have the highest rates of college education but if you look at the upper ranks of companies, there's a real glass ceiling. We get to middle management but we never get to upper management and a lot of that has to do with bias. This play, even though it's really comedic, is attempting to poke at a nerve about this national dialogue and how to get a more honest discussion around race.
JC: I think bias is the thing that everyone is beginning to interact with in an in-depth way. I came to the play... I was kind of joking at the O'Neill that it felt like a Latino play to me. I'm a first generation, born and raised in San Antonio, but my parents were born in Mexico and I felt a lot of parallel ties, just from what these characters go through and what these parents have experienced in thinking about stories about history and lineage, but also thinking about the American machine and systems, and how to break through those systems.
ML: I think that artistically the theater is locked into the same patterns of narratives, whether it's a rich family dinner play where everyone yells at their parents or immigrant stories. I think it's damaging to keep on repeating the same story within different plays so this is trying to push us beyond those tropes to get at what's happening in America now.
RL: I love that you wrote "No Chinese accents ever. Not ever. Also, cast Asian actors to play Asian characters. Great" on the first page.
ML: The play is already very political and very wide-eyed about where we are. I wrote that on the first page because there's definitely white washing going on in our media and an erasure of Asian stories. I think for our acting community, because we are so often asked to play Asians from Asia, it becomes a real box. You have Asian performers that never get to take on their own actual identity and are asked to adopt an aspect that reflects a part of who they are and not who they are as a whole. I didn't want Asian accents in this play because I wanted the performers to be able to use other tools in their toolbox and stretch their muscles.
RL: What have been both fun and challenging about the rehearsal process?
JC: For me, it's being able to build it into a three-dimensional form. I love working on new plays and I love spending time around the table and having conversations with the writer. Also being able to test out moments and taking the work that we started at the O'Neill and being able to follow through on that out here has been exciting. There's a lot of production challenges and tonal challenges to the material and it'll be an exciting first week of previews to test that in front of the audience and see those ideas on stage.
ML: The play has very sharp political intentions even though the style is so comedic and for me, it's been about making sure the underlying story is clear and impactful. I think that we have a lot of laughs in there but is it going to kick you in the gut? I feel like this rehearsal process has been about making sure that it's not a bunch of levity and that you see the play's deeper intentions.
RL: As a cast member I feel like I'm opening the audience's eyes and world. What do you hope the audience leaves the theater feeling or realizing?
ML: I think with every play I try to jam a lot. There's no one thing I want the audience leaving, but I do want them to laugh a lot while they're here and then think a lot after and feel something.
JC: It is true that we've spent a lot of the time trying to figure out what are the circumstances, what are the family dynamics, what are these siblings trying to get from one another. But I do think there's a deep exploration of race and who you are and how race informs that both internally and externally. My hope is that a lot of people will be able to connect to that and be able to walk away and potentially be drawn or provoked to think about their own upbringing and how they interact with race in the United States.
Tiger Style! starts previews on September 6 with an official opening date of September 14 at La Jolla Playhouse. The cast includes Jackie Chung, Maryann Hu, Raymond J. Lee, Nate Miller, and David Shih. For more information, please visit www.lajollaplayhouse.org/tiger-style
Raymond J. Lee currently resides in New York City as an actor. He has appeared on television, film, and on several Broadway stages. For more information please visit www.raymondjlee.com and follow @raymondjlee on Twitter/Instagram.