If not for the coronavirus pandemic, 16-year-old playwright Katie Lu’s first production might be premiering Friday night on a professional stage, rather than as streaming audio to an unseen audience. But then it would have been a different play, if it existed at all.
Pandemic, the Wissahickon High School junior’s three-act play, deals with racism against Asian Americans in both the present day and in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. A first-place winner in the 2020 Philadelphia Young Playwrights’ Annual Playwriting Festival, it was chosen to be produced with the help of professionals under a grant from the Independence Foundation, said PYP executive director Lisa Nelson-Haynes.
“We did one last year, Candles, which was about a school shooting,” she said, and was performed at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Art Center. But “because of the situation we’re in, we decided to do Pandemic as a radio play.”
For Lu, who lives in North Wales, Montgomery County, and was a member of PYP’s 2019-20 resident playwrights program, the advent of the coronavirus was a turning point in her writing process, which had begun several months earlier.
“I knew I wanted to create a play that … featured different generations,” she said, and “I was playing with different ideas … but none of them were really hitting.” Then came the reports that Asian Americans were being harassed, and in some cases physically attacked, by people who falsely claimed they were somehow responsible for the pandemic.
“They were labeling us as foreigners,” said Lu, whose parents, both computer programmers, immigrated to the U.S. from China before she was born. Seeing that, “I was questioning what it meant to be an Asian American and identify as that in this country. And I was also questioning the Asian American history. I was learning about like the Chinese Exclusion period of the 19th and 20th century [which began when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed a moratorium on Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens]. So I really wanted to parallel those two backdrops together in this piece.”
Pandemic, directed by Cat Ramirez (MinorityLand), tells the stories of a “naive” Asian American college student in 2020 (Amy Boehly, MinorityLand) who is “opened up to this world of racial prejudice,” Lu said, when her grandfather (Makoto Hirano, Hold These Truths) becomes the victim of a violent hate crime, and of a young mother-to-be (Kimie Muroya, Man of God) in the 1930s who’s trying to keep her family together while facing possible deportation.
“Originally, I had to plan for a visual experience,” and so in her original script, she’d split the stage in two, to distinguish the different periods. But that wasn’t going to work as a radio play, a form Lu said she was largely unfamiliar with before this.
“I was working with our amazing sound designer, Lucas Campbell, and he was discussing how they could differentiate certain time periods through just sounds. So we were working on creating an immersive experience, audibly,” she said. “That meant getting a dialect coach [Neill Hartley] to make sure you got to bring the kind of musicality to a 1930s voice, and focusing on things like accent work … to try to transport the listener through just sound.”
And though Lu was initially disappointed not to be seeing Pandemic onstage, the audio-only route has its advantages, she said.
“There was a lot more time to go down into the weeds of every character and draw up these backstories … the lifestyle details that don’t make it in the play, but are important to flesh out the characters” for the actors, she said. Not spending time on actors’ facial expressions, positioning, or gestures left time to focus on “the ups and downs of people’s voices, and beats and stuff.” Rehearsals took place over Zoom.
Last year’s playwriting competition attracted fewer entries — about 450, down from the usual 700 — PYP’s Nelson-Haynes said, but the organization, whose programs serve 2,000-2,200 students a year in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, still has a “a very robust in-school program,” despite the complications of educating students over the past year.
“The teachers have been just amazing in ensuring the students have some type of creative outlet,” she said.
And though most participants may not end up working in theater, Philadelphia Young Playwrights alumni include Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water by the Spoonful, In the Heights) and Adam F. Goldberg, creator of ABC’s The Goldbergs. Both are enthusiastic boosters of the program, Nelson-Haynes said.
“I think it’s just amazing that with everything that young people have on their plate right now that they would actually take on this type of additional work,” she said. “We have a professional crew, a professional director, dramaturge [Liana Irvine], the whole bit. But the student is at the center of it and is participating in the rehearsals, the rewrites, all of those things. So it’s not just a matter of Katie writing a wonderful play. It’s Katie really going through this process as a professional playwright would in mounting this production.”
“Pandemic,” by Katie Lu
Premieres at 8 p.m. Friday with live talkback with playwright Katie Lu, cast members, and Philadelphia Young Playwrights executive director Lisa Nelson-Haynes. Streaming begins at 6 p.m. Friday and will be available through Feb. 28.
Tickets: Suggested donations are $10 for individuals, $25 for households.