Kenneth Lin. Courtesy of Arena Stage

By Sheila Wickouski 

Exclusion, a new play by acclaimed theater and TV writer Kenneth Lin, is set to open May 5 at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage. 

Exclusion is the story of an award-winning historian who is thrilled when her best-selling book about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned for a mini-series, only to be disillusioned by the struggle between the authenticity of her work  and what sells as entertainment. It marks Arena Stage’s tenth world-premier Power Play, a decade-long initiative of original works on politics and power which reflect American diversity and challenges.

Playwright Kenneth Lin, whose highly acclaimed Kleptocracy premiered at Arena Stage in 2019, was a producer of Netflix’s House of Cards and is currently co-executive producer of Star Trek: Discovery

Ahead of Exclusion’s opening night, Lin responded to written questions from The Southwester. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Southwester: Exclusion is based on how history is viewed at different times through different perspectives, specifically the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Why do you find history as a theme or foundation in plays so important? How helpful or unhelpful did you find the history being taught to you in school and how has this influenced your work in film and on stage?

Kenneth Lin: Well, I certainly didn’t think history was helpful when I first started to write the play! Exclusion was commissioned by Arena Stage as part of its Power Play initiative to make work about important American historical events. That’s actually a pretty tall task and the weight of it tortured me for a long time. I nearly called Molly Smith, Arena’s Artistic Director, and returned the commission because I didn’t know how to do justice to history. But then I looked in the mirror and realized that I am history’s child and suddenly felt quite entitled to help myself to the contents of its refrigerator.

SW: You’ve said that audiences should come to see Exclusion because it’s funny and that we’d get to laugh at “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” You described the play as your “primal scream as an Asian American deep in Hollywood’s trenches” and that it is a fulfillment of your “duty as an artist to respond to the moment, and in this particular American moment, we really, really need funny.”How important is humor and being able to laugh, even with everything that is constantly going on in the world?

KL: The quote actually buries the lede! The quote, attributable to the philosopher Henri Bergsom, is about how laughter is an agreement between us to continue to live with each other. The mechanical that has been encrusted upon our vital natures is civilization and the dehumanizing calcifications that come with it. And by being offered a joke, by receiving it, and by replying with laughter, we are making a promise to remain supple, to breathe and grow, to be alive with one another. In this way, laughter holds together a world that’s in danger of collapsing from brittleness. So laugh, damn you! Everything depends on it! (Just kidding.)

SW: What first sparked the idea for this play? Did any specific movies or books influence you? Are there any Hollywood comedies that encouraged or stood out to you?

KL: It’s a cliché to bemoan the status of Asians as an overlooked thread in America’s racial tapestry, but there are two horrible superlatives addressed in the play that illuminate the size and opacity of the blindspots: Chinese people were the targets of the biggest lynching ever perpetuated in America AND the only law ever passed by Congress to formally oust and ban a specific ethnic group targeted the Chinese. (Even though the Chinese only represented .2% of the U.S. population at the time.) Given the brutality and impact of these events, it’s astonishing and chilling that Americans collectively don’t know about them.

I have a hard time fully imagining what it must have been like to be a Chinese person in America in the 1800s, to be so vulnerable while trying to build a new life in an environment that is so hostile. But I have spent the majority of my career in entertainment being the first Asian through the door and the only Asian in the room, even on projects that are purportedly about Asian people. That hasn’t been easy, but I’d be a poor dramatist if I didn’t recognize the conditions of comedy. When you’re fighting for your life in a room where things have gotten so grotesque and so surreal, where the mechanical has nearly completely encrusted the eyes and the ears of the living, at some point the only thing left is to say, “knock-knock” to see if the mouth can still ask, “who’s there?” 

SW: In addition to the humor, why should audiences come see this play now?

KL: I think that audiences should really come to see this beautiful, wonderful Asian cast. When I set out to write the play, I promised myself that I would give Asian actors the full range of scenes to play. With confidence, I can say that if you come to see Exclusion, you will experience things that you have never seen on stage. And my god do Karoline, Michelle Moore, and Tony Nam deliver! I sit in rehearsals and just drink in their vibrancy, their artistry, their craft — it’s everything and wonderful. Audiences should also come to see Josh Stamberg, a DC native who’s taking a break from jetting all over Broadway, Hollywood, and the Marvel cinematic universe to come home to do this play. He’s so beautiful, brilliant and funny. Audiences should come because it’s a chance to see the work of Trip Cullman, who’s usually locked up in New York, as a director who is a defining voice in this generation of theater. But maybe, most importantly, audiences should come to see this production because Molly Smith chose it to conclude one of the most illustrious and important artistic tenures in the American theater. Molly who was one of my first champions. Molly who made space and opened the door for me and countless artists. Molly who is the first person who ever told me that I was “the real deal — the real, real deal.” This play was written for Molly and you should come and share a final laugh with the original “real, real deal” who’s created this living monument to the American spirit here in DC. 

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