Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, 16-year-old playwright Katie Lu’s debut production could premiere Friday night on a professional stage, rather than streaming audio to an unseen audience. But then it would have been a different room, if it had existed.
Pandemic, the three-act play from Wissahickon High School, deals with racism against Asian Americans both in the present day and during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Winner of first place at the 2020 Philadelphia Young Playwrights’ Annual Festival of Playwriting, it was chosen to be produced with the help of professionals thanks to a grant from the Independence Foundation, said the executive director of the PYP, Lisa Nelson-Haynes.
“We did one last year, Candles, which was about a school shooting,” she said, and was performed at the Hamilton Family Art Center at the Arden Theatre. But “due to the situation in which we find ourselves, we have decided to do Pandemic like a radio play.
For Lu, who lives in North Wales, Montgomery County, and was a member of the 2019-2020 PYP Resident Playwright Programme, the advent of the coronavirus was a turning point in his writing process, which had started several months earlier.
“I knew I wanted to create a piece that…featured different generations,” she said, and “I was toying with different ideas…but none of them really hit the mark.” Then came reports that Asian Americans were being harassed, and in some cases physically assaulted, by people who falsely claimed they were somehow responsible for the pandemic.
READ MORE: I didn’t want to write about coronavirus and racism. Then I was harassed twice | Perspective
“They called us foreigners,” said Lu, whose parents, both computer programmers, immigrated to the United States from China before he was born. Seeing this, “I wondered what it meant to be an Asian American and identify as such in this country. And I also questioned Asian American history. I learned how the period of Chinese exclusion of the 19th and 20th centuries [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 these two backdrops in this piece.
Pandemicdirected by Cat Ramirez (MinorityLand), tells the stories of a “naive” Asian-American student in 2020 (Amy Boehly, MinorityLand) who is “open to this world of racial prejudice,” Lu said, when her grandfather (Makoto Hirano, Hold these truths) is the victim of a violent hate crime and a young mother-to-be (Kimie Muroya, Man of God) in the 1930s who tries to keep his family together while facing possible deportation.
“Originally, I had to plan a visual experience”, and so in her original script, she had divided the scene in two, to distinguish the different periods. But it wasn’t going to work as a radio play, a form Lu said she was unfamiliar with before that.
“I was working with our amazing sound designer, Lucas Campbell, and he was discussing how they could differentiate certain periods of time just by sound. So we were working on creating an immersive experience, audibly,” she said. “That meant getting a dialect coach [Neill Hartley] to make sure you have to bring the kind of musicality to a 1930s vocal, and focus on things like accent work…to try to transport the listener through sound alone.
And although Lu was initially disappointed not to see Pandemic on stage, the audio-only route has its advantages, she said.
“There was a lot more time to get into the weeds of each character and draw these stories…the lifestyle details that aren’t part of the play, but are important in fleshing out the characters” for the actors, she said. . Not spending time on actors’ facial expressions, positioning, or gestures allowed time to focus on “the ups and downs of people’s voices, beats and all that.” Rehearsals took place over Zoom.
Last year’s playwriting competition drew fewer entries – about 450, down from the usual 700 – PYP’s Nelson-Haynes said, but the organization, whose programs serve 2,000 to 2,200 students per year in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery counties, still has a “very robust school curriculum,” despite complications in educating students over the past year.
“The teachers have been just amazing in ensuring that the students have some type of creative outlet,” she said.
And while most entrants don’t 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 promoters of the program, Nelson-Haynes said.
“I think it’s just amazing that with all the young people have on their plate right now, they’re actually taking on this kind of extra work,” she said. “We have a professional team, a professional director, a playwright [Liana Irvine], all. But the student is at the center of it all and participates in the rehearsals, the rewrites, all those things. So it’s not just about Katie writing a wonderful play. It’s Katie who really goes through this process like a professional playwright would do to put together this production.
“Pandemic”, by Katie Lu
Premiering at 8 p.m. Friday with live chat 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 until February 28.
Tickets: Suggested donations are $10 for individuals and $25 for households.