In 'Exclusion,' Kenneth Lin draws on his roots as the son of Chinese immigrants NPR's Michel Martin speaks with playwright Kenneth Lin about his play Exclusion, which explores racial tensions through the lens of the entertainment industry.

In 'Exclusion,' Kenneth Lin draws on his roots as the son of Chinese immigrants

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Kenneth Lin has won awards and acclaim for his writing on prestige projects like "House Of Cards." But his latest work draws on something new and precious, his own roots as the son of Chinese immigrants. It's a new play called "Exclusion," a commission from Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., for a series of new works focused on power.

Lin's play is animated by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. In the lead up to passage of the law, as many as 20,000 Chinese laborers helped build America's transcontinental railroad. Yet their contribution to the nation's growth were accompanied by vicious, racist attacks. Somehow, Lin managed to wrestle a comedy out of this tragic history. So when I spoke with Lin earlier about the play, which runs through June 25, I asked him how he pulled that off.

KENNETH LIN: I didn't start writing a comedy. I had been trying to write a very dutiful, historical accounting. And my heart said, you need to stop. I very nearly called Molly, the artistic director at the theater, and said, I can't write this play. I've tried so many drafts of it. And, my God, they're painful to me.

MARTIN: You grew up in New York. Do you remember how you heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act or learned about it?

LIN: I had known about it just from being a person who is of Chinese descent and very proud of my heritage. And as a person who wants to have my eyes and ears open to the world, it got in somewhere. But definitely, I don't ever remember being taught it.

MARTIN: The intention was to actually get people out.

LIN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Right.

LIN: A lot of anti-Chinese sentiment came on the tail end of the Chinese building the railroad.

MARTIN: And there's a particularly brutal event that plays a role in the play, the massacre of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871.

LIN: There was some kind of violent interaction that led to a mob rising. And they killed 10% of the Chinese people in Los Angeles at the time.

MARTIN: The plot of the play, it focuses on an historian whose critically acclaimed book about the Exclusion Act...

LIN: Right.

MARTIN: It does speak about this terrible massacre that you just told us about.

LIN: Right.

MARTIN: It gets picked up for a series. And then it follows her fight to keep control of the story. And I thought to myself, Kenneth Lin has worked in Hollywood for quite some time. Where did this story come from?

LIN: Well, you know, I mean, the play is about power. What I found in Hollywood over and over is that the right idea is the idea that is in alignment with the person that's in power.

MARTIN: I was wondering if that experience of having to fight to hold onto the truth as you understand it through your lens is something that you've experienced yourself.

LIN: Well, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, when I first started writing, everybody was telling me, you shouldn't do this. My family was saying you shouldn't do this. And I went to the Yale School of Drama. And I came out. And I won all these playwriting awards. And people were still telling me, you shouldn't do this. And when I started meeting with agents and managers, a lot of the messaging was, you can try to do this, but don't write about Asian people. I was, you know, not following my parents' design of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. You know, I said, I have to succeed. I'm going to listen to that advice. And over time, you know, there's a little bit of a violence to yourself if you're thinking that way and working that way.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's an experience that was, I want to say, specific to you as a Chinese American? Or do you think that other people of color are told the same thing?

LIN: I mean, it's not that long ago. But really, in so many of the rooms that I was in, I was the first person ever in, you know, the first Asian person to ever get a play produced here, the first Asian person to ever win this award, the first and only Asian person in this writer's room. So people were just a little bit confused. They would read me on the page. And they would say, wow. And then they would meet me and think, how do we line this up?


JOSH STAMBERG: (As Harry) You've heard of the phrase show business, right?

KAROLINE: (As Katie) Of course.

STAMBERG: (As Harry) OK, because it's not show history.

KAROLINE: (As Katie) Right.

STAMBERG: (As Harry) It's show business. And to stay in business, you've got to put on a show.

KAROLINE: (As Katie) And that means prostitutes?

MARTIN: Tell me about Katie, the historian. How do you understand her?

LIN: You know, they're all a little bit me, right? So Katie is like the frustrated, nerdy wonk that's inside of me trying to find ways of taking the things that I find so deeply interesting and putting them out there in the world, hoping that people will receive them and receive them gently (laughter) and appreciate them.

MARTIN: And tell me about Harry, the writer, producer, director who's tasked with getting her baby to the screen some kind of way.

LIN: Well, Harry is like the wheeler-dealer, big macher - a talented writer but also a talented businessman. And he's found a way to really make work that people like. And he's looked upon this project. It was meaningful to him. And he's brought it in. And now he has to do what he does to it.

MARTIN: Another one of the important characters is Viola, who is a well-known Asian American actress. She's had some success.

LIN: Right.

MARTIN: But she really wants more.

LIN: Right.

MARTIN: You tell me, but the tension is between, like, this is what the truth is...

LIN: Right.

MARTIN: But this is what is believed will sell.

LIN: Yeah. It's very much in line with what I told you about my early career, right? A lot of people said, we think you're good. We just don't believe you will sell. So you need to find a way to be something that will sell, and you don't sell. And, like, I listened to a very interesting interview in which Michelle Yeoh, who just won the Academy Award, was sitting with a table full of these beautiful, wonderful actors. And she says, I have envy because you all get to try on all the different roles.

And I feel like that's very much in line with, like, for me, what it feels like to be Asian in America sometimes, of just, like, not being permitted to be in a space that allows you to have size, right? And at the end of the day, Michelle is still winning the Academy Award for a martial arts picture. When you look at that with the understanding that there are Asian actors who are as talented as Meryl Streep, who are as talented as Tom Hanks, and there's only a specific kind of role they get to play right now, it's painful.

MARTIN: Was part of your goal with the play to allow these actors to have more space?

LIN: Yeah, I made a checklist for myself. What do other actors get to do that Asian actors never get a chance to do, right? So I was like, I want an Asian woman to be able to take the stage from the first moment of the play until the last moment. Check. I want an Asian guy to just be a guy that doesn't necessarily have to, like, know kung fu or be great at math. Check.

MARTIN: Has this opened something up in you or for you?

LIN: This is my life now. This is my job now. And I've gotten good at it. You know, I always felt like I was pretending a little bit before. And I feel like this is a very complete play. And I've discovered my complete voice as a writer, the voice that I've been sort of fighting to cultivate for a long time now. Like, I really feel like this is me on the stage. And I don't know that I've ever totally felt that way before.

MARTIN: Kenneth Lin is the playwright of "Exclusion." It is playing at the Arena Stage in Washington now. Kenneth Lin, thank you so much for talking with us.

LIN: Thank you. This was a pleasure. I really appreciate it.


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