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

Karoline performs as Katie and Tony Nam as Malcolm in <em>Exclusion</em> at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Margot Schulman
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Arena Stage
Karoline performs as Katie and Tony Nam as Malcolm in Exclusion at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Updated May 25, 2023 at 4:21 PM ET

After immigrating to New York, Kenneth Lin's parents thought they had it all figured out: their son would become a doctor or a lawyer. But Lin rejected that particular view of "success" and the ever-elusive American Dream. Instead, he pursued his own dreams to write for a living.

"What makes you think you can forbid me anything?" Lin recalls telling his father, who initially opposed the future playwright's aspirations, as a young man. "I just watched him crumble." It took many years and successes before Lin finally received broader family backing.

Lin has won awards and acclaim for his work on projects like House of Cards, Fallow and Said Saïd. Now, he's drawing on something new: his own roots. Theater company Arena Stage commissioned his play, Exclusion, running through June 25 in Washington, D.C. as part of a series of works on the concept of power.

"In so many of the rooms that I was in, I was 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," Lin tells NPR's Morning Edition host Michel Martin. "So people were just a little bit confused because they would look at me and say, 'You don't comport with what we think a writer is supposed to look like.'"

Playwright Kenneth Lin says he was deliberate in having an Asian actor with an accent for <em>Exclusion</em>, namely Michelle Vergara Moore's Australian accent as Viola (left).
Margot Schulman / Arena Stage
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Arena Stage
Playwright Kenneth Lin says he was deliberate in having an Asian actor with an accent for Exclusion, namely Michelle Vergara Moore's Australian accent as Viola (left).

The plot revolves around the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States until the law was repealed during World War II in 1943. While other discriminatory measures were in place, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the country's first major law restricting immigration. Other prohibitions and quotas preceded and followed the measure as well.

Prior to the 1882 law's enactment, as many as 20,000 Chinese laborers helped build America's transcontinental railroad, yet their contributions to the nation's growth were met with vicious, racist attacks. In one particularly bloody event that's referenced in the play, a mob killed nearly 20 people in the Los Angeles Chinatown area in 1871, which was about 10% of the city's Chinese population at the time.

Katie (played by Karoline) fights an uphill battle to preserve the authenticity and historical value of her book on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 after it's optioned for a TV miniseries.
Margot Schulman / Arena Stage
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Arena Stage
Katie (played by Karoline) fights an uphill battle to preserve the authenticity and historical value of her book on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 after it's optioned for a TV miniseries.

As tragic as this history may be, Lin managed to wrestle a comedy out of it, one that pokes fun at Hollywood's obsession with profit and with feeding an insatiable content machine while writers are thrown by the wayside.

"I didn't start writing a comedy. I had been trying to write a very dutiful historical accounting," Lin says. "But my heart said, you need to stop. You need to figure out what your job is as a dramatist, and you need to serve that... I very nearly called Molly Smith, the artistic director of the theater, and said, 'I can't write this play. I've tried so many drafts of it. And, my God, they they're painful to me.'"

Lin describes his character Katie as the "frustrated, nerdy wonk that's inside of me."
Margot Schulman / Arena Stage
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Arena Stage
Lin describes his character Katie as the "frustrated, nerdy wonk that's inside of me."

In the play, a historian's award-winning book on the Chinese Exclusion Act gets optioned for a TV miniseries. Katie, the author played by Karoline (who goes by that mononym), then spends the rest of the story fighting an uphill battle to maintain the authenticity of her script. Hollywood heavyweight Harry (Josh Stamberg) – who displays a huge poster of Basic Instinct above his desk – and his acolytes manage to fill the text with racist stereotypes and historical inaccuracies.

Karoline is delightfully awkward as Katie, who navigates the treacherous twists and bends of Hollywood. She grows from timid to horrified to determined in her quest. At home, she gets support from husband Malcolm (Tony Nam), an aspiring director with a weed habit. Katie's views on the miniseries differ from those of actress Viola (played by Australia's Michelle Vergara Moore), but both women are frustrated and eventually find common ground.

Katie strikes a Faustian bargain with Harry, played by Josh Stamberg, who fills the script with racist stereotypes and historical inaccuracies.
Margot Schulman / Arena Stage
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Arena Stage
Katie strikes a Faustian bargain with Harry, played by Josh Stamberg, who fills the script with racist stereotypes and historical inaccuracies.

Lin says he deliberately broke stereotypes about Asian people (the leads are all Asian apart from Harry). "I made a checklist for myself, and I wrote it down, and the checklist was, 'What do other actors get to do that Asian actors never get a chance to do', right?" he says. "So I was like, I want an Asian woman to be able to take the stage from the first moment of the play to the last moment. Check. I want an Asian guy to just be a guy that doesn't necessarily have to know kung fu or be great at math. Check. I wanted an Asian actor to get to have an accent."

This may be satire, but it's also very human, probing some of the darkest recesses of Lin's own struggles with racism and racist stereotypes in America. Exclusion is compelling precisely because it wrestles with lived pain.

"This is my life now. This is my job now, and I've gotten good at it. I always felt like I was pretending a little bit before. And I feel like this is a very complete play," Lin says. "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. I really feel like this is me on the stage. And I don't know that I've ever totally felt that way before."

Lin says he found his "complete voice" as a writer with <em>Exclusion</em>, after years of being discouraged to write, and especially to write about Asian people.
Jolene Siana / Arena Stage
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Arena Stage
Lin says he found his "complete voice" as a writer with Exclusion, after years of being discouraged to write, and especially to write about Asian people.

Chad Campbell produced the audio version of this story. Erika Aguilar edited the digital version.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton