Everyday Aggressions or, Why I Won't Be Writing Your Great American Musical

“Pretty much everything you’ve said to me today has been positively aggravating, if I’m being honest.”  I say to him, as I play with my Diet Coke straw.  But this director who I’ve only just met knows I’m not being honest.  He can tell by the way my hand is twitching, trying its best not to reach for the knife at our table.  If I was being honest I’d be holding it, a thread of profanities unspooling from my mouth like so much Christmastime popcorn.

It’s a little after 4:45 pm on a Monday afternoon and the steam coming from Westway Diner is absolutely originating from my ears.  I’ve been seething in this booth for the better part of an hour hoping for someone to start a fire or rob the place Pulp Fiction style, so I can get out of this meeting but no such luck.  The very best I can hope for now is to sink into the floor, through the cushions into the sunken place a la Get Out.  But I’m not holding my breath.  It would appear that having my mind lobotomized and my body re-purposed is more pleasurable to me than enduring this casually racist, dangerously ignorant, hyper privileged, dim-wittery.  But I get ahead of myself.  Let me catch you up.

Couple weeks ago I get an email through my website from someone I’ve neither met nor heard of before.  He says he is a director, looking for a composer-lyricist to collaborate with on an idea for a musical.  This happens fairly often, and I’ve written about it at length, so you can probably guess that he is a white man, and the subject matter of his chosen project involves… Asia.  That’s only half true.  It’s actually about a still-living, female Olympic figure skater who is Asian-American.  Already, this is a good sign.  Not only because as a lyricist I’d have more agency in the storytelling, but  as a composer, I know this show won’t be set in Feudal China and doesn’t “need that special flare that my music would be perfect for.”  (For the uninitiated, this is code for “I want political cover because I’m writing about Asia and no one will let me do that by myself anymore."  But more on this later.)

“Great!” I think to myself.  “I may not be a woman, but I am legitimately Asian American.”  This is something about which I feel confident I can write with some kind of credibility.  Also, I rarely write about Asian Americans, so that’s cool too.  This guy sends me the first act of his script, with his lyrics already set and I pause.  He said he was looking for a composer-lyricist, but sends over a script with lyrics.  Not “here’s what I think the song moment is” poetry, but real lyrics.  They scan.  They have a rhyme scheme.  They have hooks.  So… what is he really looking for and why is it incongruous with what he says he’s looking for?  And why is he positioning himself as a director, when he obviously thinks of himself as a writer?  Red flag number one.

So I read about half the script, and think about it for a day before responding.  I keep coming back to two moments in it that interest me: the first is a comparison of lacing up skates to foot-binding, a practice that was outlawed in China one hundred years ago, and the second involves a scene where the then-fourteen-year-old protagonist is encouraged to costume herself sexually in order to be taken seriously by the judges.  Depending upon where you fall on the Feminism spectrum I’m either a feminist or an ally, (I’m comfortable with either) and this piece seems like something I could really get into.  I agree to a meeting. 

Maybe it shouldn’t be red flag number two, but the fact that he doesn’t know where New Dramatists is also gives me pause.  So we agree to meet at Westway instead.  Here’s where things go decidedly south.  I sit down, we play the name game, we discover we have a few mutual friends.  I ask him one question.  “So what drew you to this person and their story?” 

“After she took silver at the Olympics, someone asked her on TV how it felt losing the gold.  She said ‘I don’t see it as losing the gold, I see it as winning the silver.’ And I thought ‘wow, that answer is totally full of shit.’ So I started thinking about the secret conversations we never got to see on TV or in the media.  What does she say when Connie Chung turns off the cameras?” is his response. 

Red flags everywhere.  For one, that this guy would presume something a real person said about her own outlook as a willful misrepresentation takes the narrative in a direction I’m not sure I want to go in.  Especially when the other direction seems so promising.  For another, where is he getting his research for those off-the-record moments, I wonder?  I ask him.  “Making it up.”  He says.

This isn’t an uncommon practice among writers.  Historical figures are frequently adapted to the stage.  And we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought every word uttered in their names was verified true.  But there is a thing called life rights, and there is also a thing called historical-domain, and since he hasn’t said “I have optioned her life story” and since she is still very much alive, I think it’s fair to say that at best, this work falls into a highly questionable gray area.  But I slow my roll.   Sure, he’s been talking at me for fifteen minutes, recapping the script he emailed me.  Surely at some point he’ll stop and… ask me something.  Anything.  He continues. 

“And then at first when they try to dress her up like a tart, I had her dad refuse to acquiesce because that’s what a Chinese dad would do.”  I feel a trickle of sweat sliding down my right temple.  This is frustrating to me.  Not only because he thinks he’s paying me and my people a compliment with this statement… Not only because he presumes he knows what a “Chinese dad would do”…  Not only because he is suggesting the character would do anything because he’s Chinese…  But also because he could have just asked me. 

“Does this track, Tim?  Does this moment feel disingenuous?”  Why bother inviting an Asian-American on to your creative team when all you want is their validation?  Unless the whole thing is a pretense to begin with.  You see where this is going. We’re at the twenty five minute mark now and he’s still talking at me, my core temperature slowly rising.

“And then I had to have the sister character in there too because it couldn’t all just be about the dad and the coach.”  Now my head is exploding.  Did he just say his show couldn’t just be about the dad and the coach?  Did he actually suggest that the protagonist of this story was not the Olympic figure skater herself?  Maybe he didn’t mean it that way.  But the ill-considered word choice is enough.  Another red flag.  How many is that now?

"Also, I know a lot of young girls would come, and it's really important to me that they see it."  He continues.  See what, I wonder.  Someone representing them on stage being full of shit? 

“Okay hold up.” I say to him.  “Tell me again, who recommended me to you?”

“Well I was having a conversation with [drop-in name of fancy producer here] and he was saying to me ‘I think you might have to write this with an Asian American writer.’  And I was like ‘Yeah.  I kind of have to.  Because the landscape.’  Right?  Like, in this landscape they’d never let me get away with it.  I can’t write Dream Girls in this landscape.  In. This. Landscape.”  He says, while striking his thick finger down on the Formica on every word. 

So... in case you missed it, what this gentleman suggested to me was that a) “this landscape” is the only reason he shouldn’t be writing stories about women of color and b) he’s working on the same level as Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen.  And maybe to a lesser degree c) that someday within his own lifetime the attitudes on this will change back and favor him writing whatever he wants. 

I'm only going to say this ten million more times: Just because something used to be permissible doesn't mean it was ever okay.

“Wait.  Stop.  Just-  ...so [fancy producer name-drop] recommended me to you?”  I ask.  I can’t do this with him for another thirty five minutes. 

“No,” says he, “I got your name from a Facebook group.  The Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project.”  Which in itself is pretty weird because I'm a moderator of that group and no formal inquiries were ever made.

“Then… no one recommended me to you.  Okay.  Have you asked anyone else?”

“No.  I initially reached out to… what’s his name… he’s Asian American… he’s at Primary Stages?  Do you know who I’m talking about?” 

“Not without a name…”  I'm shaking my head.

“Yeah well anyway, I asked that guy.  And then he recommended me to a lyricist at New Dramatists… she’s… what’s her name?  I can’t remember her name either.  She’s an Asian American and she's a woman lyricist at New Dramatists.   Anyway I emailed her, and I never got an answer back.  So, just you.”

Now I’m completely off the reservation.  This lyricist he speaks of, who (I presume is not a composer) and is from the same New Dramatists whose address he didn’t know and couldn’t Google for himself… this person was going to write... music?...  Whatever. 

“Okay. Let me stop you right there.  I… I’m not going to do this with you.”

“Do what?”

“Write your musical.  I’m not going to do that with you.”

“Wait.  Really?  Why?”  This comes as a legitimate surprise to him. 

“Pretty much everything you’ve said to me today has been positively aggravating, if I’m being honest.”  I reach for my Diet Coke straw, wonder why the waitress never came back to take our order and see his open menu on the table.  Thank God for small favors. 

“Did I say something wrong?”  He stutters.  He looks over the table at my face.  I can’t know for sure, but I think I have on that face you get where someone steps on your foot and is more upset at the bottom of their shoe than your toe and you literally don’t know which indignity to address first.   That’s the face he’s looking at right now.  Meanwhile, the face I’m looking at is the one that only comes from a lifetime of ease and privilege and being told that everything you see is defined in relation to you.   Equally aggravating.

“All I know is I’ve been sitting here for forty five minutes, and you have been talking at me but not to me.  You haven’t asked me a single question about myself, my process, or my principles and shouldn't knowing that be critical in a collaboration?  I’ve asked you two questions and instead of answering you’ve just described your show to me in great detail.  You’ve also presumed to know anything about my Chinese father (and by extension, me) and just now you looked me straight in the eyes and said your show was about the dad and the coach.  As if it could ever not be about her.  Finally, you have said exactly nothing about the two things which I found most compelling about your idea.  So, no.  I’m not going to write this show with you.  And I'm certainly not going to write it for you.  But you should do it, man.  Go for it.”

Open mouth, vacant stare into the middle distance… he is still very confused. “What two things?”  He asks, grasping.

“Early on in the script you evoke foot-binding, (something the person who talks about it could never have experienced firsthand) and make a direct comparison between it and lacing on ice-skates.  Later on, you talk about how this young girl becomes overtly sexualized by the two older men charged with her well being.  Yet your show isn’t any kind of commentary on the subjugation of women?”

Again with the open mouth and vacant stare.  “I… hadn’t thought of it that way.”  He says to me.  I’m not making this up.  He says this out loud.  To my face.

If he had asked me even one thing, he'd know that I have no interest in telling stories where women or Asian people are props.   If he'd asked me two things, he'd know that I have no interest in telling stories where anyone outside of my experience is a prop.  And if he'd asked me three things, he'd know that the reason he was encouraged to write this show with an Asian-American was because we can't trust ourselves to be our own council when writing outside of our own experience.  Not yet anyway. 

"Yeah."  I say.  "So, I’m going to think about people who I know who might be interested in this, and if I think of someone I’ll make an introduction.”  (I’m not lying.  If you want to meet him, I will introduce you.)  “Meanwhile, I didn’t bring any cash with me and can’t pay for this Diet Coke.  Would you mind?”

He shakes his head no.  I take it as a kindness.

I grab my bag, head out onto 9th Avenue and immediately Google dry cleaners near me.  I got privilege all over my new sweater and someone’s going to help me get it out.