March 13th, 2019
Rehana Lew Mirza is a playwright, bookwriter, and filmmaker whose work often focuses on highlighting the South Asian experience. For many years, she and her sister co-ran their own theatre company, Desipina; she and her husband subsequently co-ran the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Her latest play Hatef**k, which was featured on the 2017 Kilroys List, is currently having its world premiere at WP Theater, co-produced by Colt Coeur. The play depicts the passionate, thorny relationship between a literature professor and a novelist accused of utilizing anti-Muslim stereotypes. She has also been working on the musical Bhangin’ It, a commission for La Jolla Playhouse, which just had a presentation in NYC. I recently spoke with Rehana about her experience working on Hatef**k, what it’s like to develop a new play and musical simultaneously, the community-building potential of theatre, and more.
You’re having quite a busy month. In addition to your play Hatef**k at WP, you also just finished a workshop of a new musical for which you wrote the book, Bhangin’ It, with La Jolla Playhouse. What was it like going back and forth between working on a musical and a play?
Yeah, it was a trip. It just happened. It’s so funny because you like to think you’re in control of your artistic career, and you are to a certain extent, but when opportunities come up and schedules align, you just go with it. And so the musical, I’d been working on that for probably a good five years now with Sam Willmott and my husband, Mike Lew. The funny thing is we had a Project Springboard dance workshop of it over the summer, and Mike was simultaneously doing that and running to his performances of Teenage Dick through Ma-Yi and the Public Theater. When we found out about Hatef**k going up with WP, and Bhangin’ It having a workshop with La Jolla, we were like, “Well, I guess it’s my turn now.” But it was really interesting because Bhangin’ It is an 18person musical with choreography and singing, and Hatef**k is a very intimate two-person play. So, going into one rehearsal room, which felt like complete chaos at moments, and then going into another rehearsal room, which was so intimate, kept my head straight and focused on each project. They’re both so different, though they both deal with a lot of themes that I often grapple with as an artist, which are salvation, American identity, and multi-cultural clashing of perspectives. So, in that regard, that was the throughline I could hang onto. With a musical, there is so much going on. You either have to learn the songs or you have to learn the choreography. We did end up choreographing four to five numbers and staging the rest in a very rough workshop-y way. But the book writer is always back there being like, “Oh, are we going to have time to run the dialogue?” In a play process, it’s all about the scrutiny on that dialogue, making sure every moment is reading and that the actors are understanding every single moment, beat to beat. So, having to readjust how to operate in a room was always a big thing. In a musical room, there’s so much going on that you have to figure out who to talk to and when. In a play process, you can do rewrites in a larger sense, like you can bring a whole stack of new pages the first week. Whereas in a musical, you only have like four lines anyway, so it’s about chiseling that one word. It’s a little bit more like surgery in the musical, whereas doing Hatef**k, I was definitely exploring emotions and trying things out. There was a little bit more time and space for that.
Right now, there are quite a few playwrights who are writing the books to musicals. Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau, for instance, come to mind. Historically, there’s been a sense that the book writer is often most likely to be overlooked because the music often gets the attention. Do you think that’s still the case? In your experience, what exactly would you consider the contribution of a book writer?
What’s nice about going back and forth between a musical and Hatef**k is that with Hatef**k, it’s just me. I’m literally sitting there like, “This is a problem. Who’s going to fix it? Guess it’s going to be me!” Whereas with the musical, during the workshop process, we actually threw out two songs. We had to spend three hours talking through with Sam Willmott, the composer and lyricist, what the moment needed to be, why was it not emotionally hitting, and what are we trying to say, and what’s the best song moment to go there that will say what we need it to say? We ended up with a reprise, and it all came back to Sam just asking the question, “What is this musical about to you? Well, this is where it has to be reinforced through song.” And so we really had to hash that out, and really hammer it home, and then he came up with something brilliant, of course. It’s really about constantly being like, “This is the story we’re telling.” And the more people you put it the room, the more you have to really hold on, with all your might, to be like, “This is the story we’re telling!” So, the book writer is really trying to hold that together. It was interesting; about three days into the process, I was like, “We’re forgetting the story we’re telling.” Because everyone has a different perspective. They’re all bringing in their own cultural experiences, which is all great, and it’s really helpful to define character, but at the end of the day, we have to be making decisions that all lead to that story that we’re telling. Otherwise it becomes muddled and diluted. And so, we had to have that conversation with 30 people staring at me. And as a playwright, the last thing you want is anyone looking at you. Those are the things that you have to do because it’s important; otherwise there’s no point in doing any of this other stuff.
When you’re working on a small play, do you have those same moment of, “Let me take a step back and reassess what the story I’m telling is”? When you get stuck, and it’s just you on the writing team, how do you work through that?
Yeah. WP’s Lisa McNulty was helpful in this. She was like, “Previews are the last part of the rehearsal process.” And so I’m like, “Okay, let the audience tell me what’s working, what’s not, where there’s some sort of glitching happening.” Obviously, all audiences are different, and they’re going to have different reactions, but ultimately, you can feel the energy. What’s so lovely about theatre is that it’s all about the exchange between audience and actor. And so I’ve been learning a lot through the preview process about what needs to be done. Sometimes you just might not get it. It might not come to you yet. And that’s what second productions are for, hopefully. But it’s all a process of when you’re able to receive the information that you need in order to really make that moment work.
For so much of the development process with new work, it’s workshops or readings or labs. With this production of Hatef**k, you’re finally getting the opportunity in previews to try things out, at multiple performances, with different audiences in a way that, presumably, you didn’t get to do earlier on.
The DNA of this play is always the same, but it changes in the moment to moment sometimes, and how it’s being informed [by the audience]. And so, in a reading setting, a lot of things didn’t read, like the intimacy or the sexual chemistry moments. The first day of rehearsal, the actors reached out and touched one another, and I was like “Holy shit! This changes this moment completely!” Because it’s a very different thing when there are music stands blocking them from one another. Especially with Hatef**k, which is such a relationship play, it’s about following their relationship over time and trying to calibrate how that is parceled out; that was really the challenge of it. It would probably change with different actors in it. Every little thing, like sound or clothing or set, very much alters the chemistry, just ever so slightly.
It’s interesting that you describe Hatef**k as a relationship play because, given the strong, assertive title, I honestly wasn’t expecting to hear the play described in those terms. Can you talk a little bit about the impetus for the title?
The title kind of actually guided me towards writing the play. The word really helped me razor focus in on all those feelings about the world, and representation, and personal responsibility versus how things are perceived. And so it just ramped up from there. I guess I think of it as a relationship because I think of even the most fucked up interpersonal experiences as relationships. Like I had a very problematic boss for a while, and I thought of that as a relationship. It’s a relationship that I had to learn how to navigate. I think that for me, a lot of it comes out of the idea of how you navigate other people when everyone’s so different and perspectives are so different. It’s a question that I often grapple with, and so, Hatef**k was my tongue-in-cheek way of being like, “Yeah. That’s how you navigate that shit.” And then from there, I just went with it. The reason why the title is resonates with me is because hate has been on my mind in the last couple of years, particularly because there is so much rhetoric that feels hateful, or rhetoric that inspires hate. So, a lot of that has been on my brain. I was like, “Can I hatefuckk all the hate out? Is there a way we can fuck all the hate out of the world?” So I think what I’ve come to from grappling with that in the process of writing the play, and trying to figure that out, is the idea of what is important to hold onto in the midst of the whirlwind, the tornado of emotions. That has me reevaluating a lot, and I do those reevaluations a lot more often since going through the play. What’s important to me? What is worth holding onto? What is worth letting go of? What’s the baggage that I’m carrying that I need to let go of in order to hold onto the things that are actually important to me?
I noticed in your website bio that you mention how your “breakout play” Barriers is now taught in many college courses, at schools including Yale and NYU. Do you think a lot about the influence your writing can have on the next generation of theatre artists, and on young people in general? Is that something you are conscious of when you are creating new work like Hatef**k and Bhangin’ It?
It definitely is. I mean, Bhangin’ It is about college-aged students. So it’s really important to me to try to take a look at that and really capture some of the struggles that they’re going through, but in a bigger world picture, on a racial-social level. I think that there aren’t a lot of tools given to youth about how to talk about some of these things. They’re coming up with their own, which is great. I feel like there’s not a lot of history given, also. There is a certain canon that exists, and there are a lot of people who exist outside of that. So, just trying to break through a little bit of that. When I was in college, studying writing, I didn’t have access to a lot of things. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to say. I was a hot mess. Being able to provide some of that lattice of structure now, that someone else can build upon, is exciting to me. The first time I ever saw a biracial Muslim family [represented in the entertainment industry] was after I graduated from college. I did a trip to the UK and I saw the movie East is East, and I was sobbing because I had never seen it before. I just think that there should be more opportunities for people to be able to see themselves growing up.
The medium that inspired you, in terms of showing you a story that you could really relate to, was film, which you’ve worked in a little. But what made you decide, in your own career, to focus primarily on theatre?
I think my theatre bug came pretty young. I loved seeing performances. I loved just everything about theatre. I went to NYU as an undergrad for dramatic writing, and they teach both screenwriting and playwriting in one, at least at the time I went. Now they do TV writing too. So for me, I submitted a play, and that’s how I got into NYU. Then, as I was there, one of my mentors, who was a screenwriter, was like, “You should really write about your cultural experiences.” And so I wrote a screenplay under his tutelage and I became a screenwriting major. But then, when I graduated, the people I had met were all theatre actors. South Asian theatre actors. And they were forming a theatre company, and I was like “What’s this about?” The community-building aspect of it was so important to me. My sister and I actually started a theatre company called Desipina, which combined our multicultural backgrounds, and really focused on telling South Asian, and Asian, and Asian American stories. It was all out of community building, and really being able to create that. That’s something you can only really get in theatre. But I also do like films. Different stories require different mediums and different ways of telling them. So that’s how I pick and choose. I started doing less film work, and focusing in on theatre because I think, as I get older, there’s something about the time and space afforded within theatre that really calls to me, and that community that I just feel like I need.
In terms of theatre community, you’ve also been involved with the Ma-Yi Writers Lab for many years. At one point you and your husband were running it together. It seems, with both of your theatre companies, that you were collaborating with somebody very close to you and sharing the experience with them.
Yeah, it’s so funny. My twenties were really defined by all the theatre antics I would get into with my sister. Then, I went to Columbia for playwriting, and I was in my final year there when I got into the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. That was also the same year that my husband, Mike, got in. He showed up late to the first meeting, on a skateboard, and I was like “Who is this guy?” We really got to know each other through our writing first, which was really great, and we were doing some really different things. So we were fascinated by that aspect of it. And then, he came actually to see a Desipina show, and the rest is history from there. We ended up getting married, and we ended up taking over the Lab and running that together, which was really great. I think there is something about theatre that requires you to go all in, and lets who you are be front and forward. And having trusted collaborators that do the same is a unique experience that, for me, helps fuel the passion and the art of it.
When you were ran the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, did you feel that you got to learn anything new about yourself as a writer from working with all those other younger writers? Did you notice any trends that excited you about where the future of the art form seems to be going?
The interesting thing about Ma-Yi Writers Lab is that it has a lifetime membership, basically. Once you’re in it, you’re in it forever. When we got in there, a lot of the members were our peers. As we started to collect new membership, it was really interesting to see the inter-generational aspect of it happening, and how that knowledge sharing started to occur. It’s very useful in that it’s not even just about the writing. It’s about, “I’m having trouble casting this Asian American actor that I need.” Or, “This school wants to do my play, but they don’t have any Asian Americans.” Who do you go to for things like that? I think what I learned from running the Lab with Mike is the idea that we actually found more success, I would say, as a group. Even though it seemed like we all have common ground as an Asian American community, Asian American is a made up term anyway, and it has a lot of diversity within that community. And so, I think that by having that built-in diversity of opinion and thought and practice and artistic endeavor, it really challenged and pushed all the members to be better in a lot of ways, and to really question things a lot more. I think that you can get in a rut sometimes, and so I think that’s what’s great about the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. And then also, since Mike and I were able to be in that position of power, of authority, in some ways, we could also create the programming of the Lab a little bit more. We could do some social activism things. We could put together big events that spoke to what we felt was important. So we did a fundraiser after one of the hurricanes that decimated the Philippines, and we also did something in response to yellowface controversies around the country. We got to respond to that.
What are your plans looking forward? What shows are you’re working on next?
Well, most immediately next up after Hatef**k, I’m working on a trilogy on colonialism, which kind of combines social justice play work, and it’s with my husband, Mike. He’s writing the first play, we’re co-writing the second play, with a few songs, and then I wrote the third play. It travels through time, and the plays go forward. It was an extension of our work through Ma-Yi Theater, through the Writers Lab, where we were often operate as each other’s dramaturg, and we’re so in each other’s work. What would it look like to start to both capitalize off of each other’s dramaturgy, and our melding of minds? So Mike’s play is a time-hopping history of the 350 years of the British Raj occupation of India. The second play is set in Trinidad, looking at the indentured servants that were brought from India into Trinidad, and the freed slaves that were brought back to Trinidad as well, and how that culture at the time started to mix. And then, my play is a couple in the US expecting their first child, and hopefully the cumulative effect of the previous two plays will show you how it impacts their relationship. And then I also have a commission with Primary Stages that I’m working on.
I’m expecting my second child in June. Well, technically, first week of July, but my first came three weeks early, so we’re not counting on that. We made that mistake of being like, “We’re going to schedule everything the week before he’s born,” and then all of a sudden, a week after he’s born, we’re like “We have to do so many things!” So this time around, I’m going to take a couple months and then get back to it in September.