Playwright Julia Izumi, A11, reveals the tragedy and comedy of being Asian American in our country
Julia Izumi, A11, wasn’t looking to write plays. But when an advanced workshop in Tufts’ Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies needed another student and pulled her in, playwriting found her.
Izumi went on to major in drama, win Tufts’ 2011 Goddard Rhetorical Prize for excellence in performance, and complete an M.F.A. in writing for performance from Brown University. Taking the stage has been key to her journey as a writer, most memorably when she wrote a play specifically to star in: Meet Murasaki Shikibu Followed by Book-Signing, and Other Things, whose titular character is the author of The Tale of Genji, one of the first novels ever written, in the early 11th century in Japan.
“I learned how much I was drawn to humor as a lens into trickier topics and darker, deeper emotions and thoughts. It really helped me solidify not just my style, but also the kinds of stories I wanted to tell,” Izumi said of that play, which will be produced by Tiny Dynamite in Philadelphia in June. “It was very liberating, and the biggest way that I found my voice as a playwright.”
Izumi has received the New York Society Library’s Emerging Women’s Artist grant, a Puffin Artists’ grant, the inaugural Dr. Kerry English Award from Ojai Playwrights Conference, and the Dorry Award for Outstanding New Play for Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea, a reimagining of The Little Mermaid to be produced outdoors at Seattle’s Dacha Theater in July and August.
Now a resident playwright at New Dramatists, Izumi writes tragicomedies that often center on Asian American women who are to be seen making mistakes and acting irrationally, not the usual role they play in much of American theater.
Her work is farcical, and often magical—she loves the leap of faith that live theater asks audiences to make. She encourages her Brooklyn middle school playwriting students to take advantage of their medium and make their scripts as theatrical as possible.
Izumi’s newest play, Regretfully, So the Birds Are, follows three adopted Asian American siblings—including one who goes on a quest to buy a piece of the sky. It premiered in New York at Playwrights Horizons in April. Izumi spoke with Tufts Now about her experiences writing, and the stories behind the stories she tells.
Tufts Now: You’ve described the women in your plays as “messy”—why do you like to depict these kinds of characters?
Julia Izumi: Asian women are often depicted as very perfect, long-suffering, self-sacrificing, and one-dimensional. I’m thinking of Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly—the Asian women in those works are very beautiful, noble, and devoted to the men in their lives.
Even though they’re “good people,” they’re just symbols, meant to represent their racial identity. They’re not given the depth or humanity that the white characters in their stories are given.
I want to give Asian and Asian American women characters a depth and breadth that oftentimes means showing their flaws, showing that they make mistakes and are irrational sometimes, just like I feel I am.
Why do you feel it’s important to depict the Asian American experience onstage?
I didn’t know of any Asian American playwrights growing up. It was only after I had started writing plays that I met other incredible Asian American playwrights, like Aya Ogawa, Haruna Lee, Jaclyn Backhaus, Mia Chung, and more. I also discovered that there were Asian American playwrights writing well before my time, such as Philip Kan Gotanda, Frank Chin, Julie Otsuka, and Wakako Yamauchi, who history seemed to gloss over.
I think there is a link between the spike in anti-Asian racism and Asian American stories not getting larger platforms. Having said that, I don’t think me writing a play now is going to solve anything—these sorts of systemic problems are bigger than me, and the reach of theater is really small.
But I do feel it’s important for me to write so that other Asian Americans to know they are seen and heard, especially at a time when they might be feeling particularly targeted. I feel it’s important to have works for Asian Americans to see their own humanity reflected back to them.
How did you come to start working on Regretfully, So the Birds Are?
I started writing it after I noticed that the casting descriptions in some plays said only “Asian American.” I wanted to see if I could write any parts that were truly Asian American—that held space for any nationality, ethnicity, or specific background within that category. The way I came up with to do that was to have three children who were adopted by white parents, without being told what specific Asian country they were each adopted from.
It was an experiment that naturally failed. Even if you don’t know what Asian country you specifically come from, people are going to make assumptions about you based on what you look like—and you yourself are going to try to guess. There’s one character who other people think looks Chinese, there’s another character who guesses he might be Filipino based on his singing ability.
At the end of the day, we had to be more specific about what people we were casting than I had initially thought—which was a good lesson to learn! We are not a monolith, and sometimes that means specificity in a casting call is the more equitable answer.
How much of your own experience made it into Regretfully?
It’s funny, because in some ways this is the least personal play of mine—all the characters are very different from me in terms of identity. I am not at all an adoptee, and none of the characters are referenced to be Japanese. I sometimes connect with other Asian Americans by talking about our immigrant parents, but these characters have white American parents.
So it became about finding ways in which my experience does overlap with those Asian Americans, whose experiences are very different from mine. What ties me, a mono-ethnic Japanese American woman, to a transracial, transnational adoptee? What is the thing that connects us—is there something that’s inherently Asian American that’s not tied to immigrant parents, or common languages, or liking bubble tea?
What I landed on in this play were the confusing forces around us, and how we try to map ourselves, and how isolating that is. And how difficult it is for us to find spaces where we belong, regardless of what specific Asian identity we come from. A lot of us somehow share that difficulty, that sense of loneliness, and that confusion about who we are and how to place ourselves. And that never really goes away.
How do you navigate your own Asian American identity, in writing and in life?
It’s both a part of myself I’m not always conscious of, and also something that always informs the way I’m living, which I feel is true of a lot of marginalized folks in America.
It’s tricky, because American society is really committed to putting people in very specific boxes and saying they can’t go outside of them. And I always try to acknowledge the box, but also to question what it is.
I was talking to another Asian American playwright about how the “Asian American” container could be so wide—from West Asia to South Asia to Southeast Asia to East Asia, there are so many cultures and languages that are all very different. But America is really only interested in small containers, which is why the Asian—usually East Asian—immigrant family story gets spotlighted as the most “Asian American” something can be. That leaves out a lot of people’s experiences.
So what would it be to create an identity to hold all those people? I’m more interested in what connects us beyond our shared experiences of how we are oppressed. I think I’m constantly poking at that question, both and how I write and what I write.