Editor’s note: Mark Lowry invited his friend Jin-Ya Huang to see the regional premiere of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters at Theatre Three. Huang is a local visual artist, designer and activist who founded the group Break Bread, Break Borders, which uses the concept of “social food justice” and works with refugees relocated to North Texas. You can read more about Huang and her work here, here and here.
What follows is an email conversation between Mark and Jin-Ya about the play, the production and the need to see more Asian faces on local stages — and in the audience.
She Kills Monsters runs one more weekend, through April 1.
Mark Lowry: Jin-Ya, thanks for joining me for Theatre Three's production of Qui Nguyen's dramatic comedy She Kills Monsters, which is set in the pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone year of 1995 and uses Dungeons and Dragons as its primary plot device.
Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American playwright who grew up in Arkansas, and made his name as a playwright with plays in the 2000s that riff on pop culture, such as slasher flicks, teen movies, martial arts films, and the world of gaming. He started the New York-based company Vampire Cowboys, which became known for "geek theatre," fusing pop culture, puppetry, stage violence and multimedia effects. He’s an alumni of the Marvel Studios Writers Program and his written for TV shows on AMC, Syfy and PBS.
In She Kills Monsters, which debuted in 2011, Agnes’ parents and teenage sister, Tilly, have died in a tragic auto accident. Wanting to learn more about her sister, Agnes (Bree Redmond) finds Tilly’s (Kennedy Waterman) notebooks and enters the advanced D&D world that Tilly created in New Landia (they actually live in Athens, Ohio). She does this with the help of local Dungeon Master Chuck (Griffin Hammel). In exploring this world, Agnes meets characters, good and evil, that Tilly created. The concept is set up in a prologue narrated by a fantasy character (played by Beth Lipton) that’s meant to mimic the Cate Blanchett character in The Lord of the Rings movies.
The production is co-directed by new T3 artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt and Katy Tye, and was one of the more exciting entries on the first season that Schmidt announced last year (his second season was recently announced). It’s the first professional production of a Nguyen play in DFW (last year Lakeside Community Theatre in The Colony gave the first local production of a Nguyen play, that I know of, with his horror movie riff Alice in Slasherland). Schmidt is also created with scenic design, with fight choreography by Jeff Colangelo and “cosplay consulting” by Sarah Barnes.
What I love about the play is that while there are fantastical elements — costumes, masks, swords and other weapons when the characters are in the D&D world — this is at its heart a touching story about sisters. I found what Agnes learns about Tilly moving. In retracing Tilly’s journey, both in the fantasy and real worlds, Agnes goes on quite the journey of self-discovery.
There's a lot of heart here, surrounded by fights and fantasy action.
Jin-Ya Huang: Thanks Mark, for inviting me to see this super action-packed play derived out of “geek theater.” I found more heart, in the midst of teenage angst, while in exploration as an “other” among social groups throughout not only teenage years, but in adulthood also. Nguyen does this duality amazingly well, by translating and interchanging Tilly and Agnes’ perspectives in and out of the game, playing roles of each other dead or alive, to show how the sisters arrive at a mutually understanding point of view from different perspectives. You don’t have to be a gaming nerd to appreciate the fantasy of wanting to be loved but not being loved back — how devastating and tragic that can be, inside or outside of a family. To visually show this type of inclusion in 3-D, was a treat to laugh and cry through.
Mark: Well said. The performances by Bree Redmond as Agnes, and Kennedy Waterman, captured that sisterly love-hate dynamic, too. I've been watching Waterman since she was a tween performing with Fun House Theatre & Film, and it was clear early on that she was gifted. This might be my favorite performance by her, as a 15-year-old lesbian who wants her sister to know her sexual orientation, and understands that it might take some time for Agnes to accept and love her for who she is. As a gay man who came out in my late teens, my older sister was the first person in my family I told. You want to be accepted, but you also have to acknowledge that there might be an arc of acceptance for the family member. For many, on both sides, processing the emotions can take time.
Jin-Ya: Wow, Mark, I’m really honored you shared that personal moment of you coming out to your older sister with me. As one of six girls in my family, I can only imagine what that must’ve been like to share this part of you with her.
Mark: Visually, this play requires some fantastical elements, and the T3 team has done an impeccable job of creating the look of the fantasy world through costumes, masks, and video. Schmidt has long been one of our area's most imaginative designers, as well as a talented director and actor, so since he took this post the T3 shows have looked better than ever. Costumes and masks (Ryan Schaap and Raul Luna), props (Joey Dietz), audio visual design (Sid Curtis), make-up (Karina Branson), sound design (John M. Flores) and lighting (Amanda West) all work together nicely, even if on opening night it could have been a bit smoother. Schmidt and his wife, actress Lydia Mackay (who plays the high school teacher Vera, in a cartoonish wig) also run the Drama Club, which excels in puppetry and masks, so I suspect that they had a hand in the mask design, too. Schmidt’s co-director is Katy Tye, who co-founded Prism Movement Theater with Colangelo. Theater is all about people with specific skillsets coming together to make art, and this is a great example.
Jin-Ya: I was dazzled by the costumes and designs too! Props to all the crew that made the stage come alive visually. As I glance around the theater, I saw eyes glued to every move the actors made.
While I noticed there were inter-generational groups and a fair mix of gender in the crowd, I also recognized the make-up of the audience was not very racially diverse. Because the playwright is Asian-American, I wondered throughout the performance what it would have felt like watching with more Asians in the crowd (on opening night, I spotted only one other Asian woman across the stage from me). Honestly, I wondered more so why this piece didn’t have more Asian faces in the cast. Other than the awkward, mostly silent Steve (played by Christopher “Clew” Lew) who got pushed around, beat up and stayed rather meek throughout the performance until the end, that was it. Perhaps this is just the writer’s life, portrayed metaphorically through a high schooler’s lens. If it was an intentional decision to make me uncomfortable and ponder why this should not be the case for proper representation, it did the job.
Mark: Many of Nguyen's plays, including this one, deal with fantasy worlds and can be played with multicultural casts — indeed the cast list in the script doesn’t specific ethnicity or age, only gender — Lew is the only Asian-American in this cast. This Theatre Three cast really speaks to the demographics of North Texas audiences and the theatrical talent here. There is a robust pool of black and Latinx actors and theatrical artists in town, and culturally specific theater companies telling those stories.
Despite that the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is now the fourth largest in the country (we've passed the Greater Houston MSA in terms of population), and has large and growing populations of East, South, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, that's not reflected in audiences or onstage in DFW. There is a small scene for South Asian dance, as in Indian Classical dance, Indian classicla music, and some theater (I once saw a Bangla arts group in Irving perform Oedipus Rex translated in Bengali) and certainly film (there are several Asian film festivals). Last year, Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas and the ThinkIndia! Foundation partnered for the original Bollywood-style musical Rang De! Color Me India! There are some East Asian performing arts studios and performances, mostly dance and music.
For big-budget professional theaters, if they're casting an Asian role — let's say the King in The King and I — there's the ability to bring an actor from outside of DFW, as Dallas Summer Musicals did several years ago after concern that it had originally cast its King with a non-Asian actor. National tours of King and Miss Saigon, of course, are appropriately filled with Asian casts; and in New York and Los Angeles, you can cast productions of those shows with Asian artists. It's no different than making sure you have enough black actors to produce Hairspray or Latinx actors for West Side Story. If you don't, then find another show to do.
Now Nguyen's best-known play is his award-winning, autobiographical, and very funny, Vietgone, in which a Vietnamese playwright tells of his parents meeting in an Arkansas refugee camp after the fall of Saigon. I would love to see a production of that here, and while I haven't personally seen an Asian acting pool here large enough to fill that cast — which is only five actors, all of them Asian, even though some play multiple characters including non-Asian ones — I'll bet it could be accomplished by looking at the college and university drama departments. It would be a matter of marketing those auditions in different ways.
Jin-Ya: Appreciate you reaffirming these thoughts. I have much to learn about theater, but as an immigrant visual artist from Taiwan (I came to the States when I was 13), I have had a hard time finding Asian representation, people who resemble me in different creative sectors, as role models. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “if you build it, they will come.” An excellent example is the Dallas Museum of Art, what social impact the institution made by the conscious choice of having the show “Mexico: 1900-1950.” By representing the demographics of the residents here in DFW area, the attendance to the museum soared to 800,000 for the 20th century Mexican art exhibit last year. That’s more visitors than the DMA has seen in a decade.
The casting of SKM certainly made a valiant attempt with current resources, but our theater partners can do more by being active in recruiting Asian talents as you mentioned and market accordingly. Instead of asking why Hollywood won’t hire Asian actors, we can do more by making these changes happen in our own backyard.
We see nonprofit support go to mobile theaters that travel to underserved neighborhoods — but what that means is often narrowly defined. The truth is Asian-American wealth disparity exists. Poverty strikes our population among Asian-American seniors (with almost 1 in 4 living in poverty according to Asian-American Federation) and those among the refugee communities including Cambodian, Vietnamese, and recent arrivals from Bangladesh, also experience high poverty. That means we can all do better to dispel the model minority myth by providing access, such as offering affordable tickets for our disadvantaged neighbors to share our culture. There are cultural barriers, and language is one of them, but that shouldn’t stop the creatives from trying to reach this crowd.
Personally I’d like to see more from individuals being vocal by simply saying to one another that we want to see more Asians show up. Yes, that means invite a friend to come out and play. Or be a part of the play. Whichever comes first.
Mark: You recently mentioned to me that one method would be to put up casting flyers in the areas of the Metroplex with clusters of Asian restaurants, such as Garland, Richardson and Haltom City. That would certainly be an option if a theater is casting The King and I and needs children and others to populate the cast of the King’s court in Thailand. But the major roles in that musical require a certain level of vocal training — not to mention some would need to be members of Actor's Equity Association. In those cases, I’d much rather see theaters spending money to find the appropriate casting, even if it means bringing in out-of-town actors, rather than putting white actors in “yellowface.” That should have never been acceptable — but it certainly isn’t now. The conversations on representation should continue, and we can all learn from them.
That said, She Kills Monsters isn't culturally specific, and Theatre Three has cast this production with diversity in terms of color, including Lew, Aaron Jay Green as Agnes’ boyfriend Miles (sporting a '90s Kid 'n Play 'do), Alle Mims as Evil Gabbi, and Chandra Rees as Farrah. And that is something you’re seeing across DFW stages: more black and brown actors not just playing ensemble roles, but leading characters in works that were traditionally populated with white actors. No doubt, there's still much work to be done.
Because the playwright is Vietnamese-American, I’ll be curious to hear if that drew some Asian audiences to this theater for the first time. Or, even people from the gaming world who might be seeing their first play.
In that sense, as well as the general execution of the text and visuals, this production is a win.
Clarification: The original version of this review stated that Katy Tye is the assistant director; but she is billed as the co-director. It has been changed in the text above.