Playwright and performer Lucy Wang. Photo courtesy of the Akron Civic Theatre.
This post has been updated to reflect that Wang was not born in Akron but grew up there. Also, Mark Zimmerman invited her to teach a master class at Firestone High School, which is how they met.
When Chinese-American playwright Lucy Wang performs her one-woman show, “Chinese Girls Don’t Swear,” on Thursday evening, it won’t be her first time on the main stage of the Akron Civic Theatre. During a telephone interview from her Los Angeles residence, Wang, who grew up in Akron, said she appeared there many years ago, as a young dancer in a production of “The Nutcracker.”
At that time, she was one in a sea of young children having their moment onstage. This time the spotlight will be hers alone. “Chinese Girls Don’t Swear” is, Wang described, a “funny memoir with comedy and pathos” abounding. Although not strictly autobiographical, the work is certainly inspired by events in her life, Wang noted. The piece is structured around “things that have happened to me,” she said. The playwright and performer first presented the play to sold-out workshops in both Los Angeles and New York.
By her own admission, Wang has had an interesting and unusual life. Take the fact that she sat on a national board of directors at age 16. Now that’s unusual. Or that she previously worked as a bond trader on the New York stock market. Not many people think of an artist doing that.
Some of her experience shows up in several of the plays that she has written over the years. “Bird’s Nest Soup” is a coming-of-age piece set in her native Akron during the 1970s. The tension in the play, it has been said, lies in the conflict between maintaining ethnic traditions and assimilation. Over the course of the play, the daughter, Julie, ultimately decides to leave home in search of the American dream.
Wang's play “Junk Bonds” certainly ties directly to her inspiration for “Chinese Girls Don’t Swear.” “Junk Bonds” takes place in the highly intense world of the stock market. A study of American greed and mistrust, the play can get a little raw. During several productions of the work, including a version mounted at the Cleveland Public Theatre, audience members were said to be startled by some of the language in the play.
As Wang told it, even friends of hers came up to her after a performance and said they couldn’t believe that she knew such words, let alone used them in a play. One person even said to her, in all seriousness, “Chinese girls don’t swear.”
Video on YouTube of Lucy Wang doing a reading of her monologue, “Down There,” from her one-woman show, “Chinese Girls Don't Swear.”
One time, when Wang was holding forth about the things that have been said to her based on her ethnicity (all pertaining to what Chinese girls shouldn’t do), feminist icon Gloria Steinem said to her that she should create a show about all these remarks. As Wang said during the interview, Steinem even gave her the title of the show that she will be performing this week.
Wang said she felt the need to address all the passing comments, so she really appreciated the advice to create the show. She loves the title, she added, because it lets people know that the play is humorous.
Wang has written more than 30 plays, screenplays and television pilots, including “Pretty for an Asian Girl” – another work that may have some offhand remark behind it. Along the way, she has amassed several awards. “Junk Bonds,” which she describes as her “breakout play,” received an award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. Reactions to the production in New York City even compared her to famous playwright David Mamet, Wang said. All that makes the remarks to her about her ethnicity all the more strange, and, in Wang's hands, funny.
Wang, among other notable achievements, landed a James Thurber Fellowship and an award as the Best New TV Writer sponsored by CAPE and FOX. She also wrote and sold a television pilot to Disney. Wang has taught playwriting at the high school level, as well as at such university settings as The Ohio State University, Smith College and the University of Southern California. She currently teaches online at E-script.
Part of the Akron Civic Theatre's mission under its current grant from Knight Foundation is to present diverse cultural programming and an array of artistic disciplines. “Chinese Girls Don’t Swear” certainly seems to fit the bill. The show also goes to the theater’s aim to bring Akron talent – both old and new, past and present – onto its stage. Wang is the first in a small series of three Akron-born artists who are coming back to present one-person shows in the cabaret setting of The Club @ Akron Civic Theatre.
As the “small world” theory goes, Howard Parr, executive director of Akron Civic Theatre, discovered Wang through Mark Zimmerman, who directed a recent production of “Shrek: The Musical” for the theater. Zimmerman, director of the theater program at Firestone High School, invited Wang to teach a master class there.
Lucy Wang will perform her one-woman show, “Chinese Girls Don’t Swear,” at 8 p.m on Thursday, July 23, in the cabaret setting on the main stage of Akron Civic Theatre (182 S. Main St., Akron; 330-253-2488). Tickets are $15. For more information, visit the Akron Civic's website.