Leah Nanako Winkler—Japanese-born, Kentucky-raised playwright—has been self-producing her work in New York for years. Winkler has a singular voice, piercingly funny and irreverant, and surreptiously affecting. Her plays move fluidly between various styles and sometimes even song. Now, after a sold-out Ensemble Studio Theater (EST) Unfiltered workshop of Kentucky and making the coveted Kilroy’s List of best new plays by female playwrights, Winkler is finally receiving her first full production of a full-length play. Staging Kentucky is no small feat. The play has a multi-ethnic cast of sixteen actors and includes live music and an entire wedding ceremony. Though a deeply and sometimes painfully personal play, Winkler’s unique comic sensibilities shine through—included in the assembly of family, friends, and foes greeting Hiro on her prodigal return to Kentucky is the family cat, who is also a fully developed character. She speaks with the Brooklyn Rail about the world premiere of Kentucky, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre, Radio Drama Network, and Page 73 (P73).
Susan Soon He Stanton (Rail): Tell me about what spurred you to write Kentucky. I’ve heard it was inspired by some recent events in your life.
Leah Nanako Winkler: Although many of the events, behaviors, and dramatic content of the play are fictional, the play’s circumstance of an older sister from New York attending her born-again Christian sister’s wedding was inspired by the real life event. I was also a bridesmaid in two other weddings that same summer (my two best high school friends from Kentucky) so, naturally, I was thinking a lot about weddings. I wanted to draw from the mixed emotions many people feel at weddings. I also wanted to look at the theatricality of weddings.
Rail: Tell me more about the theatricality of weddings.
Winkler: I was struck by how much the ritual of a wedding is similar to the ritual of theater. Like a play, we rehearse weddings. We wear costumes. We say lines. Attendees get a little excited then bored then hopefully touched. I began to think about how beautiful weddings can be and how they bring people together. Theater also does that. Both rituals bring unlikely people together.
Rail: What has it been like to see an audience responding to a play that is, quite literally, so close to home?
Winkler: Some of the funniest moments in the play were the most painful for me to write—because pain is essencially truthful and a lot of humor roots from truth. But I like making people laugh, so I don’t mind. And at this point, Kentucky has morphed into something so far beyond myself. The elements that initially inspired it—the people in my life, the events I lived through—literally become rewritten into characters and fiction. I do, however, remember a time when I brought pages into Youngblood (EST’s writers group) right after my sister’s wedding, and I had forgotten to take my own name out of the script. That was deeply embarssing, and I genuinely didn’t know if this raw material could be a play. But several writers encouraged and assured me to keep going, and for that I’m so thankful.
Rail: What was the EST Unfiltered workshop production like? You have most of the same cast and director.
Winkler: Unfiltered is a festival of five plays, with two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal to put the play up on its feet. It’s a very writing-centric process, and the script is constantly changing. By the time we got to production, I had made a few overhauls, but it was more about making these people that were so inside of myself and viewing them completely outside of myself—feeling the rhythm of each scene.
Rail: I know you are a frequent collaborator and good friends with Morgan Gould. What has it been like working on this epic play with her?
Winkler: She is literally Super Woman who can juggle sixteen actors and a huge design and production team and make everyone feel important. She stays up with me until three a.m. after preview performances to work through rewrites while also somehow managing to make me laugh. As collaborators I truly believe we elevate each other, and the play leaps forward with each performance because our number one priority is making an extraordinary piece rather than serving our own egos.
I’m so glad EST, P73, and Radio Drama Network never questioned her talent and let our collaboration continue from the workshop, with great enthuthiasm. That speaks volumes about their trust in us as artists and the two of us are just so happy to be in such generous, amazing company for our first big production.
Rail: Yes. Let’s talk about those sixteen actors. Such a huge cast! None of the characters are doubled, it’s so rare.
Winkler: Every character in Kentucky came out organically because weddings are huge events, filled with many people from your past and present. All sixteen people shaped Hiro, and everyone is essential to her journey. I didn’t initially consider the limitations of having a huge cast in terms of professional producibility because nobody really told me it was crazy. Youngblood is very nurturing. It was only after the workshop production that I was credited for having “balls.” But the real reason why Kentucky feels so splashy and ballsy is because I was allowed to be impetuous.
Rail: I loved seeing so many bodies on stage, creating this world in the original workshop. I love that several different groups of people are brought together.
Winkler: Me too! It’s an accurate representation of the Kentucky I grew up in, which was rich in diversity and filled with music and art—as opposed to the stereotype of a white guy on a horse (although there’s that too).
Rail: And your lead is hapa [half-Asian], like you.
Winkler: And you! At the same time, this isn’t a play about hapa or mixed-race identity. It’s a story about home, redemption, and finding the best version of yourself. I think it’s important to think outside the box when we tell stories about universal themes and to not limit actors of color to roles where they are soley defined by their ethnicity. I’ve also never seen a play where a hapa was a hero, and I wanted to see one!
Rail: I know the play is set in Kentucky, but why is it also the title?
Winkler: The play is not directly a statement about Kentucky. It’s a play about home. The home that I have made for myself is in New York. But where I came from is Kentucky. This is my Kentucky play.
Excerpt from Kentucky
by Leah Nanako Winkler
GRANDMA enters as if from nowhere.
I sent you a hundred dollars.
I sent you a hundred dollars but you sent it back. Why?
Because. You need the money more than I do.
Nobody should go to bed hungry—
I’m not poor anymore Grandma. I have a good job. In an office. I just got a promotion. And in my spare time I play music at open-mics. I’m learning how to play the banjo!
Who the fuck leaves Kentucky to go learn how to play the banjo? And you never said thank you to me. You never called. It meant a lot for me. To send a hundred dollars to you.
Well you can give me the hundred dollars now if it’ll make you feel better.
GRANDMA gives HIRO the finger.
Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler runs April 20 – May 22 at Ensemble Studio Theater. For tickets and further info, please visit http://www.page73.org/programs/productions/kentucky/.
ContributorSusan Soon He Stanton
Susan Soon He Stanton is a member of the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group, MaYi Playwrights Lab, and TerraNova's Groundbreakers. She was the inaugural recipient of the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship at the Lark and received a feature film development grant from the Sloan Foundation. From Honolulu, Susan lives in New York City.