Mike Lew’s ‘Tiger Style!,” at the Alliance Theatre, begins previews Sept. 30, opens Oct. 7 and runs through Oct. 18.
YOU CAN TELL a lot about Mike Lew from the instructions in his plays.
The first page of Tiger Style!, for example, includes this note: “No Chinese accents. Not ever. Also, cast Asian actors to play Asian characters. Great.”
If that makes you laugh and/or think, he’s got you.
Lew, 33, is the playwright behind Bike America, which won the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition in 2013 and follows a lost twentysomething woman attempting to find herself on a cross-country bike trip. If you saw it on the Hertz Stage, you know the helmeted bicyclists delivered most of their lines while jogging behind handlebars and a front wheel.
Who thinks of such things? Apparently, Lew does.
With Tiger Style!, a dark comedy about two young Asian-Americans who wonder what they might owe their immigrant heritage, he becomes the first Kendeda winner to see his work on the Alliance’s mainstage. The size of the opportunity isn’t lost on him.
“The Kendeda competition is a radical thing for this industry,” he says. “By producing writers just out of grad school — something that pretty much NEVER happens anywhere else — and by saying, “Yes, your play is ready, and it’s ready now,” Susan Booth and Celise Kalke have been quietly doing more for the American theater than any of us can possibly appreciate, and I think we’ll be seeing the ripple effects for years to come.” Booth is, of course, the Alliance’s artistic director. Kalke’s title is director of new projects.
“Beyond the competition itself,” Lew says, ” hey’ve kept supporting the writers they find. Doing Tiger Style! on the Alliance’s mainstage is virtually unheard of for a world premiere play by a relatively unknown writer, and it’s freeing me up to dream bigger and push my limits as a storyteller.”
Returning with Lew for Tiger Style! is his friend and frequent collaborator Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who made his Alliance — and major regional theater debut — directing Bike America and, more recently, earned a 2015 Tony Award nomination for directing Hand to God, an irreverent puppet comedy about a possessed Christian-ministry puppet.
In both Tiger Style! and Bike America, says von Stuelpnagel, “what’s captivating is the rebellious spirit of Mike’s protagonists and their refusal to be labeled as victims. They become so bold, that they often overcompensate in clumsy ways, and that’s where the comedy comes in.”
“Mike believes that intelligent ideas don’t require pretense to be heard, but rather that the theater should be a stimulating, enjoyable place to be, even as you’re challenged or provoked, says von Stuelpnagel, 36. “He creates an event that entertains. His work is unapologetically boisterous, but his delightfully mischievous humor frequently breaks through to something profound.”
Lew, who still lives in Brooklyn with his playwright wife, Rehana Lew Mirza, put his rebellious protagonists aside for a bit to answer a few questions.
Question: Where did Tiger Style! come from?
Answer: Tiger Style!? has been a long time in coming. It’s a play about “Asian tiger parenting,” a phenomenon that drew a lot of popular attention upon the release of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2013) but wasn’t really news to me because I’ve been living with it my whole life. The reason I say the play’s been a long time in coming actually has nothing to do with any kind of traumatic childhood experiences on my part; it has to do with the way artists of color are treated in this industry.
I think there’s a tendency for some theaters and teachers to sort of anthropologize people of color. Early in my career I felt this burden of expectation placed upon me that I was to serve up my cultural identity and speak from a place of authority about a country from which I’m three generations detached.
I didn’t have it in me to write a play about China or Chinese immigration, and so I spent a lot of time writing about virtually anything else. But what I do have it in me to write is a social satire that looks at Asian tiger parenting in addition to generational acculturation, American race relations, cultural hybridity, unconscious bias in the workplace and a bevy of other concerns.
Q: What do Tiger Style! and Bike America have in common? How are they different?
A: I think both plays have an outward comedic sensibility that shields a deeper rumination on where we are as a country. But Tiger Style! is probably more directly personal. My dad saw a reading in L.A. and was like, “You didn’t have to work hard on this one. It’s like you just threw our family onstage and barely had to write anything.”
Q: How have you changed as a writer since Bike America?
A: I think my gaze has moved beyond just the pages of my own plays to encompass what’s happening in this industry as a whole. ??I’m obsessed with the inner workings of theater, and have grown to realize that the way we choose plays for a season, or run our theaters, or champion other artists, or structure new-play development has enormous downstream consequences for this art form. So in addition to always trying to learn more about my craft as a playwright, I’m also trying to be an advocate and an activist out in the world.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m working on three other projects right now, in various stages of gestation. My next play is an adaptation of Richard III set in high school, called Teenage Dick (vaguely from Richard III). The play attempts to look at disability today via the most famous disabled character of all time. My wife, Rehana, and I are also working on a new musical called Bhangin’ It, about the high-stakes world of intercollegiate bhangra (Indian folk dance) competitions. After we finish that, Rehana and I are co-writing a centuries-spanning trilogy of plays that explore the ripple effects of British colonialism in India and the U.S. today.
Q: Please finish this sentence: Mike Lew writes plays about …
A: Big-scope problems crammed into small people’s bodies.