Leah Nanako Winkler - Playwright and All-Around Amazing Woman

Alex Chester

OnStage New York Columnist

I am such a fan girl of today’s Hapa! I first met her at a discussion about Asians in Theatre and immediately knew this woman was going to change the world; and she is.

Leah Nanako Winkler is a brilliant playwright. I was lucky enough to see her play “Kentucky” in NYC and I was blown away. She is the voice of my generation and people, and by “people” I mean hapas. She puts what I and so many other hapas feel into words. If you live in Cali I hope you saw her show “Kentucky” which was at East West Players

Leah is from Kamakura Japan and Lexington Kentucky. Her play KENTUCKY was among the top 10 on the 2015 Kilroys List and recently received an Off-Broadway Premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre in co-production with Page 73 and the Radio Drama Network. It will receive a West Coast Premiere at East West Players this November.

Leah is also the author of Two Mile Hollow (2016 Kilroys Honorable Mention), Death For Sydney Black (terraNova Collective, Kilroys Honorable Mention), Diversity Awareness Picnic (Kilroys Honorable Mention) Double Suicide At Ueno Park (EST/Marathon) and more. Her work has been developed by Playwrights Horizons, Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, The Flea and more. Her collections of short plays, NAGORIYUKI & Other Short Plays and The Lowest Form Of Writing are available on Amazon and have been performed all over the US, France and Asia.

Her plays have been published in Nanjing University’s Stage and Screen Reviews , Smith and Krauss, and Sam French. She is a winner of the 2015 Samuel French OOB Short Play Festival, a 2015 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize nominee, a two time recipient of the A/P/A commission for the Japanese American National Museum, a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship for Creative Writing, a member of the Dorothy Strelsin New American Playwrights Group, a commissioned writer with 2G, a 2016-2018 member of the lab at the Women’s Project, and an alumnus of Youngblood at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. The New York Times called her a “distinctive new voice.” 

Alex – What makes you Hapa?

Leah – I”m “half” Japanese and “half” some kind of white. I think being labeled as “half” of something can sound dehumanizing unless you claim it- so I really like embracing Kip Fulbeck’s philosophy of part Asian- 100% hapa.

Alex – How long have you been in the entertainment industry?

Leah – I was a child model in Japan where I was born but when my parents moved to Kentucky I obviously didn’t do that sort of thing anymore. I got really into theatre in high school- and that passion eventually drove me to pursue the arts -which lead me to NYC. In 2007 I donated my eggs for $4500 and with that money I bought a laptop, a NYC bound greyhound ticket and put down a deposit on a room in BedStuy. I immediately started a theatre company with some friends (which is now defunct) so I’ve been an active playwright in the city for almost a decade. So! The answer to your question is “about 10 years” – if you don’t count the off-kilter early childhood I had getting my picture taken for Japanese catalogs.

Alex – How has being Hapa influenced your writing?

Leah – My work is varied- I write everything from romantic comedies to satirical take downs of stereotypes but ultimately being a hapa informs how I write about race. Many hapa’s, generally speaking- think about race on a daily basis just because we are two races at once. In addition- everyone seems to have an opinion about how we look (it’s pretty much daily routine for someone to analyze my face and tell me which features are Asian and which are not depending on the hairstyle) and obviously that is going to help inform my perspective which ultimately informs how and what I write about. I also think people who aren’t mixed don’t have much of a vocabulary yet when talking to and about us- or realize how their comments affect us- or what our identity really means. I often explore all of that in my work in order to give representation and definition as well as normalization of the mixed race. I like to explore different ways of doing this.

For example- my play Diversity Awareness Picnic explores what it means to be a white passing hapa through direct address about our relationship to other races, ourselves and our place in this ever changing world. It’s also sort of a “mean” play in the way it indulges in biting “white girl” and “white guy with a hat and guitar” satire. The main character is confrontational and that turns some people off. Hapa’s generally love this play-as well as younger students- but other people have very large, mixed reactions.

Leah Nanako Winkler's "Kentucky" Photo: Jody Christopherson

Leah Nanako Winkler's "Kentucky" Photo: Jody Christopherson

My play KENTUCKY on the other hand, doesn’t comment verbally on being a hapa but puts hapa sisters in the forefront of a universal story about family, redemption and home. I wanted to reflect a mixed race family in the south without it being a “thing” because it’s a thing that exists in the normal world…. and yet it is rare to see on the stage and screen. This play reaches more people, I think- because aside from the universal content- it relies more on sincerity rather than critique and the issues surrounding race and representation that we often talk about is addressed by simply putting bodies up on stage.

I’m not saying one method is better than the other. Those are the things I’m thinking about lately as a hapa writer. What is the best way to make ourselves known? How can I most effectively provide opportunity for hapas- who continually live between cultures and skins- who remain underrepresented even though we’re said to be dominant by 2050 (though if you see how segregated wedding parties still are you gotta wonder!). So, all of that informs my writing.

Alex – Favorite artistic moment?

Leah – Every time I get to put my work in front of an audience is magical. I still get the same rush of excitement and fear and butterflies and vulnerable and laughing too much and sometimes crying without knowing why.

Alex – How has being Hapa influenced the foods you eat?

Leah – I eat like a Japanese grandpa. I love natto. Fish. Pickled vegetables. Tofu. Kombu. Soba. Ramen. Sushi. Right now I’m on a huge shiratake noodles kick because it only has 10 calories and the flavor adapts to whatever sauce you prepare. I eat this way because my mom raised me on Japanese food even when we moved to the states. Other kids first made fun of our food but eventually caught on to how delicious my mom’s cooking was and would come over and eat to the point where I got kind of sick of it.

Once I chewed up some potato chips, put it in a ziplock bag and told a girl it was a Japanese treat as revenge for food shaming me previously but then eating all of my food when she discovered it was delicious like a hypocrite. She totally fell for it. I’m not sorry.

Alex – What’s your favorite food?

Leah – Natto, tororo with raw egg on top of brown rice.

Alex – What’s your favorite restaurant?

Leah – Ottoya (locations in Chelsea and Time Square).

Alex- Best meal you’ve ever had?

Leah – Anything my mom makes.

Alex – Difficulties in being a Hapa in the entertainment industry?

Leah – There isn’t a lot of representation obviously. I can maybe name ten hapa actors who are getting consistent work. Mixed race visibility in terms of visual story telling (families and relationships on tv, film, stage) is still so rare that you actively notice it when you see it and it’s refreshing.

I also think that when your experience is a little unique, your perspective and the things you write about are also going to be unique. This is a good, powerful thing that nobody can take away from you- but sometimes this also means people don’t know what to do with your voice.

I think this also applies to hapa actors- who are told they’re not Asian enough at one casting call and not white enough at the next.

Generally speaking I think hapas have a different relationship to race-because we’ve been forced to think and talk about it since we could think and have experiences. I find that a lot of people in the theatre industry at least- are just now waking up and have a some difficulty addressing and confronting – or being confronted with these issues. That can be frustrating because information that is controversial to them- might not be so controversial to us or in fact- a part of our daily lives (aka it’s not cool for you to tell me I should get plastic surgery to look more authentically Asian) and you have to decide sometimes between telling the truth and/or sticking up for yourself- or pandering. We also have the unique potential to be misunderstood by both sides of our identity which can be harrowingly invalidating.

That being said, we are beautiful and I truly believe that even though we get the worst of both worlds sometimes- we get to take advantage of the best as well.

Alex- Funniest or worst professional moment?

About five years ago, I co-wrote a comedy with my friend Teddy Nicholas about race and class division in the arts under the guise of a science fiction narrative called Flying Snakes in 3-D and it went up at the Brick Theatre and the New Ohio Theatre. A critic, who didn’t even see the show- wrote a take-down about it on Facebook and used us as an example on how “people” should stop blaming the rich white man and work harder in order to succeed. About 400 very prominent theatre people “liked” it.

When I defended our show I got pretty dragged which was the worst. But also very funny that the tables now have turned. These conversations surround us now and it’s crazy how much things have changed.

One good thing came out of it though- I got to do a speech inspired by it’s experiences in the same series as Richard Foreman and Mac Wellman and that was fun. 

Alex - Favorite family recipe? 

Leah – Kara age! Japanese fried chicken! The perfect combination of my Eastern and Southern roots!

Alex – Any advice you’d like to pass on to other Hapa’s?

Leah – For better or for worse- hapas are very hard to catagorize so it’s very important for us to define ourselves in the way we want to be defined. This can be hard work because it often means we must make our own opportunities when we are rejected and make ourselves understood when people are confused by our presence. But, you’re not alone! There are a ton of us out there and together- we can make even a small dent in the lack of vocabulary America still has when dealing with mixing races.

Also- selfishly- I love working with hapa actors. If you are one- reach out to me anytime! <3 <3 <3

Thank you so much Leah! Please visit her website for more info. www.leahwinkler.org

Photo: Jody Christopherson