Journey to Japan this Monday night with former fellow Timothy Huang when he presents songs from his new show, Peter and the Wall, as part of the next New York Theatre Barn New Works Series at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Tim talks to the Dramatists Guild Fund about writing the show, the upcoming NYTB concert, and telling stories he believes in.
Tell me about your show Peter and the Wall.
Timothy Huang: Peter and the Wall is the simultaneous telling of two stories: One is of Peter Saer, an American man who must travel to Japan to identify and claim the body of his dead husband, a visiting Japanese American.A clerical mistake combined with a cultural indifference to marriage equality make his journey less like Elizabethtown and more like Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The other is of a real life Mayor of Fudai named Kotoku Wamura and his crusade to build an unprecedented 60 foot seawall to protect the town he grew up in from tidal waves. Though he succeeded, it came at a great personal cost and went unused in his lifetime until 2011 when the tsunami struck Japan and the entire town was saved.Both men stand up in defiance of conventional wisdom and suffer in their time for something that to others is viewed as insignificant.
I’m fascinated by this notion some have that technological advancement is equal to social advancement, that progress in one arena is progress in the other. And the disparity that innovation and ease of life are fine when it comes to helping us do our dishes, but somehow unlawful when two people who love each other want to share insurance benefits or have ownership over nomenclature. I sometimes hear people say the phrase “we’re living in the future” unironically. We’re wowed by smart glass and Hologram Tupac, but so many of our values still reflect an old-world fear of ghoulies and ghosts. I sometimes feel like we’re really living in the past.
What inspired you to write this piece?
TH: Two things inspired the writing initially. In 2012 I was a finalist for this theater writing award. It was one of the big ones. I had submit a few tunes from my previous show, Costs of Living, which is about the marginalization of the immigrant class and how in our country language equals class, i.e., fluency in English means respectability means better opportunities. Ultimately, I didn’t win but the man who facilitates the honor suggested that I attend the reception anyway because he thought “what you write is really important.” Which at the time was untrue–I’d written the one thing that was important. So I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe from now on I just write about really important things?”
That same week I had my first meeting with Diana Son at the Dramatists Guild Fellowship, where the piece was conceived. She asked us all rhetorically something to the effect of, “What do you have to say that would potentially alienate you from your friends or family?” which I took to mean, “What do you believe in that is so important that you have to say even if it means being unpopular?” And marriage equality is very high on that list for me.
The other thing that inspired me was the article that Tomoko Hosaka wrote for AP about the real Kotoku Wamura. I thought it was kind of romantic the way he went all-in for something that he knew might not be appreciated in his lifetime. Classic “do what’s right or do what’s easy” conundrum.
What are the challenges of juxtaposing a fictional story with the story of a historical event and political figure?
TH: Honestly, the biggest challenge for me has been math. “If Wamura was born in 1909 then he’d be….how old in 1933?” I had to write down ages and also math functions because at one point the story served me better if he was a different age in a particular year. Which meant having to fictionalize his birth year. I ultimately ended up sticking to the history on that but only because it served the character. If it hadn’t, I’d have changed it without remorse. I see a lot of historical adaptations that get mired down in the storytelling by a compulsion to honor the source fact for fact. While I applaud that respect, I think honoring the drama (and what the source represents to us now) is more important. Maxine Hong Kingston once told me regarding adaptation: just take what you need and make the rest up. And she wrote The Woman Warrior. So I’m not going to disagree, are you?
The piece was selected for the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat last year. How did the piece change and grow as a result of that retreat?
TH: That retreat is the greatest invention since Mario Kart 8. I’m not even joking. I work forty hours a week at my McJob when I’m here in the city. And while I do have my own rhythms and balances for writing and composing, after a while it starts to feel like the metaphor of the frog in the slow boiling water, where my creativity is being compromised so slowly I don’t even feel it. Rhinebeck was like a tall glass of ice cold orange juice. Having all that space and time to rethink my book (which had originally been primarily Peter’s story with transitional material dedicated to Wamura–now it’s very much 50-50) and write my opening put me in the frame of mind I need to finish things. There’s always one moment for me where I’m working on something and I’m kind of shrugging my shoulders at it. Like, “I dunno…” and then I find that one moment where suddenly the tumblers fall into place and the piece is egging me on. That was Rhinebeck. I still stay in touch with Kathy Evans, who curates it. She’s so rad. (Thanks Kathy!)
What is your relationship with the New York Theatre Barn? How long have you been working with them and how did you become involved in this particular concert?
TH: I first started working with the New York Theatre Barn in 2010, after Joe Barros attended one of Prospect Theater Company’s musical theater workshops. I had contributed a piece to the evening they called SNAPSHOTS and Joe had come to that. We immediately hit it off (as one usually does when they meet Joe Barros) and he invited me to do their monthly concert series. Then, in 2012, when I crowdfunded a reading of Costs of Living, I asked if they could help with the production end of things since I’m not very good at that, and they were super generous with their time and energy. This particular concert I owe to lyricist (and composer now!) Michael Cooper, who is an old friend from NYU. The Theater Barn had already booked him for the night, and when they started looking for the other half of the evening, they asked me knowing Coop and I are old buds. So… thanks, Coop!
Is this the first time Peter and the Wall will be heard in concert?
TH: This is the first time Peter and the Wall will be heard in concert. I’m very nervous. Please be nice.
What’s coming up next for you and what are you working on?
TH: I’m actually working on an album this July, which I’m very excited for, and August is kind of a wild card. Costs of Living will be making a return in the fall though, and I’m part of this group called the Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project which is just–man, the fact that it even is a thing makes me giggle–but we’ll be premiering a song cycle in December that I’m contributing work to. So, lots to look forward to!
Interview by Shoshana Greenberg