Theater In Conversation
Looking Back, and Forward, as Ma-Yi Celebrates 30 Years of Innovative Work
Ma-Yi is a successful theater for new works because it is one that prioritizes its writers. This is something Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña reflects on as the company celebrates its 30th anniversary, a season stacked with cutting works by creators who are enjoying: a remounted production (Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest), a partnership with a powerhouse theater (Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play, bowing this spring at Soho Rep.), and a soon-to-come Broadway transfer (Jason Kim, Helen Park, and Max Vernon’s KPOP). The Obie and Lucille Lortel award-winning theater company started out in 1989 producing solely the work of Filipino American writers; while that has evolved, so has the theater’s definition of what a “Ma-Yi play” is. And that’s a strength: in a company whose ethos and blessings are fortified by its creators, each new playwright brings with them—to Ma-Yi’s numerous productions and artistic programs—their own world and experiences to expand and delight the company’s evolving landscape of thought-provoking, envelope-pushing American plays.
Billy McEntee (Rail): An enormous congratulations on Ma-Yi's 30th anniversary. The company has always been creating extraordinary works, but this season seems particularly sparkly. Did you know you wanted the 30th season to be this vibrant, or did it just so happen to align as such given the good work you've all continued to do at Ma-Yi?
Ralph B. Peña: There was some calculation that went into our 30th anniversary planning, but it’s impossible to predict how each show will be received and what course corrections might need to be made. So far, it has gone well. Felix Starro [the first off-Broadway musical ever created by Filipino Americans] was embraced by the community it was created for, and that is enormously gratifying. Suicide Forest and Wolf Play are two extraordinary works of theater. Both are daring and theatrical in ways we do not often see. Taken together, these works are a good representation of what Ma-Yi Theater has done in its history and where we are looking to go. It says something about how we choose to champion the playwright, and not just the play, and to give an artistic home to artists of color where they have agency in shaping their creative trajectories.
Rail: Ma-Yi started out by presenting Filipino American works. Can you discuss how that evolved over time?
Peña: We started our focus on Filipino plays, and that was really because we didn’t have access to scripts. After a few years, it became very clear that there was a big need for a developmental venue for Asian American artists, a place where they could try out ideas and have permission to fail. We opened up our mission to include the larger Asian American community and focused on generating new work. Almost always, the company’s evolution was shaped by responding to a need in our community.
Rail: You are also approaching an anniversary of your own: in 2021 you'll have been with the company for 25 years. How would you describe your tenure thus far, and what is on the horizon for Ma-Yi?
Peña: I took the job of artistic director on a temporary basis only. I wanted to perform and write. Somehow, 25 years seemed to have passed by. I got on-the-job training, learning what I needed as I went along. In a way, not having a template to follow helped shape the ethos of the company. We got to define ourselves, as opposed to others defining us. I’m still at it only because I think I still have something to contribute, especially to early-career artists. I also hang out with hip, young people who don’t have a problem telling me to shove off. But transition is also on my mind. I’m looking for the next leader who can take Ma-Yi into new creative territory, maybe reinvent the company entirely.
Rail: I'm curious if you can discuss the ways in which Ma-Yi has perhaps inspired other coalitions of Asian American-centric theaters or labs across the country. Are there any you would like to spotlight? I read that your Writers Lab is the largest resident company of Asian American playwrights in the country, and I'm wondering which others have sprouted up perhaps because of your leadership?
Peña: Writing labs are tricky propositions. What makes the Ma-Yi Writers Lab different is that we’ve committed to producing the works of our Lab Members. I don’t think there are other writing labs in the country that do that. For us, it was a game-changer. We’re very lucky in New York City to have places like New Dramatists, EST Youngblood, and The Lark where playwrights can work. That’s not always true for other places in the country. East West Players in Los Angeles has a writers’ lab, and they’re working on new plays. SIS Productions and Pork Filled Players in Seattle are also working on producing the works of local Asian American playwrights.
Rail: In presenting works, Ma-Yi often partners with other theaters, usually other Off-Broadway ones. How does this collaboration enrich your productions?
Peña: There’s a lot of learning that happens when we do this. We look at partnerships as opportunities to share the best practices. In most cases, we partner with larger, more experienced companies than ours, so we’re always hungry to see how they market their shows and what kinds of strategies they have for audience development. Hopefully, from us, they learn about how to make space for culturally specific work and giving artists of color agency. Of course, when we partner with prestigious theaters, we get some reflected glory, and that’s not always bad.
Rail: You've helped birth so many plays over these past few decades, and I'm wondering if you can discuss how the tenor of a Ma-Yi play has changed. What motifs are you noticing in your works, or are they as eclectic and varied as the writers themselves?
Peña: Our way of working gets behind the playwright, so it’s less about themes or form. Our playwrights dictate the evolution of the Ma-Yi play. What I’ve seen from our writers is a widening of subject matter. Many don’t lead with ethnicity as its central thesis. There are those who reject labels, who don’t necessarily want the hyphenated identity. Some play with narrative form, and there are those who write about identity politics but turn expectations on their heads. We embrace all of these impulses. If there is one recurring aspect of our output, it’s our aspiration to shoot for high levels of execution. This is to address another lurking misconception about culturally specific work—that they are not at par with the rest of the “canon.” Not only do we have to generate new writing, we also have to prove they’re palatable for all. That is the burden of being a theater of color.
Ma-Yi’s production of Suicide Forest, by Kristine Haruna Lee, directed by Aya Ogawa (remount of the world premiere originally presented by The Bushwick Starr in collaboration with Ma-Yi) runs February 25 – March 21, 2020 at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street, Manhattan). Wolf Play, by Hansol Jung, directed by Dustin Wills, presented by Soho Rep. in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company, runs March 17 – April 19 at Soho Rep. (46 Walker Street, Manhattan). For further details and tickets, visit ma-yitheatre.org.