While the real-life WGA strike grinds Hollywood to a stop, a new play in DC is ripping into the racist and sexist inner politics of TV writers’ rooms. Highlighting Asian-American experiences and history, “Exclusion” is a razor-sharp new entry to Arena Stages’s Power Play series, which explores power and politics throughout American history through 25 commissioned plays across 10 years. Rooted in a true historical horror, playwright Kenneth Lin’s cynical comedy explores the tug-of-war between what’s true and what sells in the world of television.
…the play’s ample laughs, fast pacing, and polished technical design add up to a successful premiere.
Historian Katie’s (Karoline) well-reviewed book about the Chinese Exclusion Act has been lucratively optioned for a television show, and she has been hired as a writer. Everyone keeps telling her how much they loved her book, including her white boss, Harry (Josh Stamberg), but he’s less enthusiastic about her script. She has focused on the real-life mass lynching known as the Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871, but Harry deems it “too… accurate” and pessimistic, making his own edits to sell it to producers. In his rewrite, the leading lady, played by Viola (Michelle Vergara Moore) becomes a prostitute instead of a seamstress, and a doctor who in reality was horrifically murdered is reimagined for television as a healer who uses martial arts to “lynch the lynchers.” While Katie is taken aback by the dramatic departure from historical fact, her husband, Malcolm (Tony Nam), imagines launching his own career in a spin-off production about the transcontinental railroad construction. In “Exclusion,” Katie, Malcolm, and Viola each reckon with what offenses they will tolerate in exchange for success.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design captures the modern flavor of Los Angeles with a comedic touch. The LA coffee shop where Katie and Viola first meet garners chuckles with an Instagram-ready board offering a $9.50 iced coffee and a $10 hot chocolate. Similarly, the clean lines of Harry’s ultra-modern office are purposefully overshadowed by his massive “Basic Instinct” poster — a film he describes as under-rated, high-concept, high-brow art. Adam Honoré’s lighting design intensifies the atmosphere with harsh overhead lighting accentuating the intensely white office interior. In contrast, the low-lit bedroom shared by Katie and Malcolm is cozy and warm, their blinds shielding from the pink light of the gentlemen’s club across the street, whose neon sign glows upstage.
For a new play, “Exclusion” is already quite polished, apart from a few pacing problems. Kenneth Lin demonstrates a sharp wit in a script that mines laughs from Harry’s slimy bravado and Katie’s awkward down-the-rabbit-hole reactions. An unusual narrative choice for DC audiences, there is one emotional scene between Katie and Viola almost entirely in Chinese and viewers without proficiency must fill in the blanks for themselves. The music and sound designs, by Hsin-Lei Chen and Sun Hee Kil respectively, help smooth over abrupt shifts in time and tone, even if they cannot completely disguise the play’s choppy jumps. Overall, “Exclusion” embraces the complexity of its narrative, without clichéd moralizing. Perhaps sometimes, we must choose, as Katie does, between accuracy and palatability. If so, “Exclusion” picks truthfulness over neatness and trusts its audiences to parse the messiness of Katie’s choices for themselves.
Although the cast is small, “Exclusion” feels big in ambition and production design. Kenneth Lin’s script engages the clash between selling the truth and selling out while spotlighting the struggles and shortfalls of Asian American representation in film and TV. Although focused on Hollywood, it’s not hard to see how the critiques in “Exclusion” similarly apply to theatre as an industry. Despite a few rough edges, the play’s ample laughs, fast pacing, and polished technical design add up to a successful premiere.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Ages 16+
“Exclusion” runs through June 25, 2023 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024 For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are optional. Arena Stage offers three mask-required performances Saturday, May 27 at 2pm, Tuesday, June 6 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, June 25 at 2pm.