It’s Saturday afternoon and the skies look a little ominous, but the rain is holding up as I drive through the city. Playwright Katelynn Kenney had just arrived from New York City to work on revisions to Tornkid with director, Cara Hinh, over the weekend. It’s the first time I’m meeting Katelynn in person and I was looking forward to speaking with a fellow writer and listening to her and Cara in conversation about the play, growing up in the Midwest, and what community means to them.
At the last minute we relocated the interview to Center Stage, which was a rather fitting venue. We sat outside one of the theaters, light filtering in through the windows with lunches on our laps. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
CARA: I actually have an answer for this. When I was younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian or a pop singer. When I got to be 13-ish, I wanted to be the female Anthony Bourdain.
KATELYNN: That’s awesome. It kind of flip-flopped a lot. There was definitely a point when I wanted to be in the Secret Service. I checked out all the books on the Secret Service. I was like, “I’m gonna be a spy!” That definitely didn’t happen. At least I have not been contacted yet. Then I decided I wanted to be a writer in middle school and my mom said, “That’s my vision for you.” Then I said, “Never again.” Then I found acting, and then I found writing again. So, my mom was right in the end.
CARA: That’s great. That’s super sweet. I love that.
When did you first discover writing?
KATELYNN: When I was younger, I would write lots and lots of little stories. So that was the original kind of writing format and then turned away to be a rebellious middle schooler. But when I found writing again as an adult, I had moved to New York to be an actor and live that life and do all the things. I went about it really wrong. I went to all the union auditions and would just sit in the waiting room…
CARA: Oh, that hurts. It hurts. Knowing now. Knowing. It hurts.
KATELYNN: I know, I know. And then I would find that I was writing while I was there. Then I wrote my first play and was like, “Ok, yea, I like that a lot better.”
And what about you, Cara?
CARA: How did I get back into theatre?
How did you start?
CARA: Because I wanted people to see me when I was 12 years old. To be completely honest with you.
KATELYNN: (laughing) Yes!
CARA: I wanted people to see me, but I also wore the same hoodie every day to high school. I didn’t want people to see me, but I wanted them to see me. It went from wanting to be an actor. I went to undergrad trying to be an actor and there I realized I didn’t want to be an actor. I thought I wanted to do costume design; I didn’t want to do that. I realized that it was because I was obsessed with the entire thing.
I know both of you grew up in the Midwest: Cara in Indiana and Katelynn in South Dakota. In the play, Tornkid feels pulled between two cultures so they tear themself in two. At any point in your life have you ever wanted to do that?
KATELYNN: Yes. Many points.
CARA: I feel like both of us growing up in the Midwest, being mixed race kids, we both—I don’t want to speak for you—but both of us felt like we were not enough of either one. Constantly. For me, personally, that ended up being like, “I don’t want to go to temple with my father. Don’t put me in the Vietnamese class, please. These kids make fun of me.” I would make self-deprecating jokes about me and my Asian-ness.
KATELYNN: Asian sensation.
CARA: Asian sensation. And it’s funny because I think we were both in situations where we were the only kid that was non-white a lot of the times in our school settings.
KATELYNN: Very few kids of color. There was a couple at my school, but very few.
CARA: It’s interesting now, where I’m from, there’s a huge population of Chin and Karen people from Burma (Myanmar). It’s really shifted people’s ideas of what it is to be Asian American and other within where I grew up. It’s interesting because if I was there now, I don’t think I would feel isolated in the same way. I think I would still feel like not part of either group, but I don’t think I would feel so isolated.
KATELYNN: It is really striking too. I’ve gone to the Philippines just twice in my life. That is also a very striking moment of a kind of dissonance of feeling like, “I want to be a part of this so much,” but I also don’t feel like I do. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t deserve it, or I don’t because I’ve not been here. So, there’s a lot of that as well.
CARA: And I think that leads into—for both of us—the language thing. I found out recently that my mother told my father not to talk to us in Vietnamese when we were young children. Specifically, because she didn’t understand. Which I understand but am also incredibly angry about it. I feel so much of a loss of my culture or even potential of doing it because trying to learn as an adult, which I am trying, is so hard.
KATELYNN: I have a very similar situation. I didn’t find out until maybe a couple of years ago. My mom had tried to teach us Tagalog over a summer. I remember that was the only time she ever tried to teach us. I had asked her recently about it and she said some friends of hers had told her not to teach us Tagalog so that way we would not develop an accent or be out of touch with the American-ness of everything. It made me so upset to hear about that and that my mom had to go through that alone.
CARA: Same. I felt like my father was so isolated from his community for marrying a white woman. More recently we have talked about that. He was almost, in a lot of ways, booted out of his community. People he was surrounded by were almost exclusively white. He came back, I think, to the Vietnamese community much later in life. There’s a distance and an inability to cross even though he gives back all the time.
It brings up issues of authenticity and how language a lot of times we think, if you know the language then you’re…
KATELYNN: More authentic.
CARA: Yes, exactly right.
In the play, there’s what I call a “lunchbox moment” when Tornkid is made fun of for bringing spam to school. I’ve experienced that and so have many of my Asian American friends and anyone really who’s an immigrant or a child of immigrants. Did you have a similar experience growing up? And if so, how did you navigate that moment and/or reconcile it later on as an adult?
KATELYNN: This goes back to the self-deprecating humor and that tends to be a way that I found as a child to navigate out of awkward situations. Just always assuming that whatever they’re saying is in their best so I should just take it as that and not question it further or not dive into that which, I guess, goes into the reconciliation later of thinking about those moments and how as an adult now I would try to handle those and talk with the children. Of course, you can’t do that as a kid. That’s where it comes into difficult territory. How do children navigate these moments when all children want is to fit in, to be a part of a community?
CARA: Kids are mean.
KATELYNN: Kids are mean!
CARA: Kids can be really mean. I say that as someone who has worked with just students and young people for the past two years. Kids can be so mean and hurt you as an adult, also, and make you really question your own identity. As a teaching artist, walking into spaces in Baltimore, I get called a “white lady” often. There’s always a tension of having to reintroduce and point out and tell my identity again to folks and to the children. I begin to explain this complicated relationship that is my identity to all these kids in the hopes that in doing so maybe they won’t yell at me, “Hey, white lady!” again or to the next person that they assume might be that.
In your own art, how do your identities play a role? I know that’s such a big question.
CARA: I think that identity is inextricably linked to the art that you create, and all art is political and carries who you are into it. For me, centering who I am really comes into everything and not like in a selfish way, but in that I can’t help seeing things from a queer perspective, or thinking about the relationship that people of color will have to it specifically. And even more specifically, Asian American folks, how will they take what’s happening?
KATELYNN: This play is definitely linked to identity. It has me questioning and thinking about what things need hard definitions and what things don’t. And the kind of fluidity of so much of life. And the continual learning, I think, is also a big thing. You’re not necessarily the thing you claim to be at a certain point in time. You might be something more or something different. There are so many changes that happen. This play also kind of explores that a little bit. But yea, it’s definitely an identity play; it’s definitely filled with bits of me.
CARA: Now that you say that too, I’m thinking about my answers. This goes back to my new philosophy in life which is from Octavia Butler: “Everything you touch, you change. Everything you change changes you.” The idea that everything we make we alter it. We put it on stage, we show people, but it also changes us. I don’t think anyone is ever necessarily one thing. I think identity markers are easier for people to understand and hold on to, and for grants. (all laughing)
The notion of community is unique for everyone. How do you experience it in your life?
CARA: One of the reasons I think I identify so hard as being queer specifically is that the queer community and specifically a lot of queer people of color have truly been my guiding light. Not only in my artmaking but in my life. I feel by identifying as that hopefully I can lift up not only myself in the queer community but all of those who have come before me. When I think about community for me, I also think of being mixed race. The queers accepted me first without—there is a lot of racial tension within the queer community—but I was kind of rejected a little bit by the Asian American community especially at first. Because, you know, the language. Because I’m not small and my hair is not stick straight. Or you know, these things that we think about being the ideal Asian—East Asian—person. Community is so important to me and it’s defined who I am.
KATELYNN: I think for me it’s always been a hunt for. I was never always certain why, but I think I did end up finding it as a child through theatre. It seemed like if I could change my persona, it was easier to feel like I could slip into everything. Theatre was definitely that first kind of misfit community, the first one I stumbled across. I think that’s part of what this play is also about is a hunt for finding your people. And Tornkid ends up finding theirs. Community is always a hunt.
I love how you put it that way. It’s also not stagnant, right? It can change as you grow, as you move. One last question: What are you most looking forward to in the world-premiere of Tornkid?
CARA: To be completely honest as the director I am filled with—I don’t want to say anxiety—but I am filled with an anxious excitement for folks to see the show. I want to see how folks connect with it. I want to see the way the audience literally interacts with these performers and is in the space and lives in that space and that moment. I think that’s the thing that theatre still has going for it because we have movies, we have Netflix, etc. But the thing theatre still has going for it is there’s no other time you’re going to be in that room with those people.
KATELYNN: You can watch other people’s narratives through these other formats, but you can’t live in it or be a part of it in the same kind of way. I hope to be able to touch people with a narrative that is different from what they’re used to and show them that while there are differences, there are also some similarities. What’s great about humanity is that there are both of those things. It’s interesting to be able to explore all of that.
Anything else you want to add?
KATELYNN: Come see the show. It’ll be super exciting and lots of fun. Theatre is also amazing because of the collaborative process in getting to create more of a community and find more people. I found a great one here.
CARA: I’m really grateful to have connected with Katelynn and what BAPAC in general is doing. I feel like friendships that have been made will be continual and very long-lasting.
Tornkid opens on Thursday, May 23 and runs until Sunday, June 9. It is produced in partnership with Cohesion Theatre Company. Tickets are available on Cohesion Theatre Company’s website. Find out more about our cast and crew here.