Bedroom Conversation – An Intimate Moment with the Collaborators of Pillowtalk

Photo by Walter Wlodarcyzk

Editor’s Note: Culturebot is the Media Partner for PILLOWTALK By Kyoung’s Pacific Beat, which is playing at The Tank as part of The Exponential Festival, January 11-27. The following is the first in a series of essays and publications related to the PILLOWTALK.

I am going over conversations and emails that I’ve had with my collaborators on Pillowtalk and I am, for the first time since his passing, returning to the thoughts of José Esteban Muñoz. I had studied with José while earning a Master’s at NYU Performance Studies program. A week earlier Kyoung had asked me – specifically why, as we have found over past iterations of Pillowtalk, does its structure and form work. I knew that José would inspire answers and I grew and remain sad that he isn’t here to be witness to and part of this production.

To begin to find answers to his question, I combine my understanding of the labor of the dramaturg, intimate stranger to process and performance, with Jose’s articulation of queerness: “Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” Kyoung, as he is grounded to do, saw (or perhaps feared) our present moment before we arrived at it. And in seeing our dangerous present committed himself to create projects that challenge us to find the dramaturgical beyond.

I find myself being challenged and inspired to catch up to him. One attempted method is to press into my identity as stranger and examine misstepped moments of engagement with collaborators and material that have allowed me to gain an intimacy and understanding of the dramaturgical labor that is essential to this piece.

I begin documentation of my missteps by realizing a mistake I made at the very beginning of our process. Just after Pillowtalk was cast, Kyoung sent out a draft of a press release to collaborate on:

Set in Brooklyn and performed in real time, PILLOWTALK brings to life one night in the lives of Sam and Buck, a recently married interracial couple. Through a formal exploration of theatrical naturalism and the codified gender norms of ballet’s pas de deux, PILLOWTALK queers the intersections of race, gender, and class to challenge our assumptions of love and marriage. Confronting the backlash against marriage equality and #BlackLivesMatter, PILLOWTALK explores how liberation and oppression co-exist in our most intimate spaces, transforming social and cultural traditions into radical performances of change.

In my response to him, I questioned the detail of ‘real time.’ From a purely formalist point of view the ‘one minute on-stage is a real, live minute of life’ doesn’t allow or give space to the overarching structure of the play that includes a fourth act of ‘ballet’. I was so deeply focused on the ‘how’ of Pillowtalks performance that I glazed over the ‘what’ of its content.

All these weeks later, I recognize the edit/critique that I offered was from a straight, white, cisgender perspective. And I have a deeper understanding that the real time given to the stage and the voices of my collaborators is exactly the content to be brought forward. I’d like to categorize my recognition as ‘astonishment’ — that is a place where I can identify my own points of limitation in relation to the generous work my collaborators. Astonishment, José wrote in the introduction to Cruising Utopia, ‘helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place.” My collaborators on Pillowtalk have pushed me to envision a different time and place: a beautifully queer place that simultaneously grounds us in the deeply dangerous reality of American culture and propels us forward to claim the spaces for an equitable future governed by radical love.

It’s an honor to have been gifted patience and to continue to earn the trust that is presented in the following conversation had in real time after a day of tech and over email. We share it because the whole purpose of Pillowtalk is to be welcomed within a framework of radical love, to recognize each other, and to have passionate and challenging conversations about the structures of love in America today.

Jess:What is the collaborative process for you? How do you work collaboratively?

Kyoung: Everyone involved in Kyoung’s Pacific Beat is a working artist so the times we do come together are special moments where we assemble. Each project has its own developmental process that is multi-yeared and dictated by financial resources.

J: Does that give you opportunity as a playwright? Do you find the space away from projects beneficial? Do you find that it enables you to perform more textually or enhance your process in any way? 

K: It has plus and minuses. Plusses are that the politics of what I write about tend to be more progressive than the mainstream. Our creative timelines allow us to start at a radical point and then, by the time we are ready to produce, be in time with the rhetoric of the mainstream.

The other plus is that it really allows us to gestate and to contemplate material and not be so emotionally erratic in later phases of the development process because we already have experiences under our belt of what the play is about.  

J: One of the conversations we continue to have is how important the role of the audience is and how you continue to present your work through various stages, with the explicit intention of working towards developing dialogue and relationship with audience. I would love to talk with you more about these different phases of development and establish what those moments in time were: what you were interested in getting out of them, what you learned, and how the audience can and will follow you to our production at The Tank.

K: Our first reading at the Ma-Yi Writer’s Lab, first workshop at BRIC, and even our long table “Post Gay Marriage Politics” at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies “After Marriage” Conference were about exploring the main theme and main subject of Pillowtalk, which is gay marriage. The focus was to really understand queer perspectives on this. There’s this short essay by Bruce Benderson, Against Marriage, that really inspired me. I should send you the quote from it because it’s just so powerful. It’s about how the heteronormativity of gay marriage is an exclusionary tactic that disenfranchises people of color, marginalized communities, and trans people from that community. It’s a self-selecting way of advancing a certain kind of gay rhetoric, you know? And really ostracizing the rest, which is very problematic. That was something that we’re trying to problematize in the telling of this story.

“Members of the homosexual subculture have been dividing ranks since the advent of gay liberation in the sixties. Each time politics shifts within this community, more and more naysayers are sifted out of the equation. The gay liberation of the sixties began on the radical Left and organized to end war rather than expand the ranks of the armed services with homosexuals. It investigated the possibilities of gender fluidity, formed coalition with ethnic minority groups as extreme as the Black Panthers and even at times tried to transcend the nuclear family system with communes. It was, as a whole, contemptuous of the legitimacy of all middle class symbols, and especially marriage

But the second wave of gay liberationists, who were uniformly well educated and politically moderate, began fighting for inclusion and assimilation, rather than liberation, and focused upon the media representations of homosexuals, as well as ending sodomy laws, stopping gay bashing and other problems that were dependent upon good judicial and legislative relations. To clean up their act, these new assimilationists distanced themselves from marginal members and infused the culture of homosexuality with a distinctly middle class cast. 

The first great ‘cleansing’ of the homosexual movement all but ignored the dire needs of transsexual prostitutes, poor African-American gays and lesbians and immigrants. All the radical links enjoyed by early gay liberation were gradually severed. The coming of same-sex marriage marks the beginning of the next big divide. Each time gay culture moves farther center, its margins shift to form a circle of smaller diameter, and those unlucky enough to be situated outside the edges, through economics, race or radical thinking, are relegated, perhaps not to a geographical donut model of exclusion, but certainly to a social, psychological and cultural model.”

The moment we started addressing gay marriage through ballet as an artistic metaphor, the most important element to figure out for me, was ballet’s form, and what parts of it we wanted to subvert. We began this work when I was in Seattle as a Creative Mellon Fellow at the University of Washington. By that time, we had generated a lot of material based of improvisation and the work became about how we could make it fit within the structure of a pas de deux, giving the last dance a structural composition that becomes disrupted by its end.

That’s what we were playing with further at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Our time working there was an experiment on form, translating this exploration into movement that made sense.

And then, when we were at LaGuardia, I think you and I both experienced this kind of failure in actually having all of this connect with conversations on race.  We reached a point where we could talk about gay marriage and we could talk about ballet, but we were not having that conversation on race, you know? Race was sort of like that third leg that has always been present but never quite articulated in our conversations with people. How do we have that more successfully?

This time around, for The Tank, it was knowing, ‘Ok, I think that we know what we’re saying about gay marriage. I think that we know what we’re saying about ballet.” This enables us to focus on talking about race, and have that be part of the conversation, knowing how to better address race in the room, within our organization, within the company, with our producers, with the people we are engaging within the community… And be able to articulate a framework for that so that we can have a sustained conversation with our audience. And being really systematic and honest and say, we tried, we couldn’t do it before, and this is our attempt to do it better.

Katy Pyle (choreographer) with JP Moraga and Basit Shittu, MaYi Studio

Jess:  I can very much see that attempt in this rehearsal process. I want to open it up to our collaborators and add their voices to its continued act. What I am often awed by in Kyoung’s work is that he very much honors the composition of the room, recognizing and giving space to the ways each individual artist identifies with gender, sexuality and socio-political practices, allowing that to inform the work and collaboration that is being made. What of yourself as a human and as an artist attracted you to work with him, his process and this project in particular?

JP Moraga [performing Buck]: I told myself that my goal, two years ago, was that I wanted to tell my story: the brown queer story. When Kyoung emailed me, I looked at the script and was like, “Oh my God, this is something that I can get my hands into from my experience as a Filipino-American. So that was what started my process: the chance to tell a familiar story that I don’t hear often.

J: What is it that you are getting your hands into?

JP Moraga: Brown. Being the minority. You know, I studied musical theatre. How much of it is actually telling our stories and how much of it is actually stereotype?  Where are they asking, what our truth is? I feel like you [Kyoung] really capture it.

Basit Shittu [performing Sam]: Yes. There have been stories about the gay experience and about marriage. We’ve been inside the bedrooms of so many different types of people, but not often are they queer and people of color and that is what is so important about this piece.

I was just really drawn to the way that queer people are being illustrated and the space that queer people are given time to tell a story that is not often told in any medium. There was/is so much meat to the material that I could not resist, and I’m a vegetarian!

Shannon Matesky [Assistant Director]: Anytime we get exposure to a-day-in-the-life play for brown people, is an exceptional opportunity.

Racism is so prevalent in our world. There is an erasure that our daily life matters, that it is important or valid to the larger context of humanity. So it is really important to have a day-in-the-life piece that is written by a brown person and features brown people and is not impacted by the white gaze.

We’re adding layers to the cannon that says that we exist in the larger ecosystem of humanity, which is extremely important because we have such a heavy weight of day-in-the-life plays about white folks.  We need ours too and it happens to be queer, which really makes it timely for the moment.

Perhaps I should note that this conversation is taking place after a day of tech and with all of our designers in the room and I’m paying attention to time – and I look to Lawrence, our sound designer, to get his thoughts next – perhaps putting him on the spot. He asks me to repeat the conversation prompt from before and I do so a bit more articulately than the first time around. We have a moment that brings all of us back into the room and together as he points, as a white cisgendered hetero male, not wanting to take up space with an answer and unsure of the language he wants to use to articulate his role and his place in our collaboration. I tell him to trip over his language to find it and that I, as the white cisgendered hetero female in the circle will do the same. Some snaps from colleagues support this, but I also check myself and wonder if there’s a problem with the ease in which I say this. I’m not sure if Lawrence does as well. As the asker of questions, I realize that my transaction and action of doing that comes more in the written form than in the verbal.

Lawrence Schober [Sound Designer]: I was still in college when I started working with this company — the theater that I had been exposed to was super white, super academic and super heteronormative. The work that I’ve done over the last three years with Kyoung has shifted my understanding of what theater can be and what the stories for theater are. It’s motivated me to be more of a listener in the room — understanding who I am and the people I’m surrounded with.

A lot of the musical/dramaturgical process on this piece is very much informed by listening and trying to respond as much to the experience of others and being the – is vehicle the right word – being more of the convertor for what those experiences are musically.

Helen Yee [Original Music]: Artistically, the space to have music be part of a whole section that involves no dialogue is interesting as a musician and composer because there is greater freedom right there. To me music has the power to address the feeling world of the characters, the emotional undercurrents and surface waves. In the structure of Pillowtalk my music is assigned to one character and the sound designer’s work to the other. The interplay between these sounds creates another relationship, both contrasting and complementary.

Theatre plays often use music without dialogue in transition moments. In Pillowtalk we have a more extended role. The audience is meant to see and experience something with the players. In this work our music is actually a type of “content” — loaded with movement through the couple’s past journey and also with new possibilities for their marriage.

J: Kyoung, did you always think of using music as a more extended role? What were your initial thoughts about sound and what are you newly discovering in this point of the process?

K: I want sound to be able to come together and to diverge, and to kind of oscillate back and forth throughout the entire piece. And then merge in the end with all the elements: music, dance, text that is now absent, but present in the storytelling of the visual and physical design of sets and costumes. There was a game plan for how we wanted to map that story in sound—always. I think this year, there was a struggle in how to transfer all the improvisational, musical material we created into structure. During the past three years, Sam and Buck’s characters have evolved both through writing and through interpretations by different actors, requiring new interpretations of their sonic characters. In particular the interpretation that JP has given to Buck; I can see how his performance is changing the sounds that Lawrence is producing. We are constantly asking each other: is this the right sound, is this the right music for the structure and the characters of the play?

J: How does this line of questioning follow through and inform the costuming and choreography and direction in Pillowtalk?

Andrew Jordan [Costume Design]: When Kyoung asked me to be a part of the PILLOWTALK project I remember reading the script and feeling excited by ideas and themes that felt unique and largely unexplored. 

One idea being an honest exploration of an interracial relationship, a marriage, between two men (Buck, an Asian man, and Sam, a black man) and the complex dynamics at play in that relationship. Another idea was the character of Buck longing to be a dancer and, just as in his personal life, he feels the absence of space in which to explore his desires.  

Buck and Sam’s story is one of transformation and along with them the play itself goes through a transformation – a play into a dance. A dance, a “ballet”, featuring a love story between two queer people of color. I can’t recall seeing that before… what does that look like? Through the lens of “radical love” can we queer the ballet prince narrative via a contemporary love story, a gay marriage, featuring black and brown bodies? Definitely and about damn time. With the costume design I tried to reflect the previously mentioned transformation – a fade from a grey heteronormative conformity to a vibrant queer revelry. Our “princes” spend an evening together peeling away layers in their relationship, unraveling preconceptions, and uncovering their connection to one another. They see each other again in full glory. 

Katy Pyle [Choreographer]: My work in the world is to queer ballet. Pillowtalk, unlike my personal projects, is an exciting invitation to get to play with these ideas in relationship to a dialogue centric play. Kyoung has come into the process with a very clear progression of this narrative, and a desire to see that expressed in the dance at the end of the show. It’s been a fun challenge to try and find movements that reference ballet AND domestic intimacy, reflect the themes and narrative progressions of the play, AND brings out the beautiful and unique qualities of this show’s wonderful performers.

The challenge of bringing all these elements together led to a certain abandonment of previously created choreography, leading us into a new territory with the dance for this show, which feels very queer! We have brought together a lot of elements that play with and f_@k with assumptions about ballet and downtown dance and theater, ultimately creating something that I think is really unique and tailored to this specific piece. Ballet doesn’t tailor itself to its performers, it pretty much makes everyone tailor themselves to it, so I think this is a real departure from the standard form.

Is there something liberating about placing ballet (and the pas de deux) specifically into the context of theater?

I love breaking ballet out of all the old conventions, so yes, absolutely, I love that we get to bring these dances into the theater, and that we get to witness the beauty and nobility and wholeheartedness of these performers, who are NOT typical ballet dancers, but who are so wonderful and compelling. I hope that witnessing these actors in this context opens some people’s minds about what is possible in ballet.

J: The one element that seems like it’s grounding all of these forms and enabling them to have conversations with each other is place. Marie and Kyoung, can you talk about the creation of the actual place in the world of this play: the bedroom of a queer couple of color in contemporary Brooklyn.

Marie Yokoyama [Set & Lighting Design]: My entire life, I’ve been confused with labeling and the need to belong. I always feel that I am who I am and I don’t feel the need to correctly identify it with a generalized word that people have decided upon. Of course people will always give a concrete reaction to a set design. Personally, I find that kind of scary. I’m always afraid of making something concrete that only has a single meaning. I find that dangerous, in my life at least.

For designing this play I chose minimalism. Let’s pair the set down to the point where there shouldn’t be anything that’s too specific so people can decide what it holds: each individual audience, actors, director, dramaturg can have freedom to interpret what it is.

J:  Shannon you’re coming in to the project as a political poet who is assistant directing. One of our initial conversations was you talking about the agency of Kyoung’s dialogue. Can you talk about the power of poetry in this piece?

Shannon: I’m a political person. I wouldn’t say that my poetry is political.

I first came to this piece via Peoplmovr as a consultant talking about the community engagement components of Pillowtalk. So the way I was introduced to the play was talking about its themes: marriage, love, interracial love and addiction. Then to read the text and to see how those themes came up in language — using language to avoid, using language to run… The way that Kyoung has written it, I can see the poetic devices on the page. My eyes are just poppin with the line breaks, the punctuation, with the hooks all of it is a map.

I’m a poet actress. I’m not just a poet for poet’s sake. I like to see the tools that are useful for performance.  That’s the really beautiful part. There are so many keys and tools, knives and machetes that these characters are using via the words. Watching Kyoung go into director mode and be technical allows me to chime into what they are saying, what tools are they not using, and ask the questions of how do we push the actors to use those tools, be sensitive to those tools, to know tools are there so that they know that they have weaponry.

That’s what will make Pillowtalk exciting for them night after night, moment-to-moment. And also really make it exciting for the audience — when they see a switchblade in the language versus a knife.  

At the end of the play, at the end of this poem, this couple loves each other. To find all the complexities in what that love looks like that’s where the drama is.

J: Kyoung began writing this piece when Obama was in the White House. Now we have a tyrannical megalomaniac in power. How has our current cultural climate shifted the urgency of this play?

K: I think what we’ve learned in the making of this piece is how much, in the absence of white people in a narrative, those structures are still in place. And how much of that has been internalized in our own experience and in our own self-perception. Undoing its impact has led us to face a lot struggles on the way we’ve internalized our own oppression, we’ve internalized white supremacy. We’ve codified it not only so that it’s there, but also kind of dictated our own sense of being.

In a past iteration of Pillowtalk we worked on shifting away from the femininity and feminization of Asian men, because historically we’ve been feminized… trying to embrace and celebrate Asian masculinity. The misogyny of this time made us pull away from that because it’s problematic. You know?  

Knowing that this is a male centric story, to be partnering with an organization that’s led by women really matters. I think that the integration of female voices in the process has really mattered. Being more open to how our different experiences and our different struggles are all coming together in the making of this piece.

Andrew: Without a doubt I believe that we are in a time of reckoning with complacency, fear, hate, and ignorance – things that led to the ascendancy of someone who feeds off of those things. 

It’s a devastating fact that a fascist orangutan was, more or less, legitimately elected by the people of this country. Maybe it’s true that things have to fall apart so people actually have to face the shit and wake up. Complacency, fear, hate, and ignorance can be destroyed by radical love. It won’t be easy but I believe it can happen though love, art, and dialogue  – all of which PILLOWTALK is a part of.

Still, with that, I’m optimistic. For Buck and Sam in the play and for our evolving culture at large. I think PILLOWTALK reflects an exciting moment in history, right now, an acknowledgement that for many people there is a lack of a genuine space in which to build lives and find belonging. We have the responsibility to make room for honest inclusive stories, to support one another, to create art that incorporates all of who we are. There remains much to be told.

J: Last question for now, who do you want to invite to this piece?

Basit: I want white people to come this. I want white people to come see what life for a person of color truly is. And I think that they’re going to be in for a multitude of surprises – both for how different and for how not different their lives are from ours. I think that it’s really important … I want people of color to see it too, because it shows more stories that reflect our experiences. But to have the experience paired with the artistic collaboration is going to be magical for everyone. 

JP: The white gays, the one percent and the upper-east siders.

 Basit: Anyone who saw Afterglow [laughter from our group] and thought something’s missing here!


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