Tying Tongues and Opening Hearts in Yilong Liu’s JUNE IS THE FIRST FALL

L to R: Chun Cho and Alton Alburo in JUNE IS THE FIRST FALL. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Yilong Liu is a Chinese-born playwright who writes plays in English. Michael Leibenluft is an Obie-winning, American-born director who directs in Chinese. Together, they’ve been working on the New York premiere of Liu’s play, June is the First Fall in a production by Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America now playing at The New Ohio. We talked with Liu and Leibenluft about why this story about Don – a queer, Chinese-American young man reconnecting with his family in Hawaii – has urgent implications for audiences today, and what it’s like to work on a new play in a bi-lingual rehearsal room.

JITFF is about it receive its NYC premiere. Why is a story people need to hear right now?

Yilong Liu: Both immigrants and LGBTQ+ communities are being further marginalized right now. That means it’s more important than ever to understand the internal struggles of queer immigrant lives. There’s a danger in overlooking the cultural specificities when we talk about sexuality and gender.

When I went back to Hawaii for the first production of June is The First Fall, I was constantly moved by the responses from the local community. There were artists on the creative team who saw themselves in the story and came to fully embrace their identity during rehearsals. There was a queer immigrant illustrator from the Philippines who tracked me down online and shared artwork with me that was inspired by the story. There was a friend who, after seeing the show, finally decided to go back home in the continental U.S. to come out to his family after not seeing them for fifteen years. Local university students were using monologues from the play for auditions and festival competitions… They all felt seen, and this is the reason why I write what I write. Yes, I’m happy there’s a growing number of LGBTQ+ works here but meanwhile, I’m still not seeing myself represented, and I’m here to represent myself and those who stand with me.

Michael, I understand you’re fluent in Mandarin and direct in China as well as the US. Can you speak to how the rehearsal process for JUNE was informed by your exposure to and experience within Chinese culture?

Michael Leibenluft: In a process such as this, a key part of my job as a director is furthering the writer’s vision and deepening the story we tell on stage in tandem with the deepening of the script. I’m not Chinese or Chinese American, so another part of my job is making space for artists who do have that experience to guide our process. I suppose some of my relative “cultural fluency” allowed Yilong and me to have a sort of shorthand regarding some of the character and design choices. I also do have the experience of being queer in Chinese cultural spaces, and I think that drives my commitment to this project.

Yilong, you’ve been hard at work with extensive rewrites since the show’s world premiere in Hawaii. What did you learn from that production? What’s been the biggest hurdle for you in the rewriting process?

YL: Hawaii was my first home here. I’ve been living in the U.S. for seven years now and I’ve spent half of that time on the island. However, I haven’t been back since I left after finishing grad school. The play is about a young man returning home to confront and rediscover the life he left behind. So, in a way, by going back to Hawaii to see the first production of June is The First Fall, I actually completed the journey of my protagonist.

When I left Honolulu, I was also escaping from some traumatic experiences in my professional and personal life. I never had the time or mental space to fully process or even realize how a piece of Hawaii had stayed in me since, and how a piece of me had remained there. By seeing the things, people, and places that used to be in my life, I had more clarity regarding what the story of the play is about. I got to see how my work and my past are continuing to impact the community and I also realized how my time in Hawaii will continue to challenge and shape me.

One of the biggest hurdles in rewriting this play for the New York premiere is saying goodbye to old texts and characters that no longer exist in the current draft. It’s difficult for writers to cut their own script in general – but after I’ve seen and felt them on stage, letting them go is like saying goodbye to old friends.

In the play, Don is reckoning with a tension he feels between his cultural identity and his sexual orientation. What do you hope audience members will notice in watching Don’s struggle unfold?

YL: Sometimes, I feel that queer kids from minority communities or conservative cultures where cultural or familial expectations complicated their journeys to find themselves are like… superheroes. It’s almost like we have to lose someone or give up something in order to be us. It’s our origin story. But those moments don’t really give us superpowers. They make us human. I hope the audience will understand this. We’ve been searching and fighting all our lives just for the basic human things, to love and to be seen.

ML: Sexuality and culture are foundational to who we are, but they are also aspects of ourselves that we are bound to grow into, discover, and maybe even change throughout our lives. I think the play asks how we can honor our beginnings and our past while also embracing our potential for radical change in the future. I hope that this tension resonates with all our audience members, no matter their background.

The script blends Chinese and English to add dimension to the relationships between family members, particularly between Don, his sister, his father, and their deceased mother. Yilong, why do you feel the presence of two languages is essential to this story?

YL: The longer I’ve been in the US, the harder it gets for me to communicate with my family in China about ideas and concepts that may not have been fully developed or understood there yet. When I was talking about sexuality with my family, I found myself struggling to find the right vocabulary to express myself. I had the perfect responses in my head, but they were in English, and once I said them out loud, they sounded “translated” and funny to me. On the other hand, there are countless times when I was in the U.S. and I felt a certain emotion or situation can only be described by a specific Chinese word, or even a line of a poem. It’s not uncommon for people who have moved to another culture to feel this way. The story wants to highlight the challenges and pride of that, especially in an immigrant family, so the presence of both languages is crucial.

Michael, how do you view your role as a director when faced with the challenge of directing in both Chinese and English?

ML: A lot of my directing work is in both Mandarin and English, and I get very “turned on” by multilingual performance. I think that there is such complexity and beauty in the resonances, gaps, and clashes between languages. This is my first multilingual project that we’ve decided not to subtitle, and in this case, it has actually been somewhat of a disadvantage that Yilong and I are both bilingual because we can’t fully comprehend the experience of a non-Chinese speaking audience member. I’m thrilled by this challenge though because it has the potential to reveal the richness of language and the expressive power of theater beyond concrete meaning. It also forces us as artists to accept (and plan for) multiple perspectives in our audience rather than conceiving of them, as we often do, as a monolith.

Michael Leibenluft (Director) is an OBIE-Award winning director originally from Chevy Chase, Maryland. His credits include I’ll Never Love Again (a chamber piece) by Clare Barron at the Bushwick Starr (Obie Award for Direction, 2016; NYT and Time Out Critics’ Picks), How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel with Drum Tower West Theater in Beijing, Lost Tribe by Alex Borinsky as part of Target Margin’s Yiddish Theater Lab, The Subtle Body by Megan Campisi at 59E59 Theaters and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, and other projects with LMCC, The Civilians, EST, and NYU/Tisch. Michael has assistant directed at Signature Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Atlantic Theatre, P73, and American Theater Company. He is an alum of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, as well as a former Fulbright Fellow, SDCF Kurt Weill Fellow, and Drama League Fall Directing Fellow. Michael graduated from Yale as a double major in Theater Studies and East Asian Studies and completed his Masters in Performance Studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. He is the founder of Gung Ho Projects, an educational and cultural exchange platform dedicated to increasing understanding between the U.S. and China. http://www.leibenluft.com

Yilong Liu (Playwright) is a New York-based bilingual playwright, originally from Chongqing, China. Currently, he is a resident playwright at The Flea Theatre and a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s OBIE-Award winning playwrights’ group Youngblood. Awards include Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award (The Book of Mountains and Seas), Paula Vogel Playwriting Award (June is The First Fall, 2nd place), National Partners of the American Theatre Award for Playwriting, and Po’okela Award for Best New Play (both for Joker). He is an EST/Sloan New Play Commission recipient, a SPACE on Ryder Farm resident, and the Asian Pacific American Friends of The Theatre Playwright Scholarship awardee. His work has been produced or developed at SPACE on Ryder Farm, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, East West Players, Queens Theatre, FringeNYC, Union Theatre (London), CAATA, New Ohio Theatre, Kumu Kahua Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre Center, and others. Liu completed his MFA studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. http://www.yilongliu.com/June is the First Fall premiered at Kuma Kahua Theatre in Hawaii in 2018. JITFF is produced by Yangtze Repertory Theatre and plays at The New Ohio Theatre from March 31 – April 20, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online here.

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