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'Tiger Style!' Tackles Asian-American Experience With Humor

A poster for "Tiger Style!," a play running through Oct. 2 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
La Jolla Playhouse
A poster for "Tiger Style!," a play running through Oct. 2 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

'Tiger Style!' Tackles Asian-American Experience With Humor
La Jolla Playwright Returns Home With 'Tiger Style!' GUEST: Mike Lew, playwright, "Tiger Style!"

He left San Diego is a budding scientist and came back a stark. Or something like that. Playwright, Mike Lew, experienced a profound change in career direction of the time he graduated La Jolla high, 17 years ago and the time he graduated from Yale. He decided on theater and had success in New York. Now he's back home with the West Coast premiere of his comedy, "Tiger Style!". This is at La Jolla Playhouse. Joining me is playwright, Mike Lew. Welcome. Thank you for having me. Is it nerve-racking coming back home in presenting this play before perhaps the critical eyes of family, friends, old schoolmates? I just love the opportunity, actually, because I think when you are writing your police you don't know if you're ever going to be understood. And it's coming from a place of, and him and healing, a better write this down and make sure that people know where I'm coming from. And to come back and have people who actually have some context that I had is really a great opportunity. You are headed for a degree and a career in science when you went to Yale. Why do you think you decided to move to theater? I just never really had models growing up of anybody in the arts really even though there's great arts in San Diego and educationally it was available to me. I personally did not have those models. So everybody in my family were scientists and doctors and that was really where I was being aimed at there was something I think bubbling up in me that was really interested in going into theater and writing generally. Over my senior year of high school there was a program from the American Academy of achievement where they unleashed 800 high school students on all the adult attendees. A bunch of high school kids running around and asking questions of all these American luminaries. I met James Cameron and George Lucas and Edmund Morris, the biographer. Those were the first living writers and artists that I had ever encountered in person. And there was also the paleontologist, Jack Warner, he mentioned to me that they had to do this program for years and years and that of all the high school inductees that only two had ever come back as adults. That really stuck with me. I said, what he think that is? He said, I think a lot of the people that are adults that have done this they don't have anything to lose and they throw themselves fall into what they've done in adult life wears a lot of kids who achieve a lot as youngsters want to preserve that success. So that stuck with me. Then I went to college and there was all this funding for independent theater. And I just fell in love with it and I had that in the back of my head that if I rest on my laurels what little laurels I could build as a kid, that maybe I wouldn't really fulfill my potential. That's really interesting. And going back or rather, taking on the subject of your play, "Tiger Style!", it's really like that in the sense of kids who are really, really focused and really, really good on achieving academic success but not so good at life. Yes. The play has definite strange of autobiography in it and it's about these two high achieving Harvard kids really hit adult life with a brick wall. And that happen to me, definitely, because I was really pushed into getting great SAT stores and doing all these extra curricular's in going to a good school. And I struggled with, how to apply that an adult world and what are you going to do with all of those accolades. Is definitely coming from a place of trying to figure out for myself what to do with it. Is also, in some ways, a social response to the book, Battle hymn of the Tiger mother. Exactly. It comes in the context of this controversy over Tiger parenting. What did you want to say about that subject in this play? I think that the debate around that book has been very one-sided and that a lot of the human responses to it have not come from Asian-Americans. Rather than trying to either support or negate what was said I just wanted to add a perspective that was actually Asian and that was personal. I had parents who were the children of Chinese immigrants and they were pushed to succeed and became doctors and they in turn wanted to have their kids be as successful as possible. But what parents wouldn't want their kids to be successful? So I think that some of the Stuart Heights that came out of the discussion around that book that Asians don't love each other or that the kids will crack under pressure and hit their parents -- I have a very strong relationship with my family. I thought that I had a unique perspective on this debate. How did they take your decision to go into theater? I think you were concerned that this was a career path that was so uncharted and I myself was concerned about it. And having been an intern at a microbiology lab and having done so much science things early on, it took me a long time to actually accept there was a real rigor to theater. I was like wait, you make it up, you don't have to do a bunch of double-blind trials? You don't have to run experiments? I would actually answered a lot of analogues from science into the way I was approaching theater in thinking about the previews as a series of tests with changing variables. Once I got rid of that pressure -- I think it's an incredibly intellectually rigorous discipline and data people are some of the most knowledgeable that I know in its also a real family and I craved that I find it just so funny that over the course of a career you will bump into an artist and you will work really intensely about learning a certain thing and you will leave and come back to them 10 years later as though the time has passed and you swap notes about what you've learned sense. Asian-Americans are notoriously underrepresented in movies and TV and theater. What he think that is? I think that there is a definite unconscious bias problem when it comes to the gatekeepers of who is choosing material and it's something that I'm part of the writers lab, the largest collective of Asian-Americans playwrights together and recorded time. We are pushing up against what I think is an unconscious bias problem. We are trying to create narratives that you haven't heard before and that are true to our experience and a lot of times I encounter an expectation that the kinds of place I write will fit into preconceptions about Asians. So when you're navigating that expectation it puts you in a tough binary because you either are trying to push against that or you're trying to conform to it. Regardless, in some ways you've been narrowed in terms of what you can talk about. It's a problem I think not just for Asians but for all people of color and it's something that all of my peers are actively puzzling over. One of the authors notes in your play is that these characters never, ever, ever, ever, have an Asian accent. Why is that? That's just a personal choice thing. Half of the play takes place in Irvine and the other takes place in China. While you could potentially make the artistic choice to have Chinese accents in the China, I found that it's, in some ways, limiting. A lot of times with older Asian actors that they been constantly asked to put on an accident even if they don't have a, it becomes a go to. In all of my place I try to stretch my actors. I often times will form collaborations with actors I've been admiring for a long time and I like to stretch them. And so I have a play called like America that's about a cross-country bike trip and everyone has to be in motion on bikes and it's a physical challenge. Here I wanted to give Asian-American actors the opportunity to use other skills, ones that maybe aren't leaned on so much and see what we could come up with. I have been speaking with Mike Lew. His play, "Tiger Style!", opens tonight and runs through October 2 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Thank you very much. Today for having me.

When Mike Lew graduated La Jolla High School in 2000, his parents had every expectation he was on his way to medical school. But Lew surprised his parents, both doctors, when he decided to focus on theater in college. The switch has paid off, with Lew finding success in New York as a playwright.

Lew's back home this fall with the West Coast premiere of his play "Tiger Style!" at the La Jolla Playhouse, a comedy about two Asian-American siblings struggling with their careers and romantic lives. They accuse their parents of focusing too much on test scores and not enough on life skills, including dealing with racial prejudice.

Lew said he once had a similar conversation with his father, sharing his struggles in the theater business as an Asian-American. "Why didn't you tell me that life would be hard because I'm Asian?" Lew asked.

“I didn’t think I had to tell you, ‘Hey, you’re Asian, life if going to be tough out there,’” his father said.

"My parents, as doctors, have a certain gallows humor about their patients. You can’t sugarcoat a diagnosis," Lew told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. "They never really got into the obstacles that they might have faced themselves, and they never addressed it with me."

Lew also said he wanted to add his perspective on "tiger parenting." The strict parenting style associated with Chinese parents became controversial when Amy Chua's memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," came out in 2011.

"I think that the debate around that book has been very one-sided in that a lot of the vehement responses to it have not come from Asian-Americans," Lew said. "And so rather than trying to either support or negate what was said in that book, I just want to add a perspective that was actually Asian."

"Tiger Style!" runs through Oct. 2 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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