The Yangtze Repertory Theatre is a New York City based theater company that has been producing vibrant work from the Asian-American community for the past 27 years. From March 31 to April 20, 2019, the company will produce playwright Yilong Liu’s award-winning piece titled “June Is The First Fall” at New Ohio Theatre in Manhattan. The play focuses on a Chinese man named Don who grew up in Hawaii and has never felt accepted by his loved ones since coming out as gay. He returns to his home state and attempts to create a reconciliation between his sexual identity, his heritage, and his traditional family.

Tickets start at $20.

Recently playwright Yilong Liu and director Michael Leibenluft discussed this collaboration on this project via an exclusive interview.

Inspiration, characters, and NYC

Meagan Meehan (MM): Yilong, what inspired “June Is The First Fall” and its characters?

Yilong Liu (YL): When I was a student at the University of Hawaii, I attended an Asian American Theatre seminar. Our professor introduced us to Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant to the United States, and showed us her picture. As someone who grew up queer in China, I kept seeing myself in her, and I kept asking myself – what makes us cross mountains and seas to another country, another continent, and another culture?

Are we escaping or are we chasing? Why do we have to run away from home in order to feel at home? I started writing June is The First Fall as a way to look for my answers.

My main character is a gay Chinese-American man. When we talk about coming out, we usually overlook its cultural aspects. More often than not, it’s a far more challenging and complicated process for queer Asians because of the familial and cultural expectations.

Sometimes, we even struggle to find the language in our mother tongue to fully communicate the complex concepts surrounding sexual identities. Moreover, when the child comes out in a tight-knit family, the parents are forced into the closet instead. For them, coming to terms with their child’s sexuality is almost like grieving.

The story and characters come from my desire of wanting to understand and acknowledge these nuances in our communities.

MM: Michael, what about the play made you want to direct it?

Michael Leibenluft (ML): Yilong is an ambitious, creative, and wild writer. He tackles urgent, big ideas with patience and compassion, leading to plays that are poetic, subtle, and layered. I think we prefer to think and talk about identity in absolute terms, since it is simpler, but this is misleading and problematic. In reality, many of us are in a complex process of finding and changing ourselves, in conversation with the communities and cultures around us. This play shows this fluid and challenging journey towards belonging by looking at the process of coming out through a Chinese cultural perspective.

He shows that migration and coming out aren’t finite events but rather processes of change and discovery that can stay with us for a lifetime.

MM: You did some extensive rewrites for the NYC premiere. How did the text evolve since you first conceived it?

YL: I started this play almost four years ago. I am in a different place right now, as a person and a writer, so working on this story again required me to really look back into my days in Hawaii and China, reconnecting with my old self and the people, places, and things in my life then. Through the workshop, rehearsals, and many conversations with my collaborators, I was able to gradually discover where the heart of the story is, and the text has since become more focused and deeply personal.

Most of the new material centers on language, culture, and memories. My wonderful dramaturg, Gaven Trinidad, made this stunning picture collage to help visualize this journey. The research included a mixture of my personal photos and some of Gaven’s. We want to display them in the theater lobby!

MM: How did you first hear about Yangtze Repertory Theater and what made you want to work with them?

YL: I came across Yangtze Rep when I was still in school in Hawaii. I was just randomly searching keywords like “theatre” and “China” on Google for fun. However, I didn’t meet the Artistic Director Chongren Fan until last year when I was in a short play festival and the director connected us. What’s really exciting about the company is that [the Executive Director] Sally Shen’s and Chongren’s vision is really different and bold.

We all grew up in China and moved to the U.S. when we were adults. There was always a shared understanding and perspective in the room when we were talking about what kind of stories and voices we want to put out there. I think they are on a path to make American theater more diverse, inclusive, and international, which is very empowering and gives me hope – especially considering the current political climate.

ML: I do a lot of theater work exploring the intersection of American and Chinese culture, so I heard about Yangtze soon after I moved to New York in 2012. The company has such an impressive and longstanding history of supporting Asian and Asian-American artists, and I’ve always been impressed by the way that they’ve committed to providing a space for new theater from both a Chinese and a contemporary perspective.

Sally and Chongren are injecting a new global and forward-looking perspective into the company. I can’t wait to see where they head next.

MM: Michael, your interest in Asian theater predates this production. Can you tell us a bit about what has inspired it and how does this play relate to your other directing projects?

ML: I am fluent in Mandarin and have been directing in China for over a decade. Although I’m based in New York these days, intercultural work has become the cornerstone of my directing career. I’m passionate about projects that bring together collaborators from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. I’m often trying to destabilize and complicate our sense of cultural and national identity.

Theater is such an elemental and potent tool to build community and understanding across difference – it feels vital in our world today to create and tell stories that cross borders. In 2015, I founded Gung Ho Projects, which is an education and performance platform to launch and develop such projects. June in the First Fall fits squarely into this type of work. Like many of the projects I’ve directed and developed, it is bilingual and looks at the intersection of American and Chinese cultural identities.

Scenes, bilingualism, and the future

MM: Yilong, you are fully bilingual but you write in English. What are the major challenges in navigating the differences between English and Chinese when you write?

YL: I like the quote by Charlemagne: “To know a second language is to have another soul.” I think with each language comes a singular way of thinking, and behind it lies a unique culture that cultivated it. What has been fun and challenging to me is how to communicate the concepts that may not be fully developed or exist in the other language. For example, I am fascinated by the colorful world made of poems, myths, and histories in Chinese, and I keep finding inspiration there, but capturing the flavor and subtleties has never been easy. On the other hand, I find myself struggling a little bit sometimes to find the vocabulary to discuss things like non-binary etc. in Chinese.

Part of the idea in this play is that when you leave somewhere to start a new life: a part of you stays there, and part of the place stays in you.

I think our cultural identity and sexual identity are complicatedly intertwined. I want the audience to understand how we are always carrying the weight and pride of our culture and family with us, no matter where we are. An immigrant is someone who crosses borders to build a new life. A queer person is someone who crosses boundaries to search for that new self. The moment of leaving and the moment of coming out are both courageous. In a way, they are like superheroes, and those moments are their origin stories. We should see that. We should understand that. We should respect that.

MM: There are scenes in this play that happen in different time periods and some that call for dialogue in two different languages.

What is your vision for staging this production?

ML: I am a big believer in creating clear rules for storytelling on stage and then radically breaking them. So, we’ve been exploring how memories emerge in the world of the play and how to find the balance between clarity and the slipperiness and messiness of a psychologically driven world. We’ve been talking a lot about trauma and the ways that spaces and objects can soak up memories and never release them.

MM: What else is in the future for you and are there any other projects you would like to talk about?

YL: I just finished my “Yelp Play,” called "The Book of Mountains and Seas," about a father dealing with the loss of his son with the help of the son’s Yelp reviews.

I’m also working on a first draft of a commission from EST/Sloan Project right now. It’s about online censorship and video games. As a writer of The Flea Theater’s serials writer’s room, I recently started a queer superhero piece. It gives me so much joy and I really want to keep investing in it and see where the story can go.

ML: I’m developing two projects with my company Gung Ho Projects. Yilong and I actually first worked together on one of them this past summer: it’s called Flood in the Valley and is a bilingual folk musical set in Sichuan and Appalachia created by a collective of artists from both countries (it looks at ethnic and racial divides in both communities). We presented preview performances in Sichuan and Beijing in early September and are eyeing the American premiere. I’m also working with playwright Jeremy Tiang on a new play about Arthur Miller’s collaboration in 1983 with the Beijing People’s Art Theater on the Chinese premiere of “Death of a Salesman.”