Melissa Li on "Surviving The Nian"

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 3, 2007

First time playwright Melissa Li has been involved with The Theater Offensive since age 17, and though it's only been a few years the young musician and writer is already starting success in the eye: her musical Surviving the Nian has picked up an award - the 2007 Jonathan Larson Musical Theatre Award - even though the play's premiere (at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA) is still two weeks away. Reading the first entry on her blog, you get a sense of a young woman flowering into her own creatively and personally, even though the hurdles are high. Her February 6 entry reads, in part, "I had an extraordinarily intense conversation with my mother yesterday... She wants me to move home, but I know she will murder my cats. I also currently thinking about food stamps."

Less than two weeks later, though, Li and Rybeck made their way to Manhattan - through "a blizzard" - where they were presented with the award. It's not such a far-fetched idea that Li would have done so well with her inaugural play, because the intense family dynamic she talks about in her blog forms the backbone of Surviving the Nian. In the play, a young Chinese woman, Kaylin, returns to Hong Kong after five years in the United States, where she's earned a degree, started a business, and fallen in love. Hearing that Kaylin is bringing a "friend" home with her, her mother speculates, correctly, that this friend will be a romantic interest. "I hope he's wealthy and polite," the mother sings, "I hope to God that he's not white." In the event, he's either white, nor a "he" - Kaylin's lover is Asha, an African American woman. Kaylin, for her part, operates under a smiliarly mistaken notion - that her family understand her visit to be a temporary stay, to celebrate the two weeks of the Chinese New Year, nothing more. Her family have drastically different plans: they anticipate Kaylin's permanent re-integration into the household and the family business.

The Theatre Offensive, in case you're not familiar with it, is a troupe dedicated to, as its Mission Statement puts it, "form and present the diverse realities of queer lives in art so bold it breaks through personal isolation and political orthodoxy to help build an honest, progressive community." Part of that mission is to develop fresh talent, and in the case of Li, whose script has been for the past 4 years in development through The Theatre Offensive's "Plays at Work" program, that investment is set to pay off.

Li's musical training started early and followed a classical mode with lessons on violin and piano - until, that is, Li decided that "I did not like classical music at all. I destroyed my violin when I was twelve," Li says, "and I stopped taking piano lessons. I picked up a guitar at sixteen." It's on the guitar (and piano) that Li has made something of a name for herself as a performer in the Boston area. In addition to writing the music and lyrics (and co-writing, with Abe Rybeck, the book) the book for Surviving the Nian, Li has written material for what she calls her "solo album" - songs not related to her play - which is now being produced by Russell Wolff, who also produces New England singer Liz Carlisle.

Li graduated from Boston University's film program, but has stuck with theatre partly because of the development process for her musical. When it was first suggested to her that she write a script, Li says she jumped at the opportunity: "I would love to write songs that tell a story. I started out with a handful of songs and developed [the idea] and now I have 26 songs [in the play]." The music shows a variety of influences; "Paper Lanterns" has a classical-romantic feel about it, whereas "We'll Make It Work" is a blend of stage musical style and pop-rock - emphasis on the pop. "Where I Belong" doesn't sound like Chinese music per se, but it is built off the Chinese musical mode. Li credits canto pop as a dominant influence on her musical taste and style. "Canto-pop is very different from American pop," Li says. "Then I went back to even more traditional Chinese tunes. I found this Chinese folk song for Chinese New Year, that I changed and made variations on, and I sort of blended it in."

Surviving the Nian, with its comedic take on a close-knit Chinese family struggling to adapt to new times and new cultural influences, contains an easy, naturalistic charm, along with many dramatically rich opposing tensions: new attitudes and values versus old, the individual's obligations to her family versus to herself, the Western versus the Eastern, and of course the frightening but inevitable specter of change. It's this particular thematic element that makes the Hong Kong during Chinese New Year setting so apt: the "Nian," is a mythical beast that in legend comes around once a year, on New Year's, and must be scared away with noise and familial solidarity in order to ensure a happy year ahead.

Surviving the Nian is scheduled for its inaugural run from April 14 - May 5, but Melissa Li was gracious in meeting with EDGE for a chat about her play a couple of weeks in advance of opening night.

EDGE: Why did you choose to write a musical as your first play?

Melissa Li: It's funny, because actually I'm a filmmaker. I was interested in doing a script that was kind of loosely similar to what ended up being Surviving the Nian, and I knew Abe, and he was like, "Have you ever thought about writing a play?" I was like, "No, but when I was younger, I always wanted to write a musical. Maybe I could develop this script I've been working on into a musical." So it just turned out that way - I wasn't even planning on trying to write a musical.

EDGE: Tell me about the process of developing the play.

Melissa Li: The characters and the plot are not based on autobiographical experience, but I feel like a lot of those tensions are present in my own family. When I collaborated with Abe, he brought a lot of his personal input into it too. That's how I channeled [those themes] - what struggles I was going through with my mother at the time, or with the relationship with my girlfriend at the time. And of course, [the script] having been in development for four years, a lot of those feelings and what I wanted the characters to do and to project changed over time. That was really fascinating - as I grew, the characters grew as well.

EDGE: Did the story change much over those four years?

Melissa Li: Yes, it changed a lot. One of the main things is, at the beginning, it was all about the main character Kaylin, and her relationship with her mother. The other characters were really flat, including the girlfriend. Developing it through these four years, all the characters rounded out more. Now we see the brother [Vincent] as a main character as well; we explore some of the mother's history. Even the uncle, who is the smallest part, has some history and depth.

EDGE: How is this script going to be staged? Do you get any input into the director's vision for how to present your play?

Melissa Li: Yes. Patrick [Wang] is staging it in a way that is entertaining; it's a musical, and so the staging that he incorporated into it lends itself to the genre of the musical. There's some choreography. The one thing that jumps out to me is the scene between the mother and the daughter, where [the mother] is yelling at [Kaylin], and at the same time the brother is destroying the family shop. It's so powerful, the way that it's staged on two different sides [of the stage]; he's changed the tone of the music to have that come across. I think he's doing an excellent, excellent job. I couldn't even have imagined it, the way that he's staging it.

EDGE: Although you say this play is not autobiographical, how much of Kaylin's balancing act between two cultures - the traditional Eastern, family-oriented part of herself, and her Americanized, go-getter side that owns a business and has a girlfriend - is your own struggle also? Or do you struggle with that cultural divide?

Melissa Li: I do. And I feel like, more than anything, it's a generational situation, because I've grown up here all my life. I was born in Hong Kong, but my mother didn't really like Hong Kong [and we emigrated here]. So it's not that specific situation [from the play] where my family is there, and that's their home. Everybody [in my family] considers [America] our home, but cultural differences are definitely there - and not just for myself. I spoke with other members of the Asian community; they felt the same way. It's sort of a generational thing. What the younger generation feels is [acceptable] may not be accepted in the older generation, and I think that definitely rings true for me.

And that's the weird thing about using Hong Kong as a setting. Hong Kong has those two poles, and they work together at the same time - so families will pray to the gods that the stock market goes up. That's so great, how it fits together, the traditional and the modern. Given the theme of the play, [Hong Kong] is the perfect place to set it. And it's crowded - at the beginning of the play, everybody feels boxed in.

EDGE: But what I notice as a big difference between your play and most male gay plays or books or films is how the family is so involved in your story - as opposed to the typical gay male story, where the guy is out on his own, he's a hustler, he doesn't have a family support structure, at least not at first. Is this a feminine perspective, or a lesbian perspective?

Melissa Li: I might be just a personal approach; my family is so important to me. That is one of the great things I've learned throughout this four year process: families bend to make it work. Families bend for each other. A lot of stories start out [with] "I'm defying my family. It's either my girlfriend or my family." That's not the way real families work. They adjust themselves so that everyone can be part of it. If you don't want to lose your daughter, you have to make some adjustments to what you think is right. You don't have to agree with it, but everybody has to pitch in to make it work. And the same is true of the daughter: "I have to stop being bratty and make some sacrifices if I want to keep my family." I definitely didn't know that at the beginning - I didn't feel that. And then over the years it became more apparent to me that's how families work.

"A lot of Asian cities are adapting Western culture, and if it's okay to be gay in America then everybody in the cities is okay with it too."

EDGE: There's an energy in the family dynamics in your script. You show the characters talking over the top of each other all the time, getting very excited. There's a real hurly-burly among the Wu clan.

Melissa Li: I don't mean to stereotype, but we're loud and we will talk over each other. It feels very lively when everyone's home and we're having dinner. It's not like everybody eats in silence. But I have to give Abe a lot of credit for the writing. Abe wrote a lot of the book. Whether or not those scenes work has a lot to do with his writing, what people are saying when they're talking over each other.

EDGE: There's a cultural stereotype, too, that Chinese families are close-knit whereas American families tend to scatter: the kids leave home, and that's pretty much that, you end up living across the country from your parents.

Melissa Li: You're eighteen, you go out and find a job, you go your own thing - it's definitely not like that in [Chinese families]. It's also very interesting that Abe is Jewish and we always find these strange parallels between the two cultures. One of the main musical themes [in the play] is this traditional Chinese song for Chinese New Year that every Chinese person knows. It actually sounds almost exactly like the Israeli National Anthem! [Laughter] It really does!

We were talking about what sort of values Chinese families have, and I was, like, "Guilt is a major part of it," and Abe's like, "Jewish people, too!" and I'm saying, "Money is a really big deal," and Abe says, "Yeah!" I think that's what makes a lot of people enjoy this musical - people from any culture can relate, if not to specific parts of it, then to other parts. Interracial romance: some people might have gone through that and felt the struggles there. [Kaylin and Asha] actually have a fight in the second act about race: some people might relate to that. The brother struggling to be the head of family: he needs his sister's help and she's not supporting him. Some people might relate to that.

EDGE: Speaking of the interracial romance aspect to your play, I wonder if you included that in order to help American audiences relate more readily to the sense of surprise or disorientation that this traditional Chinese family goes through. Even today, it's unusual here in America to see an interracial couple.

Melissa Li: Partly it's that, and the other part is that when someone from America goes to China to visit, automatically people in China assumes that it's a white person. To play with that is interesting: the only American person in this play is an African American. For the family, that creates a little more tension. If you don't want your daughter to date a white person, then what about a black person? The stereotypes are just as bad there, because they get their information from the movies that come out of the United States. Like Jessie says, "You people have a great sense of style, just like the pimps in the movies!" And [Asha] is kind of horrified with that notion.

When I was doing research about this, I was emailing people in Hong Kong and asking them, "What is your idea about black people?" And they had no concept of "black people." They said, "Oh, you mean Africans!" That's what they said!

EDGE: The New Year, of course, is a time when the old is passing away and the new is approaching, and families need to take strength from one another to make that change and accept new ideas and new situations, very much as Kaylin's family must do in your play.

Melissa Li: Metaphorically, I think it's perfect for our play. The beast can stand for any number of things - any of the conflict can be this Nian, this beast, and you have to stay together to survive it.

EDGE: One of your characters, the brother's fianc?e Jessie, is completely obsessed with the Western world. Do you have a sense of how well traditional cultures hold up to Westernization and globalization?

Melissa Li: It's a blend. They think it's a good thing, but you still have too keep traditions., It's very interesting how in Hong King things just work together. It's a metropolis - it's one of the world's largest cities, so it's not some rural area in China where all they care about is tradition. It's capitalism; they're really concerned about expanding; they love Western things. Their subway is more modern than our subway here. But every time you open a new business, you bring a Feng Shui master in to make sure the energy is there. It just works [to blend to old and new].

EDGE: You were mentioning giving the mother and uncle some history to play with. In the case of the uncle, Tony, there is a hint that he is gay and this got him in trouble during the Cultural Revolution.

Melissa Li: He's much older. He's of a different generation. And specifically to the family in the play, not that all families in Hong Kong are like this, but he doesn't think it's right. He's closeted, he's very closeted. It's not even that he knows that he's gay, he just doesn't even realize it, he's so closeted. I think there are a lot of people like that. There's [someone I know], I'm pretty sure she's a lesbian, but nobody says anything. And I don't even know if she knows - and she's part of my generation!

EDGE: My husband works with a lot of Chinese people, and when he introduces me, they are perfectly fine with it - they never say, "You evil, degenerate Westerners!" or seem shocked by an American gay married couple.

Melissa Li: I think that how people think [about this subject] has changed a lot, even very recently. I know that China was one of the last countries to say that it is not a mental disorder - in the 1980s. But at the same time, a lot of these Asian cities are adapting Western culture, and if it's okay to be gay [in America] then everybody [in the cities] is okay with it too. That reminds me of how we have the bus that takes people from Chinatown to New York and how this one time they had a special to take the bus to the Gay Pride Parade in New York. If they can make it part of doing business, they really don't care! [Laughter] No, seriously, they really don't care. I think that's part of the culture - if other people accept it, they don't care.

EDGE: Is there a sense of gay community in Hong Kong, you know, like that sense of gay identity politics here?

Melissa Li: No, I think they have their gay culture there too. Definitely the butch / femme stereotype is much stronger in Hong Kong and China. People believe you're either butch or femme, there is no you're "just gay."

EDGE: Once the play has run its course, will you focus more on making albums, or maybe think about a feature film?

Melissa Li: I don't want to just drop what I've done on the musical. Winning the Jonathan Lawson Award, I want to capitalize on that and see where I could go having done this. I don't just want to say, "Okay, that was fun, now I'm going to try something else," and start over again from the beginning. I'm interested in seeing if I can do something on Broadway off-Broadway - right now I'm just so open, anything that comes my way, I will just jump on it.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.