Playwright Jessica Huang likes a little magic with her theater. In her new play, Purple Cloud, she draws on her own experience as a multiracial artist, but turns it into something bigger than her own history, bounded less by reality than the limits of her imagination.
The seed for the play was planted when she encountered a word she had never heard of before: hapa. It's a Hawaiian term that means mixed identity, usually referring to someone who is part Asian. Huang, who has Chinese, Jewish, and European heritage, learned the term when a female artist spotted her across the room and recognized she was hapa too.
Huang thought the word helped describe her own experience. “I’ve never felt fully white and never felt fully Asian,” she says.
Huang pitched the idea of Purple Cloud over a drink with Mu Performing Arts’ artistic director, Randy Reyes. Intrigued by the idea of Huang exploring her experience of being hapa, Reyes told her to send him 10 pages. The two have been chipping away at the project ever since.
“Randy and I have been having pizza and reading with actors that are really generous,” Huang says. The script was also developed at the New Eyes Festival at the Playwrights' Center and at a reading in Philadelphia. It will finally be getting a full production at Mixed Blood Theater, opening this weekend.
The play focuses on three generations of the Huang family. Though the family shares a last name with Huang, the piece is fictional. All three of the main characters — the grandfather, his son, and the granddaughter — navigate the world as multiracial people in Minnesota and Shanghai, as well as in more mystical and in-between spaces brought to life by puppets and the magic of theater.
Huang has always been interested in theater that’s not totally realistic. Influenced by Han Ong and other Asian American contemporary playwrights, her personal philosophy is that “magic is possible in theater, and that’s what is exciting to me,” she says. “Most of what I write has something heightened about it.” Huang believes in the way that theater allows audiences to stretch their imaginations.“I love playing with that and pushing boundaries,” she says.
Working on the piece has been an incredible experience. Because there are so many hapa characters, most of the people working on the project are hapa as well. “I’m just around all these people with similar experiences to me. We’ve been talking about growing up mixed in the world,” she says. “I feel so much more grounded in my identity.”
The play is family-friendly. While the themes are deep and intense, there’s no sex or drugs, just a couple of curse words. “There are lots of kids that would identify with stuff going on with it,” she says.
IF YOU GO:
Mixed Blood Theatre