Jerome Fellow Jessica Huang workshopped her play Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying at the Playwrights’ Center in October-November with director Mark Valdez and actors Audrey Park, Elise Langer, Jennifer Blagen*, James Craven*, Ricardo Vazquez*, and Mikell Sapp* (*Member of Actors’ Equity). Learn more about Jessica below.
Do you have any advice for writers interested in writing about historical figures or events, based on your experience writing The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin?
In writing Paper Dreams, I felt a huge responsibility to share Harry and his daughter Sheila’s story authentically and honestly—to shape the facts of Harry’s experience inside of a narrative that would help his truth reach an audience. For me, authenticity on stage is different than in the real world; truth resides in image, metaphor, poetry, and emotional resonance. One of the biggest challenges was selecting which moments out of his 92 years to include in the play—and figuring out in which order to tell them. Sheila was incredibly generous—from the beginning encouraging me to take her family’s story and tell it in my own expansive, ghost-filled, nonlinear way. My advice to anyone embarking on a similar journey would just be to find the most effective way to make the true story alive in the hearts of those watching, and to write, first and foremost, for your subject.
Tell us a bit about your new play Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying. How does theater allow you to engage with difficult or frightening topics like climate change?
Here’s a little blurb: Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying is an epic play that merges mixed-race identity issues, science, and global politics to tell a story that spans 300 million years. Through three interconnecting stories, Transmissions suggests that our grief helps us find the power to change. Widowed DAWN works though grief to gain a better understanding of the men she’s lost—her husband to cancer and her father to rising sea water. Her mother, SONIA ST. CLAIRE, grapples with her legacy when she learns that her inventions—safe, clean processes for natural gas and shale oil extraction—are actually not so clean, and not so safe. And the eternal LIGHT OF THE MOON—a being who experiences geological time and has spent the past 4.5 billion years as friend and companion to his beloved Earth—discovers that in 400 years—in the blink of an eye— a “so-called intelligent species” has set off a chain of events that could very possibly top the death toll of the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction (which eradicated 96% of life on the planet). His choice—to get involved in the fight for Earth’s survival—brings the three stories together toward an earth-quaking conclusion. Transmissions is a commission with Mixed Blood Theatre.
Climate change is enormous, scientific, and very complex. It can be difficult to wrap a mind around—to really feel it in a heart or a gut. The form of theatre is really good at generating heart and gut feelings, and can even help us empathize with people who are very different from us. Transmissions tries to harness this unique power and provoke empathy for a being who experiences time in a way we cannot—who can really see and feel the earth heat up over 400 years. My hope is that by empathizing with this character, an audience will also gain new gut and heart feelings about the realities of climate change.
How does being a writer shape your day-to-day life?
I am very lucky to have a job and a life that allows me to continually change and grow and learn new things. Being a writer is being a listener. Being a writer is gathering information and looking into the future. Opening. Dreaming. Imagining other worlds and ways our world can be otherwise. It is story—and story is possibility and strangeness and logic and what we say and what we think and how we behave and it is the lens through which I view everything.
Being a writer also means that on my busiest days, I find myself still in pajamas at 4 pm.
What will you be working on this year?
I will be finishing Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying as well as working on a play that I’ve worked on in both of my previous fellowships: Zero-Infinity Flight Path (which will be directed by my husband and creative partner Ricardo Vazquez, and produced through my company Other Tiger Productions in partnership with Augsburg College this March). I will also be working on a pilot and perhaps, in the spring, a surprise.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I have an amazing office in the basement of the duplex where Ricardo and I live. It is completely removed from the rest of the world—when I am at my desk, I can’t tell what time of day it is or what the weather is like. I have decorated the space with candles and incense and precious objects and pictures of my heroes. When I found out I got my first Jerome last year, I invested in an enormous iMac. My walls are covered with maps and diagrams of ideas for future projects and work in progress. It is a space tailor-made for my creative process and my plays really like coming into the world through it.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a playwright I would be…
What was the most thrilling artistic experience you had recently?
I saw Pipeline at Lincoln Center this summer and I thought it was an example of virtuosity on multiple fronts. The script was terrific, the direction was precise and inspired, the acting was extraordinary and the design was magic. Especially spectacular were the many ways that Dominique Morisseau welcomed us into HER theater—one good example: the invitations/instructions in the program. For me, they felt like communication with audiences who are accustomed to going to places like Lincoln Center and perhaps assume that there is one way to watch theater and that because they have lots of so-called experience, that they know what that one way is. Those invitations/instructions graciously opened the experience up to other ways of being in spaces like theaters, and allowed for all of us to witness something new, something radical and equitable and welcoming. It allowed for realness to come in—and when it did flood the production—we were prepared to receive it.
When you sit down to write a play, how do you start?
First, and for some time, I immerse myself in an abundance of research—articles, books, documentaries, songs, visual art, works of fiction, food, clothing, architecture, etc. As I consume this—what will become the world of the play—I keep a journal about the images, story fragments, characters, and language that begins to arrive. The play comes slowly; I find that if I chase it, it can get warped. Instead I lure it into being patiently, mindfully. For me, writing a play is an act of listening.