Decentering Whiteness in Theater: 'Kentucky' by Leah Nanako Winkler
Before I dive into this article, I’d like to acknowledge the vast amount of privilege I have as a half white, half Asian person living on the land of the Nipmuc and the Massachusetts tribes. I also acknowledge that everything I say here is a draft towards my thoughts on decentering whiteness in theater.
It’s been a while since I last wrote for this series sharing BIPOC plays that deserve more attention and recognition. While I feel guilt for putting this commitment off, I’m also trying to be kind to myself. In our capitalistic society, where we’re constantly urged to work, we need to make room to rest.
A month ago, a friend recommended that I read “Kentucky” by Leah Nanako Winkler because it is one of the few plays with Hapa representation. The story weaves the fantastical and gritty reality of becoming an adult. Hiro, a half Japanese single woman working in NYC, makes her way home to Kentucky to stop her younger sister Sophie from getting married.
In this journey, Hiro battles with her abusive white father, her subservient mother, Christian ideals, her relationship with love, and the realization that everyone’s path to growing up is different.
What I liked the most about this play was the seamless switch between naturalistic banter and poetic out-of-time moments: soliloquies where the characters voiced their inner monologues and touched on both the positive and negative realities of growing up.
One soliloquy that moved me was when Hiro spoke about how she found herself in NYC, something I’m sure many of us living in the city have felt:
“I saw my reflection in the windows of those buildings you’re scared of and realized I was small but felt strong. And learned to stand tall. And all of a sudden the pieces of my smashed-up heart began to rearrange themselves. And I rebuilt myself on the concrete.”
I also appreciated that the play normalized being biracial by including Hapa representation along with Sophie’s fiance who is both Black and white. Different from stories where characters of color embody racial stereotypes and exist as props for white-centered stories, “Kentucky'' presents well-rounded BIPOC characters. In fact, the playwright says that the characters didn’t have to be BIPOC but she chose to let these diverse characters take up space among the universal themes of growing up and family relationships, which is something that is much needed in theater. Even small moments like when Sophie spoke to her Japanese mother about how she always made her onigiri with such love despite the fact that kids made fun of her, are important nuggets of representation among a sea of Eurocentric theater.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this play, and for my acting friends, I saw a few good short monologues in it too. Highly recommended!