“People always say, ‘This is my family. This is a very Armenian play. This is a very Greek play. This is a very Jewish play.’ That always makes me feel good because you want to be universal,” she said. “You’re only universal through specificity.”
Chen said her plays are never strictly autobiographical, but every single character she creates comes from some part of her, from things that she has thought or felt at some point, or is loosely based on someone she knows. She takes creative license with the rest, and the result is a play that deals with real-life situations in a highly funny way.
“Humor and comedy are for me the saving grace. It saved my life, and if you can make somebody laugh, I don’t think there’s anything better,” said Chen.
Though the subject of her plays differ, she has realized that, though unintended, a central theme runs through her plays: the desire for individual freedom, to break free of the ties that bind, all the guilts, fears, injunctions and taboos.
“I think maybe that’s why we envy animals so much, because they don’t worry about pleasing their parents,” said Chen. “They have that natural ability to be themselves.”
She admits she had a complicated relationship with her family growing up. Because nobody really talked to each other, Chen talked to herself a lot, which she speculates is the reason she developed an affinity for dialogue and ultimately chose to write plays instead of novels. Plays are for her a way of having dialogue with the audience.
She believes this lack of necessary conversation with the family is why worlds collide when Chinese-Americans start taking cues from the Western world on how to define themselves.
“We do what we see, which is the way Americans are, and then the parents get totally freaked out and they don’t know how to talk to you,” said Chen. “They don’t know how to say ‘I want you to be like this,’ because Chinese don’t do that.”
As a college student, she studied mathematics and was expected to get her PhD, but Chen, a self-described autodidact, decided to pursue other interests. She taught herself how to act and, eventually, how to write plays.
Chen’s career actually began in acting, and though she was successful for awhile, she later felt limited by the invisible glass ceiling that was lined with stereotypical Asian roles.
“At that time a lot of the young women were Susie Wong-types. They wanted you to be sexy and glamorous, and I was a little too intellectual for all that,” said Chen with a chuckle.
She left acting and began a 35-year career in medical editing, which paid well and supported her as she sought to create roles in which Asians were the central figures, not peripheral characters. She also found that she gravitated toward writing roles for older people, another neglected category in the acting community.
Twenty years of playwriting and five full-length plays later, Chen is ready to foray into acting once again. The passage of time has presented an abundance of new opportunities for baby-boomers, and she has already received several callbacks for commercials.
Of course, it doesn’t mean the curtains are closing on her time as a playwright. One of the reasons she left acting initially is that she wanted to flex her creative muscle, and it seems she has done that, learning a lot about herself and about people in general.
“My plays are not about Asian-ness. They are just about trying to be human, trying to be the best human being you can be, a happy human being,” said Chen. “We all have so much in common, and that’s what I really want to explore, the commonality and not the differences.”
Kitty Chen‘s “Rosa Loses Her Face” is playing at Queens Theatre in the Park now through December 13. It is the Theatre’s first production that began as a reading and is now being performed as a full-length play.