Beginning its run early in Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the world premiere of Kenneth Lin’s play Exclusion at Arena Stage offers a too-relatable exploration of the clash between truth and commercial interests. Set in the present day, the story revolves around Katie, an acclaimed historian portrayed by Karoline, whose book on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 gains attention from Hollywood. A struggle ensues when producer Harry, played by Josh Stamberg, challenges the book’s authenticity for the sake of marketability.
Set in sleek Los Angeles locales designed by Arnulfo Maldonado including a glossy office, a trendy coffee shop, and Katie’s home, the one-act power play introduces a range of characters with whom we witness different power dynamics, Stamberg’s “on the nose” portrayal of Harry embodies the stereotypical Hollywood narcissist. Katie’s laid-back husband Malcolm, portrayed by Tony Nam aspires to make his own historic documentary, while glamourous actress Viola, played by Michelle Vergara Moore, brings a savvy intelligence that Katie can learn from if she wants to continue her work in Hollywood.
Exclusion is primarily a comedy, using humor to explore the dynamics between fact and commercialism. The play also touches on microaggressions faced by Asian individuals, adding a layer of social commentary to the narrative. In future scenes, Katie reclaims her space, first conversing in Cantonese, then finessing a negotiation to tell her stories her way.
Exclusion engages audiences with its witty dialogue, nuanced performances, and duality of the titular theme as we witness how Asians were excluded, first in the 1800s and presently in positions of authority. Lin’s writing keeps viewers engaged, navigating the comedic elements while tackling weightier social issues, prompting spontaneous reactions from viewers. Throughout the performance, the audience’s engagement was palpable, with shared moments of laughter, groans, and exclamations of surprise.
Exclusion confronts relevant themes of cultural representation and the compromises made in the pursuit of success, aligning with Arena Stage’s commitment to present diverse and ground-breaking work from some of the country’s best artists. It also marks Artistic Director Molly Smith’s final production at Arena Stage after 25 years, exemplifying Smith’s leadership in developing noteworthy new plays.
Don’t miss the opportunity to experience Exclusion at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater through June 25. Tickets are available at arenastage.org, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, D.C., Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.
Cover photo by Margot Schulman.
Theatre Writer for Baltimore OUTloud.
Bekah is a Baltimore-based ally who is obsessed with all things Broadway. In addition to written reviews, she creates social media theatre content @broadwaybekahchica. When she’s not at a show or organizing her Playbills, you can find her rehearsing with the New Wave Singers of Baltimore, enjoying stoop night with friends, or snuggled up with her husband and pets.
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