God Said This: Dying Laughing with Leah Nanako Winkler
Leah Nanako Winkler is back in Kentucky with her funny, heartbreak of a play God Said This. It’s a play about cancer, but it makes you laugh. And it’s a play about family—both its fragility and its resilience, and how hard it can be to show that we love one another.
The Rose family's matriarch Masako (Ako) and her husband James (Jay Patterson) in God Said This; background: Emma Kikue as daughter Sophie. Photo: Jonathan Roberts.
We first visited these same characters in Winkler’s sold-out smash of a play Kentucky, a co-production between Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) and Page 73 in 2016, when they were gathered together for a wedding. God Said This is a less boisterous, more meditative affair, but it has the same heart. It received the Yale Drama Series Prize and first premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays last February before setting up shop at Primary Stages where it’s currently running through February15.
I’ve known Leah since our days in the writers’ group Youngblood at EST. I’ve long admired her singular voice—haunting and sharp with an undeniable tenderness. I was delighted to get to ask her some questions about her play.
Clare Barron (Rail): We both have written plays about parents suffering from stage IV cancers while our parents were suffering from stage IV cancers. I remember writing in my dad’s hospital room, and I believe you did the same thing with your mom. Did you know at the time that you were writing a new play, or was it just therapeutic? And did you tell your parents?
Leah Nanako Winkler: Cancer has actually been a part of my life for a long time. My mom was first diagnosed with stage IIIB breast cancer in 2007, and then at the end of 2016 she got carcinosarcoma of the uterus also known as MMMT (malignant mixed mullerian tumor) which is a rare and aggressive beast that is very scary to Google. So, cancer has shown up in a bunch of my other plays for the past ten years in subtle ways (which is a thing I just noticed this year—that in most of my plays cancer is mentioned or a character has a parent who dies of it, even if it's like in a song). But God Said This was the first time I centered the plot around a character's illness. I did write it in my mom's hospital room because—as you know—they're pretty good writers’ rooms! I had a nice couch, a window, and it was fairly quiet. Plus breakfast, lunch, and dinner my mom couldn't eat—delivered to the door! I did know I was writing a new play, but that was also my way of processing it. This kind of disease was really scary because there wasn't that much information about it and the prognosis was so bad—so I distanced myself from the situation by imagining what characters from my play Kentucky would do if the matriarch of the central family [the Rose family] were in a situation similar to mine. And fuck no I didn't tell my parents. My mom was sleeping the whole time, and I didn't really have a relationship with my dad at the time.
Rail: Did you always know [Spoiler Alert] that Masako would die?
Winkler: Yes. Ever since my mom got sick the first time, I have been obsessed with the cancer genre (The Fault in Our Stars, Love Story, Stepmom, Marvin’s Room, Wit, and now You Got Older, etc.). I find taking in these pieces cathartic and think the material is often underrated. But the sick character almost always dies at the end. It's never a surprise. The genre is more about the coping of illness and the strange feelings and behaviors that mortality brings up in regular people. I knew I wanted to write my own because there aren't any cancer movies about Asian or mixed race families—and that Masako had to die, too, or the impact of the end wouldn't make sense.
Rail: One of the reasons I love your writing is because I can feel that it comes from a very personal place. There’s blood in the play, so to speak. But personal doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical or that it accurately depicts who you are or your life, which is something a lot of people seem to confuse (especially, I think, when it comes to plays by women). How do you understand this difference between the personal and the autobiographical in your work?
Winkler: I think you're right in that some people love to assume that women write in our little diaries and don't work on craft and just put up our emotions on stage. Like yours, all of my work is personal, but if any of my work was a straight up autobiography there wouldn't be action, music, theatricality, or conversations that change people. Life is beautiful but mundane, and I believe people rarely break their own cycles. As playwrights, we get to take circumstances we need to process and turn them into a play. A person writing a memoir pieces together images of their life to get to the truth—we try to find truths in life's cruel and nonsensical hit and runs. I think even though some of my play’s circumstances are drawn from real life (I wrote my play Kentucky at my sister's wedding, I wrote God Said This at my mom's hospital room, I wrote Two Mile Hollow while I was working as a personal assistant to a wealthy family). I completely use the people around me as inspiration rather than carbon copies. I may use their cardboard cut-out personhood as a character inspiration, but I fill in the meat and bones with craft. For example, a lot of people think I'm [the character] Hiro in my Kentucky plays, but I sort of just took what I perceive as the worst parts of myself, inflated them, and took some inspiration from the actor who has been playing that role for four years in terms of employment, etc. The rest—like “wants” and “needs” and personality—come from the writing process, readings, and by the time I'm doing tablework, I'm completely removed from my experience and see it as a play. Even though then I'll forget that some things I put in the play were things I was thinking while I was crying or whatever. By the time people are laughing at that, you're laughing too—and it remains personal but becomes a thing bigger than you.
Rail: I was really struck by the threads of loneliness in the play. That’s something that, in my experience, is really true when it comes to dealing with illness—you can all be together and love each other, but everyone sort of has to process it on their own. Hiro puts it so beautifully when she says, “I get so lonely here by myself with my family.” Can you talk a little bit about how the play careens between these states of intense intimacy (cleaning up someone’s urine; lying in bed with someone) and isolation (James disappearing into his rock collection; Sophie disappearing into religion; Hiro disappearing into her phone)?
Winkler:I actually was alone with my mom when I wrote God Said This. There wasn't a family hospital rotation like in the play, and in real life, my sister and I no longer live in Kentucky. So my sister went for the surgery, and I went for the chemo, and we didn't overlap. To cope with loneliness, I interviewed a friend from high school who is the source material for the character, John, in the play. And John became Hiro's coping mechanism aside from texting her therapist on her phone. And then in imagining how each character in the Rose family would be isolating themselves to distance themselves from reality I—as a person— felt less alone. This sounds weird, but I felt like I had the actors who played the roles with me, in the room with me, because I could literally hear their voices in my head. Also, I think I expected to have all these meaningful conversations with my mom when she was sick, like in the movies, but the conversations were minimal, and I thought the normalcy was pretty hilarious. I'd be like “Mama, wanna talk?” and she'd be like “Huh? Why?” I liked depicting that level of banality coupled with intense intimacy—like watching her puke or trying to help her to the bathroom. All of these shaped the family dynamic in the play.
Rail: How many years were there between the time you wrote Kentucky and God Said This? And did you always know you were going to visit these characters again?
Winkler: I started writing Kentucky in 2014 when we were both in Youngblood (I think you read for Sophie in that first meeting!) and finished it in 2016. I started writing God Said This in 2017 and finished it just now in 2019. There were sixteen characters in Kentucky so I knew I would visit some of them again, but I didn’t know which ones. I’m definitely writing a third play though about the Rose family, which is sneakily set up in God Said This. John is also a central character in a new play I’m writing called Deviate,but the Rose family won’t show up. I like how TV lets you grow with characters over time, and I like doing that in my plays. Just because a character appeared in a play once doesn’t mean their lives are over for me (unless I killed them off … but even so, who knows).
Rail: Something I think is so cool is that the characters of Masako, James, Hiro, and Sophie are so familiar to me, having seen Kentucky, and yet the overall style of the two plays is so different. Can you talk a little bit about how the style of each play emerged and how you were able to preserve the characters’ voices in God Said This even as the over-arching tone changed?
Winkler: I think a naturalistic drama just came out when I was writing God Said This. Whenever I'm writing in a genre-bending way, or an “experimental” way, I also don't intentionally do it. I think I just black out.
Rail: This play makes me laugh while I’m crying. Like, it can be the most serious, sad scene of the play, and then there will be a joke that totally undoes me. Where does that humor come from when you’re writing a play about somebody dying?
Winkler: I actually hardly ever try to write jokes unless it's for a packet or something. Jokes in plays—unless it's coming from a place of truth of circumstance—are pretty grating to me. But I do think it's in my personality and in my writing that I see the humor in the most serious, saddest moments of life and laugh-cry through them. So it's natural for me in my plays to undercut devastating moments with something ridiculous that could actually happen. The moment where Masako hits Jay for being abusive, but then they go back to normal and start talking about what he did at the flea market that day, is something that would happen in a family dynamic—and it's not necessarily a joke with a punch, but it’s still funny. My grandma chose to forgo a life-saving surgery this month and decided to go up and die this month, and I was crying—but then my mom sent me a picture of her corpse where she was wearing a funny pink hat, and I just died laughing. Life is just full of moments like that, no?
God Said This, by Leah Nanako Winkler, directed by Morgan Gould, presented by Primary Stages, runs through February 15 at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info, visit: https://primarystages.org/
CLARE BARRON is a playwright whose plays include Dance Nation, I'll Never Love Again, and You Got Older.