Every year, Center Theatre Group commissions two to three playwrights as part of Community Partnerships to develop short plays that will be performed in public libraries across Boyle Heights. While the past few short plays have been transitioned onto an online platform (Community Stories) due to COVID-19, CTG is looking forward to the return of live theatre experiences back into the libraries and communities.
Dramaturg Julia “Juju” Nieto sat down with playwrights Rosie Narasaki and Aja Houston to discuss the playwrights’ inspirations, communities, favorite Power Rangers, and more.
Q: If someone were to write a back-of-the-book bio about you what would it say?
Rosie Narasaki (she/her): I think I'd want to be one of those very mysterious people that had no biographical details in their bio, and it would be something like “Rosie lives in the woods with her shih tzu.'' I don’t live in the woods, but I do have a shih tzu!
Aja Houston (she/her): Aja is a very eccentric, nomadic playwright from Everywhere, USA who wishes that in another life she could be Kendra the Vampire Slayer meets She-Ra (the OG 80’s version) meets the Yellow and Green Power Rangers.
Rosie: I loved the Pink Power Ranger. But I wish I could honestly say I liked the Yellow Power Ranger, because I’m pretty sure in whichever iteration of the Power Rangers I was watching, she was Asian, but I like pink a lot and I probably had some internalized racism going on.
Aja: I think you shouldn't feel like you have to necessarily dig the character of your cultural identification. They’re like, “Look, we've given you this fictional character…this is a Latinx, Asian, Black character, aren’t they cool? You should love them because they look like you!” Just because they look like me doesn’t mean I have to vibe with them because obviously each culture is not a monolith.
Q: On the topic of representation, both of your plays are focusing on aspects of identity. How do you navigate wanting to write for your communities but knowing you can’t write for everyone?
Aja: I don’t necessarily feel any pressure that I have to write for the entire Black community because like I just said, we're not a monolith. There’s so much beauty and freedom in that. I tell Black stories, but I am not telling every Black person’s story. I don’t have any delusions that everyone in my community will see my work and go, “Yes, I identify with that,” and that's cool. Because I don’t necessarily respond to or identify with other Black plays that I see. However, I can still appreciate it as a piece of dramatic art. It's just maybe not an experience that I know, and that’s fine! I don’t write from a place of “I need to write to represent everyone from my community” because it’s simply not conducive to my artistic process. I write from a place of “This is a story I would love and need to tell.”
Rosie: I feel similarly. This is corny but it's true: there's universality in specificity. So, I can’t be trying to write something that’s going to please a whole community that’s not even monolithic. Experiences are going to be different for everyone.
Q: How has living in Los Angeles affected you as a person and your craft as an artist?
Rosie: I’m pretty much an L.A. native. I’ve lived here since I was three. I grew up on the west side in Venice and Santa Monica and I still live here now. It’s affected me in a lot of ways. The theatre community here is scrappy. And that’s what I was raised on, seeing things in a Black boxes, mainly 99-seat theaters in L.A. and that has really shaped my view on what you can do with however little money. I also saw shows at Center Theatre Group growing up.
Aja: I wasn't joking when I said in my bio earlier that I am from Everywhere, USA. Wherever my mother is, is home. I was born in Vegas, but I grew up in Oklahoma City, Rochester, New York, Madison, and New Jersey. My mom was actually born and raised in South Central L.A. so I did live here for a little while as a kid. I came back to L.A. from New York City in 2016 for grad school. New York’s really cold and it's really busy in a Battle Royale kind of way and I was tired of not being able to get enough sun on my skin. So, there’s something about being here, I don’t know if it's like the vitamin D, but I feel happier and freer to actually explore more in my work.
Q: What is your relationship with Center Theatre Group?
Rosie: When my parents first moved to Los Angeles, they were understudies on a show at the Mark Taper Forum. They didn’t want to get a babysitter so they asked if they would be allowed to bring me to the shows. So, they would bring me, and I would take a nap on the Equity cot in the dressing room. But every night, my mom would wake me up because I wanted to watch my favorite scene which was the scene where one of the actresses would dance with scarves. It was the play The Waiting Room by Lisa Loomer. The character had died, and was taking her foot bindings off and she was doing a dance with the scarves from her feet. I loved it, so I made my mom wake me up every night to watch it. I think I was four. And then I went as that character for Halloween! That’s the first play I remember seeing and it influences me still.
I also acted in The Last Firefly (A Kabuki Fable) produced by Artists at Play as part of CTG’s Library Play Reading series. That was so much fun because it was a story written like an original folktale by Naomi Iizuka. And that’s kind of inspiring me as I write my piece because I love that play a lot.
Aja: When I was going to USC for grad school, a way for me to see free theatre, being a broke student and all, was to write reviews for the Annenberg media website. I went and reviewed plays such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, Good Grief by Ngozi Anyanwu, and Lackawanna Blues by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. But Head of Passes by Tarell Alvin McCraney, with Phylicia Rashad, was the best production I ever saw at CTG. She was transcendent—and I did start as an actor, so just watching her act was a master class. She’s a beast.
Then, when I got the opportunity to come on as a teaching artist, I jumped on it. I love teaching, especially teaching writing. I love the opportunity to work with CTG along with Jesus—he’s awesome. Having people take their personal stories and create monologues or short plays has been an amazing journey—just witnessing people, from high school students to adults twenty-one and over, gain the confidence to be brave with their work as writers. It’s been a pleasure.
Q: What inspires your writing?
Rosie: I’ve always really loved romantic comedies. The community play might have some elements of that. I love seeing people be people, misunderstandings, trying to figure out why people do things, and what it means—that drives a lot of my writing. I’m also learning now that I love historical fiction and history, so that’s been something I’ve been exploring too. Also, my parents both inspire my writing a lot because I grew up watching them. They’re both actors and my father’s a playwright and his writing directly inspired me too.
Aja: Nothing that I write is a throwaway. I always write to really explore certain themes and issues within the Black community. However, I don’t write “issue” plays. My stories are about the very human things of love, loss, and struggle. But by the very fact Black bodies are politicized in this country, the very fact that I am asserting our humanity, race will always be intrinsic to my work.
I always start with “What do I want to talk about? What do I want to explore?” and then I think about how to approach it using my magical realism aesthetic as a writer. It always has to be a bit left of center. How do I want to come at this in a different way? I do explore a lot of different themes such as Black love. Black love is very revolutionary when it comes to the arts and media representation of it. All love is complex, but to really see a loving relationship flaws and all between two Black people is so beautiful and needs to be seen more.
I've explored the sanctity of life especially in regards to state-sanctioned violence against Black people and how our right to live should not be a political thing. It's a very human thing of “We deserve to live, and it is our right to live full stop.” It shouldn’t be politics, right? That's always what hurts me the most, the fact that is even a question.
That’s why I want my writing to make you extremely uncomfortable. If I explore certain themes, such as state-sanctioned racial violence, I want you to actually be challenged and continue thinking about it and what needs to be done. I don’t want to let anyone off the hook with a kumbaya moment at the end of the play that hasn’t been earned by our society.
Q: Anything else you want to share with us?
Rosie: I’m excited to be working on this project and I’m excited to show it to people!
Aja: I feel the same. I’m excited, and it's going to be great.