21 Questions with Niko Crawford
AKIN is back this time with emerging literary playwright Niko Crawford. Hubert Silva sits down with Crawford to talk about his perspective on race, identity, assimilation, favorite karaoke song, and gets an inside scoop on his newest play.
1. What got you started writing?
I didn’t start writing until sophomore year of college because I came to New York thinking I was an actor. But I kept running into this feeling that there weren’t stories for me, about me, or for people like me to play. It was during sophomore year at NYU, I had a professor who works at Sundance where a bunch of the artists were people of color, and queer people and it really inspired me to read them. So when we had an assignment to write our own full play, I took that chance to mirror the plays I had read and talk about a story that my lola always told, a story that had been passed down forever. It was about her and her family surviving the Japanese occupation in the Philippines. That was a story that played a huge role in my life growing up, just by hearing it. Since obviously she didn’t always tell 100% of the truth, I got a chance to fictionalize some of it. I had no idea what I was doing, but in the process of it I felt for the first time I became really comfortable about reading and hearing work aloud about my people, and my family. That was the first time I realized writing could impact people. Before that I was an actor and I thought writing was just for me to perform and entertain people. I think now as a writer I realize I can do something with my craft.
2. Let’s talk about your what you have had staged so far? What were they about?
The first play I staged was “Lola” which was based on my own lola, and how I grew up with her. She was like a second mother, because my mother was a single mother and was working so much. I wrote it almost immediately after the play about the war stories. I felt the war stories were a bit distant to me. So when writing “Lola” I was able to dive into how I personally felt about the Filipino community, and my family’s story about immigrating here.
“Normal Boys” started a little differently. It started as “No Latinos, Fats, or Fems” and that was mainly about gay dating culture through dating apps, and the claiming of racial preferences. It was a play just between two people, a white guy and a Latino guy who were dating where the Latino guy was really experiencing what it was like to deal with racial preferences, and the experience of dating a white person. I ended up not finishing it because I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere, because the play was only about two characters, and I didn’t want 50% of the play to be about whiteness.
3. So “Normal Boys” went through a lot of changes?
Like I said I didn’t want the play to have these huge parts talking about whiteness, so I went ahead and added a few characters. Which included Aron who was the main character in “Lola” which was cool because that was the point I realized I wanted to connect every play I would write in some way. Making the new title “Brown Boys Don’t Know Love” which became about gay men of color, specifically how brown boys experience relationships and love in a very different way, especially in New York, to white men. There is an image of the muscle white, quote-unquote perfect everything in a gay man, I wanted to break that stereotype, and explore the relationship between two brown men. Through it I learned about self care, and our relationship within our families. The play really turned into something about learning to love yourself. And I think that is something any man of color is taught not to do. They are taught to be the man of the family, to up bring and support everyone, and the mentality of machismo and masculinity, across all cultures, there is some version of hyper masculinity in each. Which is something queer men of color suffer from causing them not to really know how to formulate healthy relationship with one another. Eventually becoming “Normal Boys.”
4. “Lola”, what were the roots of that play?
“Lola” was essentially about how my family, specifically my mom who had kids with a white man, and because of that her kids lost parts of their Filipino culture; on top of that, her life long struggle with my Lola, her mom, on assimilation. My mom grew up wanting to reject Filipino culture so much, which is what so many Filipino immigrants were going through when she came to America. Americans rejecting things like her accent and the food; my mom just completely veered away from it by assimilating. Which had affected me and my sister and now we don’t know Tagalog, we don’t know much of our family history, beyond my lola who came here with my mom. So when “Lola” was staged in 2017, that was the first time I believed I could do something with my work. I saw audiences be really impacted by cultural stories.
5. You wrote “Lola” in 2017 then “Normal Boys” in 2018, what did you take from “Lola” in terms of portraying a community respectfully yet honestly into “Normal Boys”?
To portray a community, it was something I was building to in “Normal Boys.” To find where my cultural identity intersected with my queer identity. I actually also wrote a dance piece before “Normal Boys” called “Skin”, which was about the fetishization of gay men by straight people. Straight woman especially, and it was after that I realized I can bring all my identities into a piece of work and art. Although I often veer more towards plays about being Filipino, I think that’s mostly because I’ve spent more time trying to understand my family’s relationship to their Filipino-ness. I think my queerness is relatively new to my life, and I’m still exploring. Through “Normal Boys” I was able to discover a lot of things about myself and how I can healthily combine my queer and Filipino identity together.
6. Let’s talk about your cultural background, and how it affects your writing. How do you identify yourself?
I am actually half Filipino and half white. I’ve veered away from identifying as half white just because my Filipino identity has become one of the more important identifiers to me. I’m kind of in a moment where I want to erase whiteness from my life.[Laughter] But yeah, that’s what I lead with most of the time. I’ve lived with being Filipino longer, or at least understood being Filipino longer, so I’ve spent more time to take in stories, and look at stories that relate to how I look at my culture.
7. Being a Hapa, a half Asian, do you find yourself questioning or worrying about your voice of authority when telling these stories?
Yeah, I definitely do. So often in a lot of communities of color, anything mixed with whiteness is seen as less legit, or even idealized, especially in the Philippines. I struggle with being half white, it’s like being this other being, this being of the ideal beauty standard, the ideal gene pool, I think I’m trying to figure out a way to make space for people to combat the white ideology of lightness in Filipino culture and I think that’s such a huge thing but I think I’ve spent my time as a artist, trying to figure out the ways not to take up too much space, and give it to others that need it, because I do know I do benefit from my whiteness. And even though I don’t present myself as half white there are advantages of being half white. It’s something I think about a lot and I try to be conscious of skin tone especially.
8. Have you ever experienced people being combative to how a specific community was portrayed in your work? Or have you ever experienced positive reactions in terms of another dimension of a community you chose to explore?
I haven’t heard anything. Yet! I think personally the people who interact with me and talked to me about my plays have had good reactions. Maybe because I believe I am exploring topics that so many artists are ignoring. But I definitely believe there is room to critique what I am doing because it is so centered around being American, and being Filipino American. I think it’s another thing I’m really conscious of what I haven’t addressed in my work, and in this next play I’m working on that I’m hoping to address it.
9. Why is writing stories that are culture or race driven so important to you?
Some people don’t understand how important visibility is. Just seeing someone with a different color skin tone on stage, in the movies, in books, talking specifically about what a person looks like, who their grandparents are, their family history. It can change the lives of people reading this stuff. I think me personally coming into that, I struggled growing up as a kid because my mom was rejecting our culture so much, and I never got to read stories about people who remotely looked like me or were even at least Asian. I was just surrounded by whiteness my entire life. I want to create a space where kids can read stories about themselves and people who look like them. About similar journeys about their families, and journey to America. Even similar journeys in life that I didn’t get to experience. You look at what kids are taking in these days, they absorb everything in the media. And I think in a very academic way when I write, I do a lot of research. A lot of the classes I’ve taken are about how children are dealing with the media, how representation in racial representation in the media can do bounds for communities. We can look at “Crazy Rich Asians” and talk about visibility for days. There comes the analytical side of my brain, as well as any personal reactions or opinions I may have, it still matters.
10. Is this the route you will continue to choose to follow? Plays that very much involve cultural identities?
I think I’ll want to continue to write regardless of career or a paying job for writing. I’m also a playwright who, I was talking about this with one of my friends, would like to see playwriting as something more than just performing, but as something as literature. So I want my plays to live on as a new canon of work, regardless if they are performed or not. We read so much of the old dead white men, and I think about my legacy after I die and I want my plays to live on past me, and be able to live on and communicate the issues my people are dealing with beyond my lifespan.
11. Halfway mark! What was your guilty pleasure karaoke song, think about the most embarrassing one you got!
I have a terrible fear of singing, of course when I was younger I did karaoke with my lola all the time, I can’t remember the last time I did karaoke. But my main song I will ball out to, even when I’m alone, is “Toxic” by Britney, that’s my jam!
12. So some of the team members of AKIN attended a workshop you held at 440 Studio, is this something you’ve done before? What were you hoping to get out of it?
I’ve never worked like this before, normally when I write it’s so internal, so individual and personal. That’s where a lot of playwrights get stuck in their careers. That’s where I identify, studying people while studying playwriting. I was in a workshop with Young Jean Lee, and she exclusively works with huge teams before she starts writing. It was super fascinating to me. I have my own qualms with how she does it, but I think I wanted to take the function of working with huge teams of people, of getting their perspective, was a style I was interested in. Especially when thinking about writing about communities you’re not apart of, you need to bring the people in these communities to do the research. And on top of the research you need to get the voices in the room to actually speak to what the research is talking about. I think so many playwrights get stuck in the research of their writing without talking to groups of people in these communities. I would never write a character that has an experience that isn’t my own. I need to take these necessary steps to accurately, or justify the representation without fetishizing or exoticizing them.
13. When it comes to writing a play, how fleshed out do you like to be in terms of plot? At the workshop you it seemed like you were in search for perspectives but in terms of the possibilities of want could happen in real life, does your inspiration have pretty realized plot line?
Well it has been different with every play I’ve written. The first play I’ve ever written, was the one of my lola’s war stories, then “Skin” was with a process called devised theater, it’s basically where you do work with a team to devise a plot, to create characters, create a narrative, and that was super exciting to me. When I did write “Lola” that was entirely on my own. I just started typing away. I really hate outlining before I start writing, I think it boxes you into a set story a set structure; which can be great for organizational sake but I think that for me it boxes me in creatively, and I don’t have room to stray away to what I was planning on writing. If I plan too much then it's not a natural story, plays are not meant to replicate what is exactly happening in life, they are meant to be something new. Something that hasn’t been told before. Me and my friend talked about how plays are seeing into the future, you are writing a world that doesn’t exist. So we are telling the future, a completely different life from the entire world, and the audience has to sit through this world that we imagined.
14. Looking to your peers for perspectives is such a great idea in my opinion and I’ve never really experienced that before. When in the process of writing a play when do you start, when do you stop looking for peer perspectives?
The way I peer review is probably very different than a lot of people. With this play specifically, I take what I’ve learned from these workshops, and then be on my own, working on a draft to present. From there, I spend some time to process what I’ve learned from the workshops. I don’t what to take the chance of people making changes while I’m writing. I think it’s important for me to have a draft to present rather than have people put obstacles in the way of any of my processes. I think I have to come to a fully formed thing because it can change. If I change too much in the middle, I will get off track, and it’ll get messy. It’s a very natural process for me to work on my own, then present what I have to people.
15. Is there any other seasoned writers you look to for guidance? Or any advice from a mentor you’ve learned that you think would benefit other writers?
I think right now I’m in the time of my life where I don’t have a mentor, but in the last two years of university I had a professor. Mikhael Tara Garver, I think she had made a huge impact in my life. She made me think of art and humanity in a way I never thought before. She calls herself an experiential artist; to help humans experience humanity in a different way. She worked in a way to see how theatre interacts with audience in a way that is different to what we are use to, to break a structure that these white men have set up. One piece of advice she told me while I was writing “Lola” when I was worried about white audience members not being able to understand the play was “F**k them, the more specific you get about your life, and your story; the more universal it becomes. The more specific you get with how your family deals with grief, deals with assimilation, all these big ideas, there are a million other people who have similar stories. There is no way that nobody will be able to relate to your work.” We’ve sat thousands of years at this point having to sit thought, trying to understand the stories white men are telling so now is the time to make white people sit though stories that they simply won’t understand, because they made us do that our entire lives.
16. So are you down to tease the AKIN audience on what your working on now, what we went to the workshop for? Tell us a bit about it.
So the premise of the play, is the marriage between a half Filipino half white guy and a half Filipino half black guy, and it’s taking place in the Philippines, which could leave room for interesting conversation of the legality of their marriage. And the different chismis that will come up form their family members. And I think I’m really looking in exploring how Asian-ness and Black-ness are intersecting in today's society. There are definitely issues out there but not being addressed. And the plan, I’m hoping to get a draft done for a reading in October, then to sort of host an event, not so much a traditional play, but an event where this play will be performed at, that will be very similar to a real wedding. I want the audience experience what a true Filipino-Black wedding will be like; experience what the food will be like, the music, the drinking. All the gossip at each of the tables. I think that’s what me and Renee [director] are super excited in presenting to audiences.
17. Your director, Renee Young, why? What in their vision do you think aligns with with yours? Collaboration is such a big theme for AKIN, how to you pick and choose who you collaborate with?
Renee and I have been classmates for a long time. I wasn’t really connected with her until my last year in college. But I realized we, as artists, are interested in similar things in terms of finding ways to represent women in ways they’re not represented. On top of that as well, the visibility for Asian communities. I think where we really connected is in our interest to see where Asian-ness and Black-ness intersect. She is a Singaporean/Chinese immigrant she moved here to New York for college. I think she provides a really unique experience, because I am an American, and outside of America concepts like diversity, femininity, are thought about so differently, in ways I’ve never thought about before. Our interest are aligned but our perspectives are so different.
18. Which of the themes are you most excited to present to audiences when it’s running?
I think one thing I’m most excited for is the gossip, I think gossip, especially in Filipino families is so crazy and wild. So many other communities don’t understand how fast word travels in Filipino families. But in addition to that the aspect of honoring your family, or your duties to your family in ways that have never been thought about, and looking at who you’re marrying, because our generation have been caught up to on not caring about the color of someone’s skin, but at the same time our family wants to pass on our gene pool, pass on our family name, pass on these traditions that if we marry someone outside of our culture, what does that do? It almost erases part of our family history. I think Asian families have such a unique perspective on who you’re going to marry, and it hasn’t been talked about yet.
19. All most doneeee! Where’s your favorite place to have happy hour? What’s your go to drink?
I think my favorite bar, is Sweet and Vicious, in the Lower East Side on Spring Street. They have really good margaritas. I frequent there a bit too often. Maybe even Union Pool in Brooklyn. I love the taco truck out back!
20. As someone who is creating such cool and important work, just for the voices of POC, Filipino, and queer voices, what advice would you give to other young writers when it comes to diving into loaded topics like the ones you do.
I think I would reiterate what my teacher told me. F**k what white audience will think and get specific about the personal struggle in whatever you’re writing about. Because we are in a time period where the world needs to hear new stories. And to also surround yourself with art, music, media that features entirely people of color, and for the past year I’ve been very active in that, taking in art by black artists, asian artists, Filipino artists. I’m looking for stuff from artists who aren’t white because I think we have voices that aren’t being heard. They’re not getting the industry support, I think that support is so important.
21. And last but not least this is where you plug yourself! Where can people find you and keep updated with your work.
Catch me on instagram @niko.crawford or my website nikocrawford.com. Yeah that’s pretty much it! Cheers!