Man of God
HEAR FROM THE ARTISTS
I’m so thrilled to share MAN OF GOD with the Williamstown Theatre Festival community. I wrote this play from a kernel of an idea, a headline, really. It grew as I wrote it, fueled by my memories of the many intense, hilarious, furious, desperate conversations I had with my friends when I was a teenager in an all girls school and we were figuring out the nature of the world and our place in it. That age straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, when you feel your incredible power and your incredible vulnerability in equal measures, alternating by the moment. Who better than these characters to interrogate our collective participation in abuse, in power structures, in revenge narratives, in institutions? And who else could take us there laughing?
I have faith in these girls, the play doesn’t end at the end. Each of them is transformed and will go forward into their lives, as we all do as we grow up and see what the world really is. I have faith in all of us. We are grappling with a larger awakening. Let’s go forward and do something different.
—Anna Ouyang Moench, Playwright
BETWEEN THE LINES
WTF’s Artistic Associate Lianna Rada-Hung and Special Projects Associate James Montaño asked members of the cast and creative team of MAN OF GOD about impact of the male gaze, revenge, and the AAPI experience.
The male gaze is made literal by a camera hidden in a bathroom in this play. How has this play affected your previous understanding of the male gaze?
MAGGIE: I thought about the moment when I realized that I was being watched or that someone was looking at me. I have the opportunity to share that in what is a continuous action play, in real time, and not just have one young woman's perspective on it but four. Building this show with these actors and with Anna, and hearing about all our own experiences–whether it is based on our experiences, our histories, the communities we grew up in– has been really fascinating to see where there is overlap and where it diverges.
EMMA: The male gaze is the first thing we all become aware of as soon as the lights go up. To me, that's a really unique way of portraying the main conflict of this story that parallels how it feels to move about a world saturated with it: there are expectations for appearance and behavior and visibility the second a person enters this world.
SHIRLEY: As a performer, it’s not lost on me that the girls are watched by the male gaze at the same time that we, the cast, are actively watched by audience members. At times, performing for a crowd can honestly feel a bit eerie and disorienting for that reason: the audience takes on that third-eye gaze and is forced into active roles as complacent onlookers. As an actor, it’s impossible to not feel that gaze—it definitely can feel like the “sixth character” of the show, a certain type of viewership that I haven’t totally felt before in a show.
JI-YOUNG: I don't think this play changed my understanding of the male gaze, but it did articulate many of the conflicting feelings and complex debates I have with my friends about what it means to be "seen." Because all four girls have such radically different world views, the show is able to explore all the sides of arguments we see in the real world about patriarchy and justice.
ERIN: If anything, this play has made me more aware of how desensitized I was to the male gaze because I got so used to seeing it and experiencing it in my day-to-day life. However, as I reflect on my experience existing as an AAPI woman, I have come to realize that my desensitization was a way for me to feel like I had autonomy over my body and image by controlling how I responded to the male gaze. I chalked it up to “This what it is like to be a woman. This is just what it is.” This play has shown me that my relationship to the male gaze is something I am still trying to understand each day—especially now in light of recent events. MAN OF GOD has raised so many new questions, and I am finding my answers to those questions throughout this journey.
The audience watches as these four women spiral into chaos entirely within the four walls of a hotel room in the middle of the red-light district in Bangkok. How does this setting magnify their situation?
MAGGIE: One thing that Anna does that's amazing is that there is no stasis in this play. There are four young women with four different points of view put in a room to decide what to do, under stress. Stasis in this play is an emergency. Anytime four people with four different opinions are put in a room to decide what to do when they’re under stress, they can’t think or do what they normally do in a calm situation. This isn't a debate class.
Anytime four people with four different opinions are put in a room to decide what to do, when they’re under stress, It's not just what they think in a calm situation. I think that one thing that Anna does that's amazing is that there is no stasis in this play. Stasis in this play is an emergency.
JI-YOUNG: Something I love about our set in this production is how claustrophobic it feels. The compactness of the space makes it feel like these girls have nowhere to go and no escape route. That, on top of being in a foreign country with no money and no other chaperones other than Pastor, means that they have to figure out what to do and how to do it quickly.
ANNA: I chose the setting for the isolation it provided. Being cut off from outside help, not being able to speak the local language, feeling unsure of the legal landscape around them, not having access to the internet or simple communication with anyone in their lives—all of these factors create pressure that forces the girls to figure out their next move on their own. I liked having the girls be young Asian American women in this city...outsiders who in some ways might feel objectified in this place.
EMMA: Bangkok is the setting of this play, but it is also in many ways removed from the world of the characters. Bangkok in this play is whatever the girls say and believe it is, which makes the feeling of being trapped in the room that much worse when staying means being at the mercy of their pastor, whereas leaving means braving the streets to find whatever dangers they've concocted in their heads. It makes the stakes of the play as high as the characters can build them.
SHIRLEY: At the start of show, my character Samantha has no sense of the world beyond these four walls; the sexual air that lingers over their location is completely off the list of expectations she has for this trip. As the play progresses, she’ll have to finally look out into the world she’s entered only to grapple with the new, daunting possibility that its reality may have already infiltrated her sheltered four walls.
ERIN: I think the setting is such a recipe for disaster, which is what makes this play so genius. These girls are not friends, they do not like each other one bit, they're stuck in a dingy motel in a middle of a strange city. Tthey're away from their families, and their chaperone has hidden a video camera in their bathroom! Everything about the setting is invasive, violating, and unfamiliar. The setting is a direct representation of the turmoil and pandemonium these girls are feeling on the inside.
What role do the fantasy scenes play as they plot for revenge?
JI-YOUNG: On one hand, the fantasy scenes are cathartic and relieve the audience and the characters by enacting some form of "justice" on the Pastor for what he's done to the girls. On the other hand, they're outlandish. The fantasy scenes are clearly based off of what these girls have seen depicted in film and TV as justice or revenge, and they don't have much grounding in their reality. The fantasies, due to their generic origins (kung fu, gangster, horror) are male-coded fantasies of what it means to seek vengeance. It's a stark contrast between these girls' reality and their own abilities to execute the justice or revenge they desire. As for performing them, it's a TON of fun.
ANNA: I wanted to explore and explode the revenge narrative that dominates our culture and impacts the way we treat survivors of sexual assault. We're doing a disservice to survivors when we ask "why didn't you fight back, go to the cops, etc?" We should be asking why we participate in upholding a culture in which disadvantaged people can be so easily ignored, manipulated, and abused by those in power, not asking why survivors of abuse didn't take their abusers to court.
EMMA: All three fantasies focus on the philosophy that justice is served through the vengeful removal of bodily autonomy; if the pastor decides to violate her body, she should get to violate his back and perhaps this will bring her justice.
ERIN: Performing them is the most fun I've ever had on stage. Mimi's fantasy scene is gnarly, and it lives in the horror genre which gives me so much freedom to try different things and really relish in those torturous moments. As an actor, it's so fun to be able to switch things up and play with different heightened moments and Mimi's fantasy scene gives me space to do that. It's incredibly cathartic and fulfilling.
SHIRLEY: I felt strong, empowered, and surprised that I proved to myself I could handle something so seemingly antithetical to how I previously viewed myself. After the shutdown, I missed that feeling so much that I decided to study wushu. Now when I’m having a rough day, running through the fight in the show feels especially rewarding: it’s like I get a chance to battle my inner demon—my worst fears, my looping anxious thoughts— on stage and tell it “I’m strong enough,” which is so incredibly cathartic.
MAGGIE: One of the reasons I love this play is that it can only be a play. It’s an incredibly collaborative process. When you see the show, you’ll see that the way that we get in and out of those fantasies, how they’re conjured, how they emerge, and how we restore back to the hotel room, it’s like a huge part of building the muscle of this show. I think for me it was letting the young women be as big, take up as much space, have as big of an imagination as possible to then see what happens to that absolute horsepower that we have when the pastor walks into the room.
What do you hope this play adds to the current conversation surrounding women’s rights and the female experience?
EMMA: There are the obvious points, which is that child sexual trauma is real and present; the fetishization of Asian young women is prevalent and widely socially accepted; survivors of sexual violence are not believed, and even when they are believed, they have no path to healing within the US policing and prison system. MAN OF GOD calls for a different system and argues that everything in this world that leads to sexual violence creates a trap for both survivors and perpetrators. I hope that people come away from this play asking how we can abolish the social systems that create sexual violence and create new ones that provide real healing for survivors and conditions that actually prevent people from becoming perpetrators.
SHIRLEY: These girls are part of a generation that values female empowerment. They’ve grown up amidst #MeToo, cancel culture, and social media, so that when they’re alone, these girls believe undoubtedly in their brute strength and power as a unit. But when the Pastor enters the picture, they freeze. The play reflects these silent power dynamics that restrict women, preventing them from acting on the strength they know they possess— the type of silent power that often leaves me with self-punishing, self-blaming questions like “Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I do something?
ERIN: It's important to remember that these events are happening to kids. And immediately through the events of the play, they are told their bodies are sexual objects for the male gaze and that if they talk about what happened to them (in the instance with Mimi's mom), they won't be believed. I hope it inspires them to take action or take a look at their inaction. How can you make sure the women in your life feel comfortable and safe taking up space? How can you work to change policies that directly affect the livelihoods of women? How can you actively lift up the voices of women in your day-to-day life?
MAGGIE: It’s not a monolith that every young woman has the same histories going into what they experience. no matter who they are, where they came from, what their socioeconomic situation is, what their history with men is, they are still all having this same corridor of feelings. There’s a universality in it because Anna gets so specific. I think sometimes people write down or talk down to young people and so they aren’t fully smart, capable, powerful beings and so…I have such tremendous respect for every single character in this show and I want people to listen to them and to listen to what they have to say.
What does it mean to you to have an entirely AAPI ensemble telling the stories of these women?
EMMA: I've never seen anything like this on stage before, much less gotten to participate in it. MAN OF GOD stages such unique and untold perspectives—those of five very different people, four of whom represent varying facets of the experience of the teenage Korean-American girl—that haven't gotten to shine in front of audiences before.
ERIN: "It's an honor just to be Asian." - Sandra Oh
This is the first play I ever have been a part of that is completely made up of AAPI actors, and it means the world to me. I remember the first day of rehearsal, when we were staging this at the Geffen Playhouse, I walked in and immediately felt this sense of ease. I felt like I could express myself in a way I haven't been able to in other spaces. Most importantly, I felt safe. There was a shared language through our shared experiences that only we, as AAPI actors and humans, could understand. It's such an honor to share the stage with Shirley, Emma, Ji-young, and Albert, and it's so empowering and fulfilling to see what it means to AAPI audience members who see the show. It reminds me of why I started acting.
ANNA: AAPI actors are doubly at a disadvantage: there are very few leading roles, especially for young characters, so young AAPI actors don't get the same opportunities as their white counterparts to grow. I wanted to create five complex, funny, challenging roles for five very different "types", giving AAPI actors the opportunity to show what they can do and get that experience early in their careers of performing leading roles that are technically and emotionally demanding.
SHIRLEY: The lessons these girls are learning for the first time in this play are ones that I continue to learn and relearn as an AAPI woman: even just in the months performing this play, I’ll find myself shocked and heartbroken after realizing I have yet again allowed myself to be undermined or silenced. A friend of mine likens it to climbing a spiral staircase: I thought I had learned these lessons before and yet they come back again and again, a journey to not only finding but also exercising our voice that I know each member of our cast has had their own grappling with. As I move through life while doing this show, I’m constantly reminded of these girls and how they move through the world. I’m reminded that these are lessons we must not only teach an audience, but also continue to teach ourselves.