Eunice Wong is a classically trained actor who has dazzled audiences across the United Sates, in Canada, and as far as Kyrgyzstan. She is nominated for the My Theatre (Boston) Award for Best Actress for her performance as the brilliant and conflicted Ginny Yang in Smart People, the witty new comedy by Lydia R. Diamond.
What drew you to a life in the theater?
I played Sitting Bull in high school, in Arthur Kopit’s Indians. A great English teacher of mine, Gary Carper, directed it, and cast girls as the Native Americans and boys as the European Americans. I read everything I could find on Sitting Bull, the Lakota nation, and the Indian wars. I knew instinctively that I had an obligation to learn as much as I could about Sitting Bull before I could presume to portray him. And I remember a moment during a performance — I was sitting on top of a podium in the wings waiting to go on, my eyes closed. I was imagining that I was riding my horse across the open plains and that my culture, my people, my entire way of life was threatened with extinction. It was a life and an experience completely outside my own, yet somehow through theater I could begin to touch it. That role was my first inkling of how transformative theater could be – that through imagination, empathy, research, language, and emotion I could actually augment my own existence with the lives of others.
What works, artists, or performances proved particularly influential to your development as an artist?
The works most influential to me as an artist are not theater-related – they’re works of great literature. From the time I was a little kid, I’ve devoured books, and I have always thought of these as my first acting teachers, because great literature is a map of human lives, emotions, motivations, and the subconscious. The tricky part came when I was at Juilliard and had to tie my considerable intellectual understanding to the physical and the emotional (realms in which I was decidedly undeveloped at the time!), and I began exploring disciplines like martial arts, yoga, Alexander Technique, Suzuki, and, later on, circus aerials and personal training. I love the theatre because it’s a crucible to marry the emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical. But to circle back to your question, some performances, productions, and theatrical works that will always be with me are Janet McTeer in A Doll’s House, Cherry Jones in The Heiress, Anne Bogart’s production of Death and the Ploughman, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Shakespeare Globe’s production of Twelfth Night, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Pochsy’s Lips by Karen Hines, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, Waiting for Godot by Sam Beckett, Woman and Scarecrow by Marina Carr, The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, The Gift of the Gorgon by Peter Shaffer, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, China Doll by Elizabeth Wong, and The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn.
What was it like to be involved in the Huntington production of Smart People?
Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. I absolutely loved working with Peter DuBois and Lydia Diamond, who were like a Laurel and Hardy team, except funnier and smarter. My fellow actors, Miranda, McKinley, and Rod, were wonderful, and set the acting bar high. Top tier stage management and design teams. Lydia was doing rewrites all through previews, so we’d get script changes every night right up until opening. It was exciting to be working on a script that was evolving and changing, with the changes based very much on what was happening in the rehearsal room. And the Boston audiences were overwhelming – so generous, so supportive. You could tell people were really asking the difficult questions raised by the play, which is exactly what we hoped for.
Smart People may have been the funniest play I saw in Boston in 2014. Did you and the other three actors find it challenging to get the mostly white and older Huntington audiences to laugh?
It wasn’t challenging at all! Lydia wrote a razor sharp, hilarious script, and Peter knew exactly how to shape each beat so that the humor was like a ball zinging around a pinball machine. In the rehearsal room, we never catered to the audience – we went with what WE thought was funny (to the point that sometimes we had to stop rehearsal, pick ourselves up off the floor, and wipe away our tears before we could go on, at the command of Emily, our stage manager), and that translated to the audience! A lot of it is the laughter of recognition – the best kind — with a good mix of embarrassment, discomfort, and self-deprecation thrown in. And actually there were quite a few younger people, and people of color who came to see Smart People, so they understood the play on a different level, adding to the dynamics of the audience.
In the play, your character, Ginny Yang, faces barriers as an Asian-American and as a high-performing woman in a competitive work environment. How much did you identify with her struggles, and in what ways (if any) do you feel you see things differently?
An aura of invisibility and docility is imposed upon Asian and Asian-American women in western culture, regardless of their actual personalities. (I also happen to be an introvert, which makes the assumptions even worse – The Quiet Chinese Girl with Nothing to Say. It enrages me. I have a black T-shirt that says “Angry Little Asian Girl,” with a mad cartoon Asian girl flipping the bird. I love that T-shirt.) In direct response to that imposed invisibility, Ginny has deliberately cultivated an armored persona – tough as nails, whip smart, unforgiving, merciless. She depends on a constant diet of high-octane success to compensate for the world’s perception of her as invisible, voiceless, and submissive. I get all of that. The deep work as an actor came for me when Ginny is driven by such fury and hurt at a dismissive comment of Brian’s that she resorts to role-playing a submissive Chinese prostitute, in an effort to fuck him up, even while it unhinges her and touches on some of the deepest wounds in her life. The aftermath of that scene, when she’s on the phone with customer service – ordinarily a position of power — finds her trying to stuff all her demons back into her rigid persona, but of course, a lifetime of repressed demons will not be packed up so easily. I’ve had moments like that, when the life-long, often unconscious accommodations made to deal with an often unconsciously racist society suddenly explode and you’re left with a shattered sense of self. When you are not the grotesque stereotype society assumes you are, yet you are also not the carefully crafted persona you’ve built up in response and inhabited for longer than you can remember, who are you really?
What I really don’t get is Ginny’s shopping addiction. I wear the same outfit for days at a time. I suppose I have a mild addiction to Sierra Trading Post.
Professional women in many fields face the decision of how best to balance their professional development and their family life. What do you think characterizes this decision for female artists? How has it been returning to the stage after taking time off to raise your children?
I’ll never regret the time I took away from the stage to have my children, and be with them full-time as they grew from infants to young children. To paraphrase Uma Thurman, ultimately you have to choose the thing that, if you fucked it up, you could never, ever forgive yourself. And that’s my family – my husband and my kids. That said, it can be a difficult negotiation in the moment, because if you’re an artist who’s not creating art, there’s a whole part of you that is dormant, and that can be extremely painful. I absolutely needed, in a very profound way, to go back to the theatre, like I needed air. Doing Smart People was like breathing pure oxygen for three months. The riding-a-bike analogy was true: the moment I entered the rehearsal room on the first day, it was like I had never stopped acting. But I did it without leaving my family. I had a fantastic support system – my husband Chris helped enormously to make it happen, my mom came down to Boston for three weeks to watch my three year old daughter while I was in rehearsal, the Huntington was tremendously generous with accommodations and other “mommy needs,” and we were blessed with a handful of terrific local babysitters (including, at one time, my dear fellow actor McKinley).
You are the editor of Truthdig’s Book Review. How has your critical perspective been shaped by your work as a performance artist? With your experience in cultural journalism, what are your thoughts about the current state of theater reviewing?
That’s an interesting question. I suppose my background as a performance artist makes me more forgiving, if I can see what the artist was striving for, even if they don’t quite get there. I know what it is to have a vision for your art, and the heartfelt effort in realizing that vision. I don’t read too many theater reviews, so I can’t speak broadly about that topic. I think journalism, and the printed word more generally, is in decline. People think in sound bites and in tweets. They take selfies to record experiences. The art of thinking in complete sentences is being buried. Our collective brains are being rewired, and a there is a serious decline in our capacity for critical thinking. That is not good news for us as a society.
Out of sheer curiosity: you performed in two productions of The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, one as Jenny Chow with Atlantic Theatre in NYC, the other as Jennifer Marcus with Studio Theatre in DC, for which you won the Helen Hayes Award for Lead Actress in 2006. What was it like to first perform as the woman, then as the robot?
I wish I could clone myself and play both parts in one production!!! Playing Jennifer Marcus was the most challenging role of my life so far. An agoraphobic, obsessive compulsive, IQ-off-the-charts electronic-robotic-computer genius adoptee. Rolin Jones, the playwright, called the play “the King Lear of flying android plays.” Maybe so, except that Lear doesn’t have half as much to do or say as Jennifer Marcus. It was the only time that I got to opening night and wasn’t sure of the order of the scenes. I just hoped that point A would get me to point B, which would get me to point C… And my god, I loved playing Jenny Chow, the android. I played Jennifer Marcus first, and was able to distill insights from that performance into Jenny Chow, who after all is Jennifer’s creation. My favorite show growing up was “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and Data, the android who dreams of becoming human, was my favorite character. One of my favorite movies is “Blade Runner.” I’m fascinated by the possibilities of artificial intelligence, and the point at which an incredibly sophisticated, complex machine might develop human emotions and awareness. Because what are we except biomechanical machines, and yet where in our circuitry do our emotions, our dreams, our art, our capacity for love, reside?
What’s next for Eunice Wong?
Life, baby! Words of wisdom from Stella Adler: “Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.” One of my teachers from Juilliard told us in our fourth year, just before we graduated, “If there is nothing in your life except your career and your boyfriend, you’re in deep shit.” I recently became a yoga teacher at Yoga Stream, an amazing studio in Princeton, NJ, which has literally changed my life – my family and I have been vegan for six months, for ethical, environmental reasons. Look up the stats if you don’t know: animal agriculture is the #1 leading cause of environmental destruction – global warming, deforestation, water depletion, world hunger, species extinction, land use, the collapse and depletion of our oceans and fisheries – it goes on. You can’t call yourself an environmentalist and eat animal products. I’m continuing to run the Truthdig Book Review, narrate audiobooks, and I am helping put together the companion book for the documentary, “Cowspiracy.” I have also been teaching poetry in a men’s super-max prison in Trenton, an incredible experience. I love my students. Most are in for life, for murder. They are some of the smartest, most open hearted, generous men I have ever met. I would trust them with my life. The prison industrial complex is the modern era’s version of human slavery. (For non-human slavery, see above: Animal Agriculture.) And yeah, I’ll do some more acting.