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Playwright Lloyd Suh talks college days at IU, inspiration behind Pulitzer finalist ‘The Far Country’

Jul 25, 2023

Lloyd Suh's play The Far Country, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama, tells the story of a family immigrating to the U.S.... Lloyd Suh's play "The Far Country," a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama, tells the story of a family immigrating to the U.S. in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company

Award-winning playwright Lloyd Suh was bitten by the theater bug while he was a student at Indiana University Bloomington, setting him on a course to be one of his generation’s foremost playwrights today.

Suh graduated in 1998 with a degree in English from the College of Arts and Sciences, although he said he also took as many theater courses as he could. He has since earned the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts in 2019 and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow Award in 2020. In 2023, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play “The Far Country.”

Lloyd Suh. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Suh Lloyd Suh. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Suh

Included among Suh’s fondest memories at IU are the years he spent working and hanging out with friends at the now-closed Von Lee movie theater.

“The Von Lee was my main hub,” Suh said. “I started as a popcorn boy, usher and ticket taker, and then I eventually was a shift manager and a projectionist. It was where all my good friends hung out, and it was just the greatest.”

“When I think about the five years I spent in Bloomington and the volume of different things that I have very intense memories of, it’s just very satisfying to look back on.”

Suh said his time on the Bloomington campus was transformative. He enrolled in every playwriting course taught by Dennis J. Reardon, professor emeritus in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

“I took his screenwriting class first when I was a punk undergrad sophomore, and I did very badly,” Suh said. “I was intimidated by him, so I didn’t really participate in class much.”

After Suh took several more of Reardon’s classes, including a graduate-level independent study in playwriting, Reardon suggested he move to New York after graduation to study under American playwright Romulus Linney, the father of Academy Award-winning actress Laura Linney. Reardon even wrote recommendation letters to make it possible.

Three young adults wearing white button ups with black suspenders and ties. Lloyd Suh, center, works in the box office of the Von Lee movie theater in the 1990s along with Isabel Binkley, left, and Brandy Russell, right. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Suh

Suh said Reardon’s influence was enduring.

“Now that I’m teaching playwriting at the university level, I find myself quoting him quite a lot,” said Suh, who has taught playwriting at Columbia University and Hunter College, and will soon teach at Princeton University. “He’s the real reason I started down this path in the first place. It’s especially meaningful that I got to have early contact, at an impressionable age, with a real writer who showed that pretty much anything is possible.”

In addition to exploring new interests like playwriting at IU, Suh found opportunities to explore his own identity. Growing up in the sleepy suburbs south of Indianapolis, Suh said he felt like he was stalling until he arrived on the IU campus.

“When I got to Bloomington, I was ready to be something, but I didn’t know what that was yet,” he said. “I got involved with different scenes, different communities, and went all-in trying on identities.”

Identity appears as a theme in many of Suh’s recent plays, including “The Chinese Lady” and “The Heart Sellers.” As a second-generation Korean-American, Suh is fascinated by social and historical aspects of Asian American identity and culture.

Student actors, from left, Karalyn Shima, Patrick J. Song, Amy Hays and Sean Gallagher performed the first play Lloyd Suh ever wrote. Student actors, from left, Karalyn Shima, Patrick J. Song, Amy Hays and Sean Gallagher performed the first play Lloyd Suh ever wrote. “Lilly Lee's Science Fair Project” was staged in the T300 Studio Theater at IU Bloomington in the winter of 1996 to 1997. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Suh

“The plays that I’ve been writing recently on Asian American history, I realized that they’re all part of the same impulse,” Suh said. “My parents are first-generation immigrants. My children are third generation, but they have very little tangible connection to my parents’ journey beyond what we can tell them. So how do we tell that story?”

Suh’s play “The Far Country” tells the story of a family that emigrates from China, arriving at a detention center on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay with hopes of gaining entry to the United States. The play takes place in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s first law to restrict a group of immigrants based on race or nationality.

For inspiration, Suh visited the Angel Island Immigration Station, the detention facility that the family in “The Far Country” find themselves in. More than 1 million immigrants, primarily from Asia, were detained and inspected at the station after the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Visitors to the immigration station, which is now a historical landmark, can still see poetry that detainees carved into the walls between 1910 and 1940. Suh said he almost missed the carvings at first blush since they nearly blend into the wooden walls.

The poems express the plight of mostly young Chinese men and women who traveled arduous journeys across the Pacific Ocean, pinning their hopes on America. Most were detained for lengthy periods of time in poor conditions at the small detention center.

A phenomenon that resulted from the Chinese Exclusion Act, which Suh addressed in “The Far Country,” was the “paper system.” The immigration law was so restrictive that Chinese immigrants were left with few options. Many resorted to changing their identities on paper and pretending to be a blood relative of a birthright citizen to gain entry to the United States. By doing this, they gave up their names and families and denied their own identities.

“They had to deny themselves and pretend to be somebody else,” Suh said. “I’m interested in that performance of their identity, in particular when you’re talking about interviews with bureaucrats at the U.S. border. ‘What do they expect me to be?’ ‘What is a good Chinese person to them?’ ‘What does that do to my sense of identity? ’”

Disowning their identities often resulted in both generational trauma and resilient characteristics cycling down from generation to generation, according to Suh.

“What happens to one generation, it lingers and stays with them,” he said. “That’s the central thesis of the play. Not just trauma, but joy, value, diligence, grace — that all gets handed down.”

A production still from Lloyd Suh's play The Far Country. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company A production still from Lloyd Suh's play “The Far Country.” Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 after China became a member of the Allied Nations during World War II, but it would be several more years before the U.S. would increase limits on the number of Chinese immigrants admitted. In 2011 and 2012, Congress condemned the Chinese Exclusion Act and affirmed a commitment to preserve civil rights and constitutional protections.

However, immigration laws that single out individuals based on race or nationality are not ancient history. In 2017, the first piece of legislation since the Chinese Exclusion Act to base immigration eligibility on nationality was enacted by the Trump administration. Order 13769 barred Syrian refugees from seeking asylum in the U.S. indefinitely, and it barred entry by foreign nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, among other things.

The Biden administration reversed the order after taking office in 2021.

“We’re capable of the same things today,” Suh said, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act. “These cycles don’t go away. Just like how things get passed down from generation to generation as a family, these things get passed down in society.”

Suh said that despite writing stories that detail historical tragedies and the struggles that immigrants experience, he intentionally ends each play by pointing audiences toward the future.

“What I hope everybody takes away is a sense of, not just adding these stories to their accounting of American history, but also using that accounting of American history toward some understanding of how to carry that into the future.”

“The Far Country” ran from November 2022 to January 2023 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York City. It will run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre from March 8 to April 14, 2024, and at Yale Repertory Theatre from April 26 to May 18, 2024. A production of his new play “The Heart Sellers” takes the stage at the Huntington Theater in Boston later this year, from Nov. 21 to Dec. 23.

Suh continues to teach and write, and he lives with his family in New Jersey.

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Julia Hodson

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