I am busily working away at my plan to have Mrs. Hawking part 4—tentatively titled Gilded Cages —ready to go into rehearsal by the end of the summer. That means all this month Bernie and I have been working on the outline for the story, as I like to get the structure and shape of it down before I actually start drafting.
As I’ve mentioned, one of the toughest parts of this piece is dealing with the presence of Victorian colonialism. It’s a major factor in this story, and I want exploring the issues that stem from it to have an important place in the story’s theme. Without revealing too much, I will say we’re including a character who is an indigenous resident of a colonized place in Asia. It is incumbent upon us to be as respectful as possible in that character’s portrayal. This is particularly challenging because we will be adding this character to an already established cast, where the protagonist is a white woman. Even under the best of circumstances, there is a very real danger of what I refer to as my theory of The Problem of the Protagonist— in short, where the centrality of your main character necessitates subordination of any other character’s story, which can result in those supporting roles’ marginalization or dehumanization.
But we want this character to be as well-rounded, human, and interesting as any other protagonist in this series. To do this, our rules for the character are as follows:
– She will have goals of her own, stemming from her own needs and desires
– She will have the agency to make active choices in order to meaningfully pursue those goals
– She will have an arc of personal growth where she ends up meaningfully different than she was when she began
– She will have personal flaws that are human and believable
– She will not be objectified, instrumentalized, or accessorized for the story of any other character
– She will not exist to be a lesson for any other character
To that end, we’re dedicated to doing our due diligence in responsibly depicting this character. We’ve been doing a lot of research into not only what would be present and realistic in this kind of person. The first step of that was reading, and a lot of it— reading into the colonial history of Victorian Britain, and what life and conditions were like in British colonies. We may be telling a stylized superhero story, but we really don’t want that to make us gloss over the colonial reality and make it seem less seriously horrible than it was. There’s a lot that’s fun about writing in this time period, but to represent the imperial progression as anything less than destructive would be dishonest— and honest exploration of hard truths is the essence of drama.
The next step was to consult with people who might have some better perspective than Bernie or I do. This character will be native to a colony in Asia, and we are aware of how many stereotypes and denials of these characters’ full humanity exist in literature and storytelling. We are determined to do everything we can to write this character as an interesting, complicated, and the hero of her own story.
So our other research method has been to consult with Asian-American theater artists on whether or not we were on the right track with our plan for the character. We asked them to approach it if they were going to be playing the role— would they feel like they were embodying a real human? Was her journey given sufficient dimension and weight? Was her struggle conceived of honestly without reducing her to the difficulty of the circumstances of her life?
So far, we have friends Eric Cheung, Naomi Ibatsitas, Michael Lin, and Mara Elissa Palma to thank for taking the time to give their thoughts and insight on how to best depict this character. Their ideas and suggestions have been invaluable in not only shaping this to be a respectful portrayal, but a dramatically compelling one as well. It is a generous donation of time and emotional labor, so I am extremely grateful.
The goal is to have this outline settled by the end of June of 2017. That’s not to say it can’t evolve in the drafting process, but a strong sense of direction is very helpful for me to keep arc and theme in mind. So getting this right is very important. Not only do I want to do right by the material, but a richer, more human cast will only make the story more powerful.