A young playwright's quest to ask difficult questions about race, class and gender
Leah Nanako Winkler’s new play “Kentucky” is a comedy about a Japanese American woman raised in the South. Like her protagonist Hiro, Winkler is half-Japanese and grew up in Kentucky. Like Hiro, she left for New York and didn’t return for years. And like Hiro, Winkler found her sister’s embrace of evangelical Christianity puzzling and alarming.
“She remembers that during her orientation at Butler University, the liberal-arts college in Indiana, she raised her hand to ask, “Is everybody here white?”
“Back then I think it was disorienting for white people to hear that,” she says. “But Butler was where I first experienced the culture shock of how white theater is. Those were the first kernels of, you know, what can I add to the conversation: How can I change the landscape.”
Born in Japan, Winkler spent some of her childhood there before moving to Kentucky. She won’t say how old she was at the time. “I don’t like to answer that question because there’s a lot of judgment placed on that,” she says. “There’s a big difference if I say 2 or if I say 12. People like to peg you on how Japanese or how American you are, when you’re mixed race.”
She will say that she was old enough to experience “a double identity crisis.”
“In Japan I was a child model because of my Western looks,” she says. “I was considered gaijin, which means foreigner. But in America I was the girl from Japan.”