Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler is not ashamed to say it. She wanted a "Hot Asian Doctor Husband."
"It was 2017, I think, and at the time I was going through a lot of complicated feelings regarding race and dating and I thought, 'I really want to end up with a hot Asian doctor husband," recalled Winkler. Her dark comedy of the same name, commissioned by Theater Mu, gets its world premiere Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre.
That thought came from a couple of places: Her mother's serious illness made Winkler reflect on her Japanese heritage. And a bunch of weddings revealed that if you want to know how segregated this country remains, go to weddings.
"My family is extremely diverse. My sister is married to a black dude. My mom is Japanese. My dad is white. There are a lot of mixed-race people on both sides of the family, but interracial marriage just isn't as common as we like to believe," concluded Winkler, after celebrating with many un-diverse crowds. "When my mother started getting sick, I struggled with the impulse to want to replicate my own family. I started thinking about: What do I want a marriage to look like? What do I want my family to look like?"
Winkler's play is not an autobiography, but those same questions occupy 20-something Emi (played by Meghan Kreidler), who is biracial. As the twisty comedy begins, Emi dumps her seemingly perfect white boyfriend because she's worried about whitewashing her Japanese culture if she doesn't marry a "Hot Asian Doctor Husband" (Eric Sharp plays the title character, who has no other name).
"I actually googled this," said Winkler. "When you start thinking about race and dating, how can you not be specific? Should I not date white guys? And that conundrum is extremely common, particularly with women: 'Am I whitewashing myself because my boyfriend is white and, if we have kids, they'll be one-quarter Asian?' You can't help but feel like you're erasing part of your culture when you have kids, no matter which side it is you're erasing."
Winkler, whose "Two Mile Hollow" was presented last season by Mu and Mixed Blood, is on the writing staff of the NBC series "New Amsterdam." In writing "Hot Asian Doctor Husband," she drew on: a lifetime of being told she doesn't resemble her mother, her and her friends' experiences with casually racist online dating profiles that specify "not attracted to Asian guys," and her fear that she could lose both her mother and her link to Japanese culture/language.
The playwright, who says half-Asian people are so rare on TV that she keeps a mental list of them, was motivated by a desire to broaden the romantic comedy genre. She's a fan of recent ones featuring Asian-American characters ("Crazy Rich Asians," "Always Be My Maybe," "To All the Boys I've Loved Before"), but it bugs her that they blithely erase biracial people.
"There isn't a lot of nuance in terms of mixed-race Asian people versus Asian-American people. Even in 'Crazy Rich Asians,' there's a lot of internalized racism against mixed-race Asians. The lead, Henry Golding, he's Hapa [part Asian or Pacific Islander] and a lot of people don't see that as a politically correct choice. I'm glad these movies are coming out and romcoms are fun, but my play subverts them a bit because there are nuances that come with every race when it comes to love," said Winkler.
The nuances suggested by the title involve Emi's decision to dump her white boyfriend: Can she turn her back on someone because he doesn't fit a racial profile? Winkler also cites concerns about mixed-race children: Should prospective parents worry that their kids may not resemble them? Those questions are piled on top of the usual dating traumas.
Josephine Lee, who teaches English and Asian-American studies at the University of Minnesota, attended an early reading of "Hot Asian Doctor Husband," and thinks it comes at a great time to engage with those issues.
"The number of romantic comedies that have come out recently, this kind of mainstreaming points to something that has been going on for a few decades now, where Asian-American artists have been drawing attention to the lack of representation," said Lee.
Subtly, these new movies and plays reinforce the idea that stories about mixed-race identity are mainstream American stories. And, even with their imperfections, they address damaging stereotypes.
"We're talking all the way back to the second half of the 19th century, with the anti-Chinese feeling that was maybe a little like the anti-immigrant feelings we see in the news today," said Lee.
From the first waves of Chinese immigrants 200 years ago up to the "Miss Saigon" musical now touring the country, theater and literature have perpetuated caricatures of Asian people, with men often depicted as threatening or undesirable and women as prostitutes or doll-like "exotics." A romcom can blast those stereotypes by depicting Asian-Americans as healthy, sexual beings who want love like anyone else.
Lee thinks one reason recent years have brought romcoms with Asian-American and biracial characters is that audiences already know the outlines of romcoms.
"They're familiar and it's the old story about how a community perpetuates itself, where your romantic choices have a lot to do with what kind of world you see in the future," said Lee, adding that those questions are especially loaded for people who are sometimes marginalized. "There's a lot of actual pressure on minority communities to conform to certain romantic choices, and I think that's what Leah is working with: that those pressures come from a lot of different places."
Including from inside. That's largely where Emi's pressures come from, which Winkler believes is very common.
"A mixed-race identity is tricky and this is an attempt to normalize an issue I've talked about with many, many biracial, female-identifying people. Talking to them, I've realized my feelings aren't weird and that we all go through it. Love is really complicated for everyone, but it can be even more complicated when you put race, or even whiteness, into the equation," said Winkler.
And, by the way, the playwright speaks from fresh experience.
"I am engaged now," said Winkler. "He is white and it does not matter."