Assimilation brings up thorny questions: is it a path toward conformist victory or traditional defeat? What is the correct balance to strike between “fitting in” and maintaining one’s heritage? And who makes the rules to determine the success of that balance?

Hillary Gao’s new play, would you set the table if I asked you to?, considers the cost of assimilation through a uniquely theatrical and culturally specific lens. Featuring an intergenerational cast of all Asian actors, the play runs July 7-13 at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg. Learn more about the fresh work and Hillary’s take on culture blending, though the play may probe more questions than answers. As Hillary says, “This play is not setting out to solve assimilation or impart any broader insights into the Asian American experience.”

Greenpointers: The description for your play definitely seems to have an open-endedness to it. Can you share what the play is about without giving too much away?
I love ambiguous descriptions. But yes. I came to the piece wanting to explore how parents teach their children how to be “civilized,” how to survive. And as it became infused with some of my own experiences, I started to wonder what survival truly meant – acceptance? assimilation? concession?

I believe there is some fascination with animals in the play; can you talk about that?
I’m interested in the complexities around assigning morality to animals — most are just trying to stay alive. That’s something I think a lot about when I think about my parents’ immigrant experience. There are elements that, when viewed with a Western eye, seem horrible. But most parents just want their children to survive. And this also plays into the human/animal dichotomy. People of color are often likened to animals in order to create a distinction between civilized and savage. We are taught methods of assimilation to become more palatable. In our piece, we try to explore what it means to be human and if it’s possible to ever be “civilized enough” in the eyes of white supremacy.

Your play features an all-Asian, intergenerational cast. That’s amazing! What was it like assembling the team and working together?
I had such a blast assembling the cast (Sharon Sakai, Ring Yuqi Yang, Miranda Kang, and Shan Y. Chuang). We (the creative team) wanted to find creative collaborators and prioritized getting to know them as individual artists. This continued as we started building the piece. We act as a sort of support network in order to help our cast feel comfortable sharing, exploring, and playing. And I found myself constantly learning. One of our actors is in her seventies. Her experience, and what her family wanted for her, is different from mine, but both center the same themes.


The Brick is such a wonderful home for fresh work. What excites you about that neighborhood venue?
I can sing praises about The Brick all day long. It’s the space I’ve been searching for ever since I started my journey. Getting to know Artistic Director Theresa Buchheister, The Brick, and everything going on there makes me feel like I can explore ideas that I am interested in, forms that are unconventional, and experiences that are weird. There’s something very special about seeing work that makes you excited to keep making work. I feel extremely lucky to be able to explore this piece in their space.

Photo by Lauren Chiriboga (@laurenchiribogaphoto) featuring Sharon Sakai, Cynthia Hu, Anya Zhang, and taken at the Tank.

What else should audiences know before they come in, or something you hope they know more when they leave?
My collaborators and I are very interested in creating an atmosphere – a living, breathing space in which these characters and our explorations take place. I’m interested in sights, sounds, and movement that provoke a feeling in our audience, rather than a start/middle/end story — for me, emotional response is prioritized over all else. This play is not setting out to solve assimilation or impart any broader insights into the Asian American experience. While we’re exploring themes of palatability, we make no effort to do so toward the audience. So buckle up!

The show graphic was created by Lucy Chi (@heiseigirls) 

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