Parables of Global Capital: An Interview with Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of Snow in Midsummer will be streaming on the OSF website May 3–29, 2021. In this in-depth interview with production dramaturg Amrita Ramanan, playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig reflects on her inspiration for writing Snow in Midsummer, the relevancy of the play in today’s world, and her current creative exploration into the landscape of audio drama.


Amrita Ramanan: What inspired you to write Snow in Midsummer?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: In November 2015 I received an email from my UK agent asking if I would be willing to have a video chat with the Literary Office at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) about a possible collaboration. I felt skeptical when I learned that the opportunity was related to their Chinese Translation Project, a collaboration between the RSC and China that involved new Chinese translations of Shakespeare and commissioning playwrights to adapt the Chinese plays written by Shakespeare’s approximate contemporaries. The RSC had previously received a lot of criticism from the British East Asian acting community in the fall of 2012, when they premiered another adaptation of a classical Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao, in which only three out of seventeen roles were played by actors of East Asian heritage. The criticism, covered in international papers, was led by British Chinese actor Daniel York, who had previously played a leading role in my play The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre (and later went on to play a leading role in the RSC production of Snow in Midsummer).

Minutes before our Skype call, the project coordinator sent me a list of four Chinese plays they were considering commissioning adaptations for to see if any were of interest. I looked up plot summaries of each, and learned that one was essentially a female revenge ghost story, in which a woman is executed for a crime she didn’t commit, and her angry ghost causes a drought. That play, The Injustice to Dou Yi, was the only one of the four that had a dramatic spine that interested me. Films about angry ghosts had previously been an obsession of mine—I had written a paper in college comparing the original Japanese and US adaptations of Ringu / The Ring and Ju On / The Grudge, so I was primed to think about cross-cultural perspectives on ghosts.

Snow in Midsummer (2018): Jessica Ko, Daisuke Tsuji, Amy Kim Waschke

Amrita Ramanan: What felt important to maintain from the original Guan Hanqing text and the literal translation of the play by Gigi Chang regarding the story, characters, themes, etc?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: In the beginning, I was loyal only to the core narrative—a woman is executed for a crime she was framed for, and her angry ghost causes a three-year drought. Everything else, to my mind, was up for grabs. I figured I should operate in the same spirit that Shakespeare did in his time, in which he drew upon old plays, myths, and historical documents to create new work.

Amrita Ramanan: I love that philosophy! In the spirit of what was up for grabs, what did you specifically desire to re-imagine?

Jessica Ko in Snow in Midsummer
Snow in Midsummer (2018): Jessica Ko. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: The original play felt very broad and archetypal to my contemporary sensibilities. None of the characters were archetypes that I thought would be compelling to a UK/US audience, unless audiences were primarily being hooked by the spectacle and exoticism of “otherness” being staged, which wasn’t an interesting choice to my mind. Despite this, I had assumed I’d need to write something set in the Yuan Dynasty, until I watched an online archive of a panel that included Daniel York and Anna Chen, a British East Asian actress. On the panel Anna questioned why The Orphan of Zhao had to be adapted as a period piece at all. This comment jolted me awake and inspired me to instead do a contemporary adaptation set in modern China.

Once I made that decision to make Dou Yi a contemporary poor widowed woman living in modern China, I began to imagine possible pressures that might influence her life and death. I knew that there were severe gender disparities in many rural areas due to the consequences of the one-child policy, and that until recently it was common practice for organs to be harvested out of executed prisoners without their consent—and that execution dates were sometimes adjusted depending on whether a certain organ was in demand. I also remembered vividly going to the Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated bodies in Houston in 2006, then reading shortly afterward that a similar touring exhibition had a sign in it that said something along the lines of “We cannot confirm that these are not the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners.” I also thought about a recent court case in China where the son of a famous military singer was prosecuted for being involved in a gang rape—a case that made big news due to how rare it was for any sexual assault crime to be prosecuted in China, much less one committed by a princeling.

Amrita Ramanan: When thinking about Snow in Midsummer today, what resonates?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: Snow in Midsummer and my other two plays set in China, The King of Hell’s Palace and The World of Extreme Happiness, are being published together by Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama for the first time this fall as a trilogy, under the subtitle Three Parables of Global Capital. I bring this up because, when I think of the core story of Snow in Midsummer, I think of it as a parable of Global Capital, by which I mean it is an illustration of how the bodies and labor of the global poor and of working-class people are exploited and transformed into commodities that most of us use regularly in our daily lives—which is where we still are today. Additionally, the link between global warming (fires and drought in the case of the fictional town of New Harmony in Snow in Midsummer) and ecological injustice caused by industrial human actions also speaks directly to today. Unfortunately, I think the play will become more and more relevant.

 

A Scene from Snow in Midsummer
Snow in Midsummer (2018): Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Amrita Ramanan: Unfortunately, I agree. Finally, for our readers who are big fans of your work, what are you working on right now?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: I spent the last year developing the script for a 40 minute audio play commissioned by Playwrights Horizons for their Soundstage Series, and am currently in production for that in a fun remote way that would never have happened pre-pandemic: the composer, director, and sound designer, Michael Roth, is in LA, I am in Rhode Island, and the sole actor Kok Hwa-Lie and recording studio are in The Netherlands. This play with songs is called The Last Words of Uncle Dirt, and is an “It Narrative”—meaning the focal point is a non-human object, in this case a limestone idol statue of my favorite Han Chinese ecological god, Tudigong.

In my play, Uncle Dirt’s body is about to be incinerated by temple officials, and he is recounting the five centuries his spirit spent in his idol statue to an audience of fellow abandoned gods. His story begins in Fujian, China, and includes his adventures in Taiwan and Gold Rush America, where he witnesses Oregon’s 1887 Snake River Massacre of Chinese Miners, one of the worst atrocities committed against Chinese immigrants in North America.

I spent the year prior to the pandemic in Taiwan on sabbatical, doing research into this particular ecological deity. As one of my Taiwanese cousins likes to say, there are more shrines to Tudigong in Taiwan than there are 7-Eleven convenience stores! Tudigong (who I renamed Uncle Dirt) is a bottom-rung god, meaning that he is closer to common folks than any other of the hundreds of gods in the Daoist pantheon. There is a shrine to Tudigong in my mom’s village in rural Taiwan that my grandfather was in charge of opening to the public every morning, and one of my aunts would lock up every evening.

During my recent trip to Taiwan, I learned that in the 1980s, after the launch of the National Lottery, hopeful gamblers brought home idol statues of various Daoist gods in hopes the deities would help them “get rich quick.” If the gods failed to fulfill their fiduciary duties, they were sometimes subject to violent physical abuse (like their arms being cut off with machetes) and disposed of. Throughout the 1990s hikers, farmers, and fishermen found hundreds of these castaway gods throughout Taiwan’s rivers and fields, and sent these statues to temples and police stations, where the gods would be adopted and housed in a dedicated room for abandoned gods, or, if there was fear that a demon had entered the statue during its period of abandonment, incinerated. This was the entry point for The Last Words of Uncle Dirt, which will be available (free!) globally via Playwrights Horizons’ website beginning Fall 2021.