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Eric Reyes Loo on writing ‘Death and Cockroaches,’ a provocative play about grief

Sunil Malhotra as Eric, Kelvin Han Yee as Dad in "Death and Cockroaches." Photo by Peter Wylie.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

“Death and Cockroaches,” a new play by Eric Reyes Loo about a struggling “Chexican” (part Chinese-part Mexican) TV writer who must cope with his father’s terminal illness, is running at Atwater Village Theaters through December 1. In this email interview, the playwright talks about why he chose to write the play as an autobiographical fantasy, its emphasis on grieving, identity and sexuality and how family members reacted seeing themselves in his play.

The two images that dominate in this show are the penis and the cockroach. What do they mean in this show?

The penis is pretty simple, right? It’s about Eric’s libido, his manhood, his privilege. It’s what separates us from our vulnerability, sensitivity and emotions – things we feminize in our culture. It’s also a distraction. In the big moment – which I don’t want to talk about because it’s giving stuff away – where the penis is front and center, the idea is that sooner or later you need to stop distracting yourself and face what’s really in front of you. The two worlds collide – Eric’s sexual acting out and his grief.

The cockroach represents survival. In the play, the Cockroach and Eric talk about an old adage that long after an apocalypse there will be two things: cockroaches and Cher. This life event – Eric’s dad dying – is his personal apocalypse. And surviving that event means that Eric will continue on long after his father’s death. I also say that the Cockroach is the Jiminy Cricket of the play – he’s Eric’s conscience. He’s the part of Eric that knows right and wrong. In some ways, it’s the most clear part of himself.

Your play “Death and Cockroaches” is part autobiographical, part fantasy, and based on real-life you, your parents, brother, ex, and a caretaker for your father. Have any of the people you’ve written about seen your play, and if so, what have their responses been?

My Mom and my brother came opening night, which was a big deal to me because I knew they’d have something to say about their portrayal. Since my brother was going to fly down from Portland to see the play, I wanted him to read it beforehand to decide if he wanted to come down. He read it and told me he was most worried about my Mom. My mom’s response to that was, “If he’s that worried about me, he should come down and sit next to me on opening night!” So that settled that. They came and both enjoyed it. My Mom’s response was two-fold – it was hard to watch the scenes with Kelvin Han Yee, the actor playing Dad, lying in the hospital bed and being sick; and she looked at me and said, “Wow. You were awfully busy when you weren’t with us” – referring to Eric’s dealing with Dad’s illness with promiscuity.

The funniest thing was that at the opening night party, Eileen Galindo, who plays Mom, and my mom were dressed in the same outfit – all in black with long red cardigans. They had never met. My brother Chris thought the play was well done and also settled into the idea that this was my reaction to what had happened when our Dad was sick. But just like his father, he was tight-lipped with me and spoke highly of it to everyone else. I would have expected no other appropriate reaction. That’s very much our family.

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The play addresses some of the playwright-protagonist’s struggles as a Chexican writer trying to make it in Hollywood. What is it like being a Chexican writer in Hollywood and in the theater now?

Being a Chexican writer in Hollywood is unique because I don’t know any others. I’m half-Chinese and half-Mexican, so I have a lot of support from my fellow Latinx writers and Asian writers. I’m a member of the Latino Writers Committee and the Asian-American Writers Committee at the Writers Guild of America and have extreme support from both groups. I’m also a part of a gay Latino writers coalition called the Clubhouse – we’re gay Latino writers of all levels who formed as a professional and emotional support system. Being a writer of color in Hollywood is difficult, period, because so many entities want to categorize you and tell you what your story should be.

All I can do is hold my friends close who understand what it’s like – whether they be gay, Latinx, Asian, African-American, Native American and/or female – and try to be there for each other. We share stories of what it’s like in writers rooms, in meetings and we read each other’s material and give each other professional advice.

There really is strength in numbers. There’s obvious struggle, but if you focus too much on the struggle you become defined by it. As Eric says in the play, “I try not to project a negative outcome.” I’m inspired by every boss of color – those can be directors, showrunners, executives, agents. I’m lucky to have an Asian American lawyer, a Latina agent, and friends who are running shows who are Latinx and Asian. Too many to name without forgetting a few and still not enough in the industry. As lucky as I am, there are not enough stories being told in the theatre and not enough people of color employed in TV and film.

You grew up in Downey, which is close to the SGV. How has that shaped who you are and how you write?

Growing up in Downey, which is probably about 15-20 miles from Hollywood and yet a world away, shaped me because I grew up in a household where both of my parents worked. TV was my babysitter. My parents didn’t have time to help me with my homework all of the time. They left me to my own devices. And what that did was it forced me to engage my curiosity and seek out things that interested me. And this was all pre-Internet. So I read fashion magazines and checked out strange novels from the library. I watched movies that seemed cool and interesting and beyond me. I curated my own collection of media that inspired me. And because I felt I was living in a world where I didn’t belong, I started to understand that I had to create a world and seek out people who I had things in common with. It wasn’t going to just come to me. And I got really familiar and comfortable with being an outsider. In a lot of ways, I still am. And that’s okay. It doesn’t always feel great, but it’s okay.

What have you gotten out of writing this play as an autobiographical fantasy, that’s self-referential, with a protagonist with your name, as opposed to writing a play about a fictional family with a different name that goes through more or less what you personally experienced?

I had to claim my story. It would have felt cowardly to change the names. My whole life’s journey has been about claiming myself. I grew up finding myself in other people’s stories – mainly with white protagonists and characters. I didn’t set out to do this, but what I’ve done is I’ve created a unique family, a bi-racial family that’s never been seen on stage who still reminds people of their own families, and I’ve asked the audience to see themselves in my family. That’s why it was important to write them as my family. And the positive reception to this play from the moment I shared it with my writers group, to the two workshops we did over the past two years and now to this beautiful production has given me the confidence to continue to put my voice and my story front and center. It won’t always be directly autobiographical. But I now know that my story deserves to be shared publicly. I hope that inspires other people too.

Who should come and see this show? And who shouldn’t?

Everyone should come see this play. I used to say that if you can stomach the opening monologue and the big penis moment of the show, then you’ll be fine. But my boyfriend’s parents saw the show yesterday and all we talked about was the process of taking care of a loved one and grief. The play also gets laughs all the way through to the end, so even though sad things are happening, we usher you through to the end of the play, much like Eric ushers his father all the way to the end of his life. Anyone who has suffered loss should see this play and who needs a release and a place where their grief is voiced and heard. A review said to “leave your prudishness at the door” and I agree with that. But I also think this is such a human story that everyone should see it. But if you’re someone who can’t get past crass sex talk, it might be hard to sit through the first five minutes of the play. But at least we make you laugh. And the audience reaction has been that the play’s extremely cathartic. It unearths emotions in unexpected ways and sometimes days later.

Any additional thoughts you’d like to add?

See the show! We close on December 1st, so hopefully by the time this is published, you can see one of the three final performances (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). We do something called dynamic pricing, which means it gets more expensive each weekend. So the ticket price is $50 for the final weekend. Please feel free to pay full price if you can afford it. But Goldstar has seats and I’ve got a code CockroachGroup for $20 off tickets. It’s worth it.

If you’re someone who feels like you don’t see enough people like you on stage, come see this show and support more work like this. LA’s a great theatre town even though it’s not a part of the social consciousness. We’ll make you laugh until you cry and then hopefully we’ll make you laugh again. And it’s only 93 minutes, no intermission! And there are great restaurants in Atwater Village to go to before and after. I’m half-Asian and half-Latinx – it’s all about pre-show or post-show eating.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

“Death and Cockroaches”
Written by Eric Reyes Loo
Directed by Jennifer Chang

Starring Walter Belenky, Claudia de Vasco, Eileen Galindo, Justin Huen, Sunil Malhotra, and Kelvin Han Yee
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre

Performance times: Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., through Dec. 1, 2018

Venue: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039

General Admission: $35-$50; dynamic pricing – ticket prices increase each weekend; 323-379-9583; www.chalkrep.com

$20 off with code “CockroachGroup” on Goldstar.

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