Interview with Playwright David Jacobi
David Jacobi discusses his play, Mai Dang Lao.
What was your inspiration for the play?
I hope this doesn’t spoil the ending.
The play was born from two separate ideas. The incident that occurs in the play is based on true events that occurred in 2004 at a Kentucky McDonalds. A young employee was detained, strip-searched, and raped by people who were given instructions by a man over the phone who claimed to be a police officer.
From 2009 to 2012, I lived in China, working in theatre. During my time there, I learned about a persistent issue. Every city in China has a law enforcement division called “Chengguan.” They’re kind of like traffic cops; enforcing picayune code rather than tackle crime. Some of these officers are extremely violent, hospitalizing, and occasionally beating to death migrant workers for petty infractions. One day, their employee manual was leaked online. It’s some scary, troubling stuff; tips on how to beat someone without leaving marks, philosophical statements that cement an “us vs. them” mentality. I noticed that when translated into English, it doesn’t seem like it’s a government manual from halfway around the world. It could easily be ours.
What do you want the audience to come away with?
I definitely want the audience to leave feeling less safe than they did before. It’s easy to dismiss the real-life event by saying, “Well, of course, something like this happened in Kentucky,” or “It makes sense because they were minimum-wage fast-food workers” as if abuse and subjugation have geographical or socio-economic boundaries.
What was the most challenging part of writing this play?
Adapting the real-life event while not letting it dictate where the play could go. In many drafts, this play came across like a grotesque post-mortem. That’s the last thing I wanted. This event is far from dead; these events are still occurring and in far more subtle and insidious ways.
I tend to lean towards comedic work. While it seems wrong to allow opportunities for an audience to laugh following a horrific scene, I think it was important to keep the absurdity of the world chugging along. After seeing a reading of this play, Constance Congdon referred to it as “Kevin Smith meets Kafka.”
What playwrights have inspired you?
Ionesco, Brecht, Shepard, Thomas Bradshaw, Sarah Kane, Naomi Iizuka, Richard Maxwell, Megan Gogerty, Nick Jones, Gina Gionfriddo, Kathleen Tolan.
Why did you start writing plays?
I think I was always writing plays, as early as the 4th grade. But I was very confused and thought I was writing short stories or poems or love letters. Once mentors started taking me to shows, I realized what I’ve been trying to do.
What projects are you working on now?
This play is actually the first installment of plays about labor politics in the US and in China. I’m currently working on the third and final play, which is about retirement. I’ve just finished my latest draft of Widower, a pro-wrestling play inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
I’m entering my final year at UC San Diego. My biggest project right now is to find an artistic home once I graduate.
What kind of theatre excites you?
I like the plays that unravel in your head hours after you’ve seen them. The plays that make more sense to you in the first few minutes after waking up, when you’re still shaking out the cobwebs. Polarizing plays. Plays that are either under two hours or over six hours long. I long to see a play that has to end abruptly because a riot broke out in the audience.
What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Read. Follow your tastes (especially non-theatre related), and it’ll eventually take you somewhere you want to be. If you’re never fully satisfied, you’re on the right track. Be your strongest advocate. As Naomi Iizuka says, find your tribe.