Q&A: Playwright Mike Lew puts humorous take on tiger parenting in Alliance world premiere

Kendeda Award winner Mike Lew brings his second play to the Alliance.
Kendeda Award winner Mike Lew brings his second play to the Alliance.
Kendeda Award winner Mike Lew brings his second play to the Alliance.
Kendeda Award winner Mike Lew brings his second play to the Alliance.

Albert has just been passed over for a promotion at the IT company where he works and Jennifer’s freeloading boyfriend has just broken up with her, despite the fact that she is a successful doctor. Discontented with the current states of their lives, Jennifer and Albert decide to go to the source of all of their problems — their parents. 

So, whose fault is it? Mom and dad’s for emphasizing professional achievement over personal joy? Or, Albert and Jennifer’s for not bothering to create a life? When the confrontation with their parents does not go how they imagined, they journey across the world to find out why making $75,000 a year is never enough. 

Kendeda Award-winning playwright Mike Lew returns to the Alliance Theatre with his new play Tiger Style!, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and running September 30-October 18. In it, he offers a humorous take on millennials, adulthood, being a third generation immigrant and the effects of tiger parenting. 

Bike America was produced at the Alliance in 2013.
Bike America was produced at the Alliance in 2013.

The term “tiger parent” refers to a stereotype of strict Asian-American parents who demand that their children work tirelessly to excel at being the best in academics and extracurricular activities — something Lew says he can relate to. 

The 33-year-old San Diego native won the Kendeda Award (given to graduate students working on a MFA in playwriting) in 2012, and his play Bike America was produced on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage in 2013. He wrote Tiger Style! that year while finishing at Juilliard; instead of a bike trip for self-discovery, siblings Albert and Jennifer are flying to China. 

Lew is the first Kendeda Award winner to receive a full-scale production on the Alliance Theatre’s mainstage. 

ArtsATL: What inspired you to write Tiger Style!?

Mike Lew: When you’re a playwright of color you’re often expected to write about your culture, and I think that messes with your head. When the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out, there was backlash. People asserted that kids who grew up in strict environments would grow up to hate their parents. But I think that is out of balance, and does not reflect my experience of it. I grew up with parents who pushed my sister and me academically, so I have a window into this aspect of Asian culture as opposed to immigrant stories, because I am now three generations into this country. 

ArtsATL: What is the play about to you?

Lew: It’s looking at the idea of the ups and downs of tiger parenting. I think it does work, because when you grow up in a household where you are expected to excel academically, you will. But, there are also limits to that strategy. There are going to be a lot of life questions that getting A’s on exams won’t answer. I went to Yale for undergrad, and I come out and nobody cares, and that’s a big adjustment. I also grew up with very stringent metrics for success, but in theater you are always learning and growing. 


ArtsATL: Are you concerned that by offering a humorous take on the tiger mother stereotype that you are perpetuating a negative Asian stereotype and making it okay for non-Asian people to laugh at it?

Lew: The most that I can do is be as specific about this family, so that it is more personal and empathetic, rather than anthropological. In terms of stereotypes, I have a lot of sympathy for tiger parents, because it is a survival mechanism for them. A lot of second and third generation Asian immigrants were fleeing World War II, that was the case with some of my family, so that is the path to success that they know.  

ArtsATL: There was recently uproar in the theater community about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s The Mikado, which utilizes yellowface. You wrote in the playwright’s notes for this play, “No Chinese accents ever. Also, cast Asian actors to play Asian characters.” Are you afraid that a theater will cast your work with yellowface? 

Lew: There are two issues that I have been deeply involved with: one is blackface, yellowface and that sort of thing, and the other is whitewashing, and I have definitely experienced the latter. There is diversity built into all of my scripts, but when I don’t explicitly state the race of the characters, and even sometimes when I do, if I’m not directly involved with the production, then it will be an all-white cast. I am trying to create worlds that are reflective of the cities that we live in, which is why I was so vocal about that Mikado production. Nowadays, it is so wrong to do yellowface, whether it is historically accurate, or not. 

ArtsATL: What do you want audiences to take away from this production?

Lew: I want people to have a great time, laugh at the jokes and I hope that people will think deeply about race in this country and their preconceptions about other groups. People also have very strong opinions on whether tiger parenting is right or wrong, and I am looking to present a nuanced, fun, multilayered Asian-American story, because I don’t think that there are enough of them being produced in this country. I want to expand the narrative that we are seeing in theatre, and I love that Atlanta audiences are willing to go with me in these unconventional stories.

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