Tates Creek High School graduate, N.Y. playwright premiering play at Humana Festival
Two daughters sit on their mother’s hospital bed while she, weak from cancer treatments, gets to share the good news that she is going home.
It’s a variation on an intimate family moment that Winkler was living, just a year ago.
“My mother became sick last year,” Winkler says. “So I was back in Lexington once a month for several months.”
Winkler’s mother was receiving treatments at the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky, and she was spending days at the hospital to help and support her mother. It offered Winkler, now a New York-based playwright, a chance to have some extended time home in Kentucky for the first time since she graduated from Tates Creek High School in 2003, and it also offered her time to write.
“I’m just here watching my mother sleep, so what else was I going to do?” Winkler says.
And she had the story, or, at least, the characters.
One of Winkler’s biggest successes as a playwright has been “Kentucky,” her play about a woman in her early 30s, Hiro, going home to Kentucky from New York for her younger sister’s wedding.
Hiro, bewildered by her younger sibling’s embrace of evangelical Christianity, aims to stop the marriage and, in her mind, salvage her 22-year-old sister’s future.
“Kentucky” received critical acclaim for its 2015 debut from publications such as The New Yorker, which wrote: “Winkler’s story is ultimately a serious one, about the commonplace nature of childhood trauma and the radically different paths people take to recover.”
The play had a Los Angeles premiere in 2016, earning her notice from the Los Angeles Times, where she acknowledged the play had autobiographical roots but, “It’s like a bizarro-world version of my life.” (She emphasizes she did not try to stop her younger sister’s wedding.)
With plenty of time to think last year during her Kentucky visits, Winkler says, “I imagined the Rose family, who was the family in ‘Kentucky,’ what they would do in that situation.”
The result of that questioning is “God Said This,” Winkler’s new play which allows her to realize a more-than-decade old dream of having a play premiere at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Actors Theatre resident dramaturg Hannah Rae Montgomery says the group selecting plays for this year’s fest was drawn to Winkler’s ability to tell a complex family story with “humor as well as heart,” an uplifting message and that she wrote about a mixed-race family with substantial roles for older actors, neither of which are prevalent in theater today.
Finally, the fact that the play takes place in Lexington and that Leah herself hails from there was definitely a draw,” Montgomery says. “Telling stories about this region, stories that will have special resonance for our local audiences, is definitely something that we consider important and are excited about.”
The play opens Wednesday and runs through April 8 in ATL’s Bingham Theatre.
The production has Winkler on an extended stay in Kentucky for the first time since the summer after her senior year at Tates Creek. She visited the school recently to see her drama teacher Lisa Osterman.
The ringing of the bell to change classes slightly startles her.
“That triggered a whole lot of memories,” Winkler says, with a laugh. “I feel like I just got back from an orthodontist appointment and I’m coming in late.”
She has fond memories of Tates Creek.
“I pretty much owe my career and my success to doing drama at Tates Creek,” Winkler says, citing drama teachers Osterman, who is in her final year at the school, and Jason Meenach, now the drama teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, as huge influences.
“Leah always struck me as a person that, the waters ran deep,” Osterman says. “She was a great listener. She had questions, and they were really good questions. And we would have these deep conversations, and she would just sit back in her chair and go, ‘Ah. Yeah.’ So I knew it was stirring the waters. She was an observer, but she had a really light wit about her that appealed to me.”
In high school, Winkler never became the star performer. But she was very active, serving as drama club president her senior year, and participating in productions. Where Osterman says she really got to know Winkler was through journals she had students write.
“Her writings were so interesting and so personal and reflective, and they made me laugh,” Osterman says. “When she left Tates Creek, I knew she was going to Butler (University in Indianapolis), and I knew she wanted to drama, I just didn’t know how passionate she was going to be about it.”
Pretty passionate, as it turned out. After graduating from Butler in 2007, Winkler bought a computer and a Greyhound bus ticket to New York City to start making her way into the playwrighting world. She had adventures like assistant directing a play about global warming, produced shows on $1,000 budgets and even caused some controversy with a play about class disparity in the New York theater world.
As the years went on, she sharpened her focus on being a playwright, and the success of “Kentucky” was a huge affirmation.
She emphasizes two things about “Kentucky” and “God Said This”: They are not autobiographical, they just have roots in Winkler’s personal story. And “God Said This” is a not a sequel. It just involves the same characters.
Satomi Blair, who is reprising her role as Hiro from “Kentucky” says it is a rare treat in theater to play the same character in more than one new show.
“It’s shockingly epic to see how the family resolves and starts to figure each other out as you become adult, as you get older, as you change in your life, as you get married and have all these life experiences how families have to work to deal with each other through sickness, through pain — families you didn’t think could be in the same room together,” Blair says. “This play explores refinding family, trying to figure out who you are as an adult, and trying to fit in with the greater scope of family.”
“God Said This” had its first reading at New York’s Primary Stages Theatre, and Winkler says she, “never got a response to a play quite like this. That reading surprised some people. It was definitely a different tone than I have written. I am considered a very off-kilter playwright, and this play is very universal — I think a lot of people relate to it.”
Jay Patterson, who is reprising his role as the father, James, from “Kentucky,” observes that Winkler has, “the ability, and it is a unique ability, to show an audience what a person is about, when that person thinks nobody’s looking. You can’t teach a writer how to do that. That’s instinct.”
The long-time actor originally from Cincinnati calls “Kentucky,” “one of the best pieces of theater I have ever been in.”
The quick evolution of “God Said This,” culminated in a July phone call from Winkler’s agent asking about her level of interest in a Humana Festival production, because Actors Theatre wanted to present “God Said This.”
Winkler says she was aware of the Humana Festival growing up, but did not realize how important it was in the theater world until she got to New York, where theater people speak of Humana in reverent tones. Since then, Winkler says a Humana premiere has been her dream.
“God Said This” is set in Lexington, including at the Markey Cancer Center, and in addition to addressing the region, she says in this and other work, she wants to portray the Japanese-American experience. Winkler and her family moved to Lexington from Kamakura, Japan when she was in elementary school.
But she knows the big deal here will be an accurate portrayal of the area, and though she won’t name names, Winkler said she did talk to friends who still live here with an eye toward getting Lexington right.
“I’m just really excited to share it with audiences who actually live here because I’ve been writing about Kentucky — not as a novelty, but because it’s where I grew up — and I hate the fetishization of the South and bad rap that it gets in many circumstances,” Winkler says. “So, I think that it’s important to represent it in a way that I hope people can be proud or see themselves reflected in a way that is positive.”
Preparing the production, Winkler paid attention to details from local vernacular to casting actors who could get accents right.
It dials up the pressure, but Winkler says the whole event is a dream come true.
“Doing a play set in Kentucky in Kentucky, you’re not going to be able to get away with anything false, untruthful,” Winkler says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes
If you go
‘God Said This’
What: World premiere production of Leah Nanako Winkler’s play for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
When: Feb. 28-April 8; performances dates and times vary
Where: Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville
Tickets: $29-$72, depending on show date and seat location