The year is 1973. Two women, both recent immigrants from Asia, both missing their husbands, break bread together, bonding over their shared experiences.
That's the plot of "The Heart Sellers," a comedy named after the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 that repealed racist immigration laws from the early 20th century. It's on stage now at the Calderwood Pavilion, produced by the Huntington Theater.
Playwright Lloyd Suh sat down with The Culture Show host and Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen sat down with Suh to discuss how his work took form. Suh, himself the child of immigrants, was influenced by his own familial experiences.
"One of the biggest impetuses was my mother," said Suh. After producing "The Chinese Lady" at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Suh was approached by the play's artistic director to discuss next steps.
"May [Adrales, the play's director] and I started talking about ... our mothers, and it occurred to us that they had both had very similar experiences when they first arrived in the United States," said Suh. "I was right in the middle of ... writing a lot about history, and so as soon as I started to think about the early 1970s, I realized this was another history play."
Suh is familiar with writing period pieces. The aforementioned play, "The Chinese Lady," addressed the experiences of the first Chinese woman to come to the United States in the early 1800s. For his work on "The Far Country," a play about immigrating to America during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Suh was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"It occurred to me that the Hart-Celler Act was a kind of bookend piece of legislation and that if I was really going to examine the early days of my mother ... that it was really very similarly about the after effects of that legislation," said Suh. "It was kind of an involuntary impulse that led me down to write about history. ... It's an intense feeling to just feel like, 'oh wow, I can trace this history along such a long continuum.'"
Suh's historical work is still grounded in contemporary issues, such as the shifts in culture triggered by the pandemic.
"This play was written largely during the pandemic. It was a very intense time in a lot of ways — a time of intense national reckoning over this country's relationship to race. It was a time of intense loneliness, and all of those things felt like they were part of what I was dealing with. And when you're ... writing about history, you obviously want to root it in the time period it's in. But it's impossible not to feel the echoes, not just to the present ... but to the beginning of that continuum."
In crafting this play, Suh and the director worked in tandem to flesh out these characters by drawing from interactions with their own families.
Though not a one to one comparison between the characters and his mother, "a lot of it is just rooted in family lore, things that I heard growing up, things that I knew of about her time. She's very candid about the loneliness she felt when she first arrived, the homesickness. I called her and ask[ed] her a lot of questions ... some of them very detailed questions, but some of them, just larger existential questions."
Although the play addresses some serious topics, it is still ultimately a comedy.
"I've talked a lot about the history and the politics and the legislation of it all, and that maybe seems kind of heavy, but that's all very much in the background. I think at the foreground of everything here is that these are two people who want to make a friend. They want to entertain each other, they want to make each other feel safe, they want to make each other have a good time so that they can make a real, honest connection," Suh said. "And so, all the comedy comes from intention ... wanting to make the other person laugh, wanting to feel what it feels like to laugh when you've been sitting in an apartment all alone for four months. That's why I think it's primarily and principally and chiefly very much a comedy."
For tickets and more information about "The Heart Sellers," visit the Huntington's website.