Playwright Interview: Nathan Ramos

What drew you to playwriting?
I taught for two years, but became very disillusioned by the state of our education system. I moved to NYC, and worked as an actor, but then again became disillusioned with acting, being told I’m too Asian or not Asian enough, or getting backhanded compliments about thank god you’re like a ‘white’ Asian, or being told I would never work in TV/film because of my cleft lip and palate. I was called in for an appointment for a show that was on Broadway, and the casting director was texting during my audition.

Romeo Candido, one of the creators of Prison Dancer the Musical said that we can’t wait around for someone to write roles for us, and that planted a seed that I fed and watered with my frustration and depression, which eventually bloomed into the play As We Babble On.

Ramos' writing space.
Take a photo of your writing space and give us one fun fact about it.
I write at Manhattanville coffee at 142 and Edgecombe in Harlem.  It has gorgeous floor to ceiling windows that let in an incredible amount of natural light.  They also serve beer so if I’m feeling like a fraud, I just shotgun a pint.

What do you hope to get out of this play reading?
I am very new to this side of the art form. I have never heard my play with a cast of actors, so I am just excited to hear how others bring the story to life. I think hearing the play out loud is going to be equal parts exhilarating and torturous. I watch horror movies with a blanket over my head the whole time and I feel like the experiences will be parallel in nature.

Why this play? 
I wrote this play because I found myself in [the main character] Benji’s shoes. Very jaded, angry and with a lot of self-loathing about my talents and personal/romantic life. I decided to write this play because it was like a "put your money where your mouth is" moment. I also wrote this play because I just want to see a story where Asians get to sit on the couch and drink boxed wine. So often with Asian casts, it becomes about what struggles happened in the past, or what exotic land the play is set. Period pieces are really important, but I want to be able to see a play where Asians buy groceries. It’s like the US Magazine segment "Asians, they’re just like us!"—we never see them in normalized situations. I love Chris Rock, but the only time Asians are mentioned in Top 5 is to say they have small dicks, and the only time they appeared on the Oscars was a joke about making iPhones. It just reiterates that we have to fight for our voices to be heard, and that even other active voices are fallible.

I also wanted to tackle the fractured nature of the Asian American experience. We don’t have a unifying tragedy to unite the continent under some bannered collective emotional experience. I had absolutely nothing in common with Shioko Kakinuma, the Japanese foreign exchange student in my first grade class, yet the lunch aides suggested I sit next to her because we have an overlapping genetic disposition for straight black hair and almond eyes.

I hope that the play begins a dialogue of shared parallel experience that can create a commonality within the Asian American community. Also I hope with my new found celebrity I will find my own Joel (Applications accepted).

How would you describe As We Babble On in three words?
Yasss, writing, yasss.

Playwright Nathan Ramos
How would you describe your writing style or “voice?”
In a sentence: A pop culturally immersed voice speaking of the fractured Asian American experience, tinged with satire and emojis.

In more depth: I wasn’t really allowed to watch tv or listen to music until I was 14 so my formal entry into the cultural zeitgeist was "American Idol" and "Survivor." Those shows were the first time I saw diversity, specifically Asians, allowed to be sentient, well-rounded characters. The following have shaped my voice in various ways:

Roald Dahl - emotionally malicious storytelling rooted in truth, shrewdly intelligent children that were not treated less than the adults, simple what-if’s with fruitful dividends. My young brain exploded and blossomed with every page turn. In third grade, I wasn’t allowed to read books anymore because I broke the Accelerated Reader Record, and my teacher said I was showing off. Roald Dahl was the first time a storyteller gave me power despite marginalization.

Yul Kwon - Winner of "Survivor Cook Islands"—first time I saw an intelligent well-rounded Asian man on television, and the first time I felt like I had permission to be sexually attracted to another Asian male. Yul represented everything that I didn’t think I was allowed to be. His existence alone, was activism in my eyes.

Margaret Cho - The first person’s work that spoke directly to my core being. She recently said on Chelsea Does Race that you can tell how Asian someone is by how bad their house smells. She compels me to be honest, cutting, but still buoyantly open with my work.

Kelly Clarkson - Every time I would contemplate killing myself, she would come out with a new album, and I would have major FOMO about her new single. We were on the same cycle.

Kelly Kapoor - The first character that I would have loved to write for. Hyper vapid and emotionally unpredictable, I felt like she perfectly lampooned millennial sentiment. Mindy Kaling then subverted these ideas when she fleshed out Dr. Lahiri on "The Mindy Project." I have never connected to a line more than when her character says that her favorite singer was Katy Perry. I feel insecure that I don’t have a strong writing pedigree, but that TV moment bolstered my individual storytelling voice.

Alicia Keys - I wanted to be a pop star growing up. Her song "Diary" taught me how to create tone and mood with cadence, rhythm, vocal quality and simply crafted suggestive lyrics.

Star Trek Voyager - My entry point into asking large scale questions about humanity’s role, moral fluidity, and personal ideology.

Marvel Comics Universe (not the cinematic universe) - Marvel has a litany of incredible Asian characters (Psylocke, Amadeus Cho, Jubilee, Shang-Chi to name a few) that are not defined by their ethnicity, but enriched by their cultural specificities. I got to be the Hulk for Halloween this year without having to put myself in another’s skin. I didn’t know how empowering it was to actually truly embody a superhero until I blacked out from witch’s brew (mango hard cider, tequila, ginger beer).

Basically I'm saying my dream show would be Matilda Part 2: Matilda in Space, co-written by Margaret Cho and Alicia Keys. Matilda, played by Mindy Kaling, would have her psionic powers returned to her to fight a rag tag space gang of cyborg pirates. Kelly Clarkson would play the late Miss Honey who is now a sentient A.I. System. Together they grapple with ideas of multiple universes and whether body hacking should be permissible. There will be at least four costume changes per episode.

Nathan Ramos' As We Babble On will be presented in Artists at Play's spring reading series on Sunday, March 20 at 12pm at East West Players.

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