In 2016, director Snehal Desai was named artistic director of the renowned theater company East West Players in Los Angeles, only the fourth person to lead the nation’s premier Asian American theatre since its founding in 1965. East West Players was created by nine Asian American artists and ever since has been a bedrock of Los Angeles’ vibrant theater scene. Under Snehal’s leadership the company has focused on new work, producing plays by some of the country’s most admired artists, including Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee and the writer after whom the mainstage is named, Tony Award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and opera and musical librettist David Henry Hwang.
East West Players was in the news this past spring when during a livestream of its annual Ovation Awards, the Los Angeles Stage Alliance, or LASA, not only mispronounced nominated actor Jully Lee’s name but also showed a photo of another Asian American actor. This final act of sloppiness and cultural erasure was too much for Snehal, who along with other artistic directors of color in Los Angeles had for years petitioned the organization to recognize all partner theaters involved in a co-production, not just the larger and predominantly white institutions. The next day he wrote an impassioned statement on social media succinctly stating why East West Players was immediately withdrawing its membership in LASA. A host of other theaters soon followed suit, and LASA’s board quickly decided to fold.
In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti and Rob Kramer, Snehal discusses how questioning and reinventing fundamental practices in the American theater could change the culture of the artform to be welcoming to a broader range of artists and audiences alike. He also places his post-Ovation Awards statement within the context of the summer of 2020 and the commitment of artists of color to wrest power from institutions that have long been content to ignore them.