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Artwork for Pandemic, by Andre Jones, courtesy of Philadelphia Young Playwrights
Artwork for Pandemic, by Andre Jones, courtesy of Philadelphia Young Playwrights

‘Pandemic,’ the play that captures the anti-Asian hate of the moment in a time capsule

The first play from 16-year-old Wissahickon High student Katie Lu was inspired by the rise in anti-Asian hate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Katie Lu, a 16-year-old Wissahickon High School student, won first place in the 2020 Philadelphia Young Playwrights’ Annual Playwriting Festival, for her three-act play entitled Pandemic. It was also chosen to be professionally produced under a grant from the Independence Foundation.

Lu’s play centers around racism against Asian-Americans, both in the present and in the past. She started crafting the narrative several months before the start of the pandemic, but the outbreak and the xenophobic actions that followed drastically changed her creative process. 

Lu said she wanted to create a play that would resonate with people of different generations, but none of her initial ideas were striking gold. 

Then, she witnessed the reports of fellow Asian-Americans being harassed and physically attacked by people falsely claiming they were the cause of the virus. 

Instead of watching silently, Lu channelled her feelings into writing her award-winning play that fuses together the current issues of hate crimes with the shameful U.S. history of preventing Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. 

Lu’s parents are both computer programmers that immigrated to the U.S. before she was born. 

As she observed the ongoing series of attacks on Asian-Americans, she reflected on her own identity and the history of Asian immigrants in America. 

“I was learning about the Chinese Exclusion period of the 19th and 20th century [which began when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed a moratorium on Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S citizens.]” 

Pandemic tells the stories of a “naive” Asian-American college student in 2020 who is “opened up to a world of racial prejudice” when her grandfather falls victim to a violent hate crime, and a young mother-to-be in the 1930s who’s trying to keep her family together while facing the threat of deportation. 

In the modern story, Lu’s main character, Esther, is heard bursting into her grandfather’s hospital room after the attack. Medical monitoring equipment is beeping in the background, and Esther begs to know if her grandfather is okay. He laughs it off and says: “who knew? All it takes is a beating for my granddaughter to come see me.” 

Lu drew inspiration from her own grandfather who is very cheerful and loves making jokes. 

“I feel at times when terrible things happen — like a hate crime — it’s easy to dance around the subject,” Lu said. 

When the play moves back in time, listeners are signaled to the change through a sound montage of news announcements about the racist abuses endured by Chinese immigrants in the 1930s. The expecting American mother is writing letters to her absent Chinese fiancé, excited for the day they can be reunited. 

In the end, the couple does get married, but the mother loses her citizenship due to the Expatriation Act of 1907. Their child, still an American citizen, is taken away by the state. 

Originally, Lu had planned for a visual experience on a stage, but due to social distancing restrictions, it had to be adapted for the radio. She was disappointed at first, but found the process of creating an audio-only production to be enjoyable. 

Lu’s original script called for the stage to split in two, to distinguish between the different time periods, but for a radio play, she and her sound designer, Lucas Campbell, had to think outside of the box to create the same effect.

“We were working on creating an immersive experience, audibly. That meant getting a dialect coach to make sure you got to bring the kind of musicality to a 1930s voice and focusing on things like accent work, to try to transport the listener through just sound,” Lu explained. 

Pandemic is Lu’s first play and first introduction to the world of theater. She doesn’t have a new idea yet, but said she definitely wants to keep writing. 

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