Prince Gomolvilas NO LIMITS

By Schiffman, Jean | American Theatre, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Prince Gomolvilas NO LIMITS

Schiffman, Jean, American Theatre

A young playwright dares to cast his net wide

Abject terror, says San Francisco playwright Prince Gomolvilas, is part of his creative process. "I always know I'm on the right track with a play if, before I start it, I have an enormous amount of fear," he confides.

Despite his regal-sounding name, Gomolvilas, 28, is clearly "of the people." Small and slight with rectangular, black-framed glasses and fashionably short hair, he's quiet, unassuming and jokily self-deprecating. For an interview at a local cafe following the opening of his latest work, Bee, he wears a gray V-necked sweater; jeans and black "pleather" jacket (the fabric of choice for "pinko commie veggies," he says), blending right in with the laptop-student crowd.

"All my characters are aspects of me and composites of people I interact with regularly," muses Gomolvilas, sipping a latte. Bee, for example, commissioned by San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (the company's first non-African-American commission), traces the bumpy relationship between Devon, a young Korean-American who discovers that he's invisible, and Gina, a middle-aged black woman who is the only person who can see him. The two set out on an existential quest to cure his condition. When asked about his urge to explore the conflict-fraught relationship between the two ethnicities, Gomovilas, a Thai-American, confesses, "That really terrified me! How much do I really know about the black experience, and what right do I have to write about it?"

Gomolvilas's plays spring from the mind of a Midwestern kid turned southern Californian (at age seven) with Thai immigrant parents. Gomolvilas was crowned "Prince" early on when his Indianapolis kindergarten teacher couldn't pronounce his given name, Khamolpat. Young Prince never attended a real play until he saw David Mamet's Oleanna at San Francisco State. There, he started out writing screenplays ("mostly about werewolves") and, as he tells it, "ended up with an M.F.A. in playwriting."

Unlike older and more established Asian-American playwrights such as David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, Gomolvilas populates his plays with many ethnicities, a panoply of hyphenates-Caucasian, African-, Chinese-, Filipino-, Thai-, Korean- and Japanese-Americans. Like his colleagues, his plays address race, sexuality and other social concerns, although it's his wacky, pop-cultural sense of humor; his penchant for quirky characters and his interest in the supernatural that set him apart.

"The images we get of Asian Americans in the mainstream media are stereotypes," he laments. "Chinese waiters, subservient women, Jackie Chan demonstrating that all Asian-American men are martial artists!" His gaze wanders out the window to Golden Gate Park as he formulates his thoughts: "Something about the core of what each nationality in America experiences--the issues of displacement and identity--remains the same."

Similarly, Gomolvilas's gay identity is inherent in his work, but he writes about both straight and homosexual relationships. "So much of what he writes is very intense, personal conversation with rather high stakes," observes Bee's director, Arturo Catricala, "whether the characters are talking about homosexual rights or racial tensions. It's weighty stuff. And he does it with a light touch."

Gomolvilas's 1999 Debunking Love, developed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and premiered at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre, reflects some of Gomolvilas's writing dilemmas. ("Can I ever write a play that doesn't have a gay male Asian in it and be taken seriously?" he wonders.) In Debunking Love, a gay Asian mystery writer is harassed by friends to be a social activist. Desperately seeking love and trying to avoid political commitment (while he churns out novels about a straight, white detective), he drives himself into a frenzy. Like most of Gomolvilas's plays, Debunking combines short scenes and monologues delivered directly to the audience.

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