Arena Stage play ‘Exclusion’ is a Hollywood satire of a shocking moment in Asian American history

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Exclusion' at Arena Stage (Part 1)

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States, and the D.C. theater community fittingly tackles a shocking moment in American history but doing so with the biting humor of a Hollywood satire.

Arena Stage presents the new play “Exclusion” near The Wharf in Southwest D.C. now through June 25.

“I was born and bred here, Arena Stage was the place where I fell in love with it all, so it’s so meaningful to come back and do a show in my hometown at a place that has such a storied history,” actor Josh Stamberg of “WandaVision” told WTOP. “I grew up in Northwest D.C. on the Chevy Chase side. … My mom, who was a New Yorker and exceptional journalist [NPR host Susan Stamberg], dragged me to everything, my parents both did.”

The play follows an award-winning author and historian named Katie (portrayed by the artist simply known as Karoline), who is thrilled when her bestselling book about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned to become a TV miniseries by Hollywood mogul Harry (Stamberg). However, her euphoria turns to disillusionment when she finds herself defending her work’s authenticity in the struggle between what’s true and what sells.

“A young woman from Michigan comes to Hollywood chasing the dream and ultimately achieves it, but the play asks the question: at what cost? How do you hold onto your soul in very turbulent waters?” Stamberg said. “The play is asking big questions about ownership of history, of culture, of story, as this Hollywood guy, me, takes this very meaningful historical story, then figures out how to dramatize it and turn it into a hit TV series.”

For those needing a refresher of a history lesson, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 provided an absolute 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. It was passed by Congress and into law signed by President Chester A. Arthur in the spring of 1882 as the first significant law restricting immigration into the U.S.

“Chinese people could be completely excluded from society here in the country where they were working and living and be forced out,” Stamberg said. “That went on for a very, very long time up until the 1900s. It was shocking to learn about. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know anything about it, which is something that’s amazing about this production, shedding light on that in addition to just being hugely entertaining and funny.”

The show is written by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lin, who wrote episodes of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” as well as plays like “Kleptocracy” at Arena Stage in 2019.

“[‘Exclusion’] is a very taught 90 minutes,” Stamberg said. “He’s very interested in politics, social power and status. He writes such sharp, smart dialogue. One of things that is most brilliant about the play is how funny he makes the history lessons. He’s not just jamming it at you, preaching about history you should know, he’s doing it by making it hugely entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny so you can get the spoonful of medicine in there.”

Find more information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Exclusion' at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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