It’s been more than a century since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law restricting immigration to the U.S. was passed. With Arena Stage’s new Power Play (and world premiere) award-winning playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lin (House of Cards, Clarice, Kleptocracy) is bringing it into today’s conversation as, in some ways, it’s more relevant than ever.

Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress in the spring of 1882. It was designed to be a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States but ended up lasting over 60 years. Not only did it affect Chinese people trying to come to America, it also placed new requirements on those who had already entered the country. The act stated that if Chinese residents left the U.S., they would have had to obtain certifications to re-enter. In addition, Congress refused state and federal courts the right to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens, holding the power to deport them.

Historian Erika Lee shared her family’s experience under the Exclusion Act in an interview with the Asia Society: “My grandmother, whose great-grandfather had come over during the gold rush, she had been left behind. She had been abandoned. Her father could only bring two kids with him. He brought his son and…a nephew. And because of the way exclusion laws worked, that totally barred her from any chance of coming as his daughter. So she never talked about how she did end up coming. We all knew that you just don’t ask…about her family because it was clearly very traumatic.”

Many Exclusion Act family stories ended similarly with separation and trauma.

“We must draw the line somewhere, you know.” United States, 1882. [New York: Frank Leslie] Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. / “Exclusion” artwork by James Ransome


Lin found a clever way to bring these untold stories to light by writing Exclusion — a surprising comedy exploring what it means to tell a dark history for entertainment purposes. The second Power Play in Arena’s 2022/23 Season, and the tenth produced overall, Exclusion follows an award-winning historian who is thrilled when her best-selling book about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned for a mini-series by a Hollywood mogul. However, her euphoria turns to disillusionment as she finds herself constantly defending its authenticity in the struggle between what’s true and what sells.

First Rehearsal

On Tuesday, April 4, Arena staff, trustees, and donors filled the Mac Rehearsal Hall for the production’s First Rehearsal Presentation. As everyone took a seat — eagerly waiting to hear what was in store — the creative team and cast came together for the first time to present their incredible vision for the show.

Molly Smith, Arena Stage artistic director, welcoming everyone to her final First Rehearsal Presentation as artistic director, spoke on the importance of the Power Plays initiative: “Sometimes the way we understand our lives is through stories about this moment in time. And sometimes those plays from an earlier era that underscore where we are in American history. This is a theater that focuses on American plays, American ideas, and American artists. Power Plays are the voices for these visions, to raise the voices and stories of unheard Americans from all points in history, and it’s for political debate, search for truth and the critique of power. Ken Lin is someone that I’ve known for at least 20 years, following his career from the very, very early days. And we also produced one of his gorgeous plays, Kleptocracy, which caused quite a stir in this city! Exclusion, I think, is a very American story and that’s what I love about him.”

Kenneth Lin, playwright, touched on what this piece means to him. “Last night, I walked by the theater. And I saw the poster for this show and I realized, I felt alive for the first time in a long time, because I was making theater. It means so much to me that this is Molly’s last play here. Molly was one of my first champions, one of the first people who ever told me that I had a place in the theater. I’m an immigrant kid—English is my second language. Last night, I saw my poster next to Angels in America and I never ever believed that I could be a writer. I’m so grateful to be here with this amazing, fantastic, beautiful cast. I cannot tell you how excited I am to work with every one of you—it’s good to be alive with you.”

Trip Cullman, director, shared how truth plays an important part while telling this story.  Exclusion is so powerful that it is able to provide community and tell the story—which was the reason why I needed to do this play. Ken very wisely is saying a lot of really profound truths about how screwed up our culture is here in this country. But he’s doing it in a very genius way through a lot of humor. When you make an audience laugh, their mouth opens up and then you stick truth in them, and that’s what this play is doing.”

Arnulfo Maldonado, set designer, gave a vibrant presentation on what audiences will see. “When Tripp and I started talking about this, we really needed to have a sense of location—LA and Hollywood. We looked at a lot of research of all the places that they would inhabit in this play. And we sort of had to distill it down to the very essence of what it’s commenting on. I did American Prophet here last year, which was a musical that had very little moving parts—[Exclusion] has all the moving parts! I think part of the slickness of the writing and the way that these transitions happen sort of become magic tricks to get us into another scene. The biggest challenge was just figuring out how we can really make each scene be distinct, but still have it feel cohesive. So by the time we get to the end of the play, we’re sort of playing with what is perceived as reality versus not, and then that wall is broken for us.”

Sarah Cubbage, costume designer, shared how collaboration between her and an actor heavily influences the costume choices. “One of the things that I love the most about being a costume designer is getting in the room with our actors to just say that you and your values and your preferences will inform who these characters are, and what they ultimately wear on stage—that collaboration is really important to me.”

Full Exclusion First Rehearsal Speeches

We’re excited to transport you to Hollywood with this wickedly funny Power Play, running from May 5 through June 25 in the Kreeger Theater. Tickets for Exclusion are on sale now!