If you’ve turned on your television and watched Star Trek: Discovery, House of Cards, or Warrior, then you are already well-acquainted with Kenneth Lin’s work. Lin is an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and a Princess Grace Award-winning playwright of Chinese-American descent. Some of his popular plays include Warrior Class, Intelligence-Slave, and Arena Stage’s own Kleptocracy. His latest play, Exclusion, premiered at Arena Stage on May 5th, 2023.
Early influences & education
Lin’s journey started in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s. His family risked a lot to get to United States, having fled from Mao’s China. “My bedtime stories were, ‘You almost didn’t live — except for America’,” recounted Lin in a 2019 interview with Nelson Pressley at the Washington Post for the premiere of his play Kleptocracy.
Lin went on to earn his BA from Cornell University in 2000. Then in 2001, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in China and Taiwan for one year; afterwards, he earned his MFA from the Yale School of Drama. These political and cultural experiences became integrated into Lin’s work on House of Cards and Kleptocracy.
tv career highlights
In 2013, Lin joined the writing staff for the second and third seasons of the House of Cards series on Netflix. In 2020, he closed a deal with CBS Television Studios to become co-executive producer on the third season of Star Trek: Discovery; served as co-executive producer on the CBS drama series Clarice, a sequel series to Silence of the Lambs; and began developing a new original series.
Photo of Christopher Geary and Max Woertendyke in Kenneth Lin’s “Kleptocracy” at Arena Stage (2018/19 Season) by C. Stanley Photography.
Opportunity is a prominent theme in Lin’s works. His play Kleptocracy, which Arena Stage premiered in 2019, explores Russia’s possible future if Putin’s confrontation with the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky had ended differently. Lin shared his creative process in an interview with TheaterMania, “I began a deep-dive crash course into Russian history and politics. What I found was the origin story of a young Vladimir Putin, newly thrust into power. In battling Khodorkovsky for the ideological and political soul of Russia, Putin was in the fight of his life with a political opponent who had as much power, wealth, and influence as the entire state (as well as the backing of the West). By the end of this struggle, Putin’s victory would be complete. He would have consolidated his power and vanquished his rival to a prison in Siberia for a decade. But, at what cost to Russia and the world?”
Exclusion debuted last week as the tenth produced play in Arena Stage’s Power Plays commissioning initiative. Recognizing Lin as a “power writer,” Artistic Director Molly Smith commissioned him to write a Power Play that addressed American politics in the 1880s. At Exclusion’s first rehearsal, Lin noted, “Molly was one of my first champions, one of the first people who ever told me I had a place. 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 I could be a writer. Nobody in my life ever believed that I could become a writer, and Molly believed in me first.”
In Exclusion, an award-winning historian is thrilled when her best-selling book about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned for a mini-series by a Hollywood mogul. But euphoria turns to disillusionment as she finds herself constantly defending its authenticity in the struggle between what’s true and what sells. Exclusion runs at Arena Stage now through June 25. Click here to get your tickets.
Want to see what Lin will do next? Look out for his upcoming musical, Farewell My Concubine, in collaboration with Jason Robert Brown.