Young in years as a theatrical savant, Ayla Sullivan first found rhythm as a spoken-word performer in the youth slam-poetry arena, a role that Sullivan — who prefers they/their pronouns — handled well enough to earn the title of Denver Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 while still earning a BFA in performance at the University of Colorado Boulder. There, Sullivan excelled not just as an actor, but as a playwright and director, in preparation for the next big stop: the MFA Playwriting Program at Columbia University.
Before leaving for Columbia, Sullivan will offer a sneak peek at what’s to come with a performance of Last Stop, which started life as a submission for the Powered by Off-Center residency program at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. A finalist but not a winner, Sullivan wanted to further develop the concept, a semi-autobiographical piece that references mixed race, a non-binary/queer point of view and, in particular, Sullivan's experience growing up in the shadows of a Vietnamese nail salon in Los Angeles run by their mother’s immigrant family.
You can see the free performance of Last Stop, which includes Vietnamese song, dance and spoken-word poetry, as well as an optional “cosmetic experience,” at a one-night only show on Friday, April 20, at Buntport Theater.
The start of the intersectional play emerged from a whirlwind of last-minute writing after a space opened up to hold a staged reading at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. “I said yes, please! But I did not have a play,” Sullivan notes. “I knew I wanted to write about a nail salon and something about being non-binary, so I gave myself two weeks to write something and ended up doing it in only three days.”
Somehow, despite what Sullivan calls “millennial procrastination,” the young dramatist ended up spinning gold: “The most beautiful thing about it is that when given a deadline I make for myself, beautiful things come out. It definitely has been an interesting journey of moving through what it means to be Asian and black and trans while growing up in a salon.”
The play’s intersectional setting served as a creative catalyst, forcing Sullivan to rethink how to pull an unlikely audience into the action through immersion. “I wanted Last Stop to be performative in space, not considered a performative space,” the playwright says, alluding to the show’s salon environment intertwined with Vietnamese culture. To that end, Last Stop has an interactive, fly-on-the-wall element allowing audience members to have their nails done on stage while the action progresses.
More than anything, though, Sullivan’s goal was to give an honest voice to the marginal American populations mixed up in their own blood and sexuality.
“Customers need to be in a certain state to get their nails done,” Sullivan notes. “It’s the same for technicians, who aren’t what people expect. We have a long history of subservient Asian people in this country. Nail technicians’ public and private selves are intertwined in the salon, and anything they say that’s private is spoken in a different language. What white people see is a caricature of an Asian nail technician.”
Sullivan says that out-of-the-ordinary storyline is an open invitation to a prospective Asian audience that’s missing at most theater productions: “Asian-Americans don't go to the theater. One issue is how to get them interested — how to inspire Asian-Americans to come back. It’s not because Asian folk are not interested in theater; that’s not the case at all. It’s that there is no longer any avenue open for a community to engage with art.
“Denver has a strong Asian presence,” Sullivan continues. “We have a history of Asian folks leading here, but when history is whitewashed, we stop listening to our stories. I’m a storyteller investing in sharing an oral tradition, and with help from a grant, I’ve been able to put on this production and be committed to bringing Asian folks back to the theater.”
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For Sullivan, that sensibility extends to other marginalized groups, including the queer communities with which the artist identifies. “My work is always in service to the community,” Sullivan says. “I don’t believe one can create without being of service. My job as a trans artist is to preserve culture as a documentarian — to show how to see the world as queer, outside of sexuality. That propels me to create stories not heard by white or cis people and put them on a platform where we can all appreciate them.”
Last Stop’s cast, including Sullivan in the lead role of Nga, fully comprises people identifying as Asian-Americans — unusual in a world where Asian actors are the anomaly. “Our director is also an Asian immigrant: She is Dr. Cecilia J. Pang, who was my mentor at CU,” Sullivan notes. Behind the scenes, the production also employs people of color in various technical and backstage roles.
That’s a lot to pack into a single night, but it’s just a learning experience for Sullivan and crew. “Ideally, this is our beautiful lab experiment, to see how immersive works,” Sullivan explains. “It’s also my first time as a producer, and I’m writing and acting in it, as well. My goal is to see what does and doesn't work — to see what this work can do. Then we’ll see what unfolds.”
Last Stop, a new play by Ayla Sullivan, will be performed for one night only on Saturday, April 20, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street. Admission is free; RSVP in advance at forms.gle/GGm8K9btSr9wmxVe6. Donations will be accepted.