How a Life-Changing Road Trip Inspired Writing Duo Melissa Li and Kit Yan to Pen a Musical

Interview   How a Life-Changing Road Trip Inspired Writing Duo Melissa Li and Kit Yan to Pen a Musical
 
Li and Yan want their musical Interstate to "contribute to what it means to be queer, trans, and Asian-American in the world."
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Melissa Li and Kit Yan Valerie Caviness Photography

“We were mortal enemies,” says Kit Yan of himself and Melissa Li. Yan and Li, however, are now the co-writers of the musical Interstate—a sold-out extended show at NYMF, a buzzed-about show at NAMT, and one that was preparing for a full production at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis just before the pandemic hit in March.

How do mortal enemies create a hit musical together? Well, first they make up.

Rewind to 2006. Li and Yan were both undergrads in Boston—Li a Boston native and a film major and Yan in his first trip to the continental U.S. from Hawaii majoring in entrepreneurial studies. As part of the Boston University’s Play Lab, Li wrote an original musical called Surviving the Nian about Chinese New Year; meanwhile, Yan was a slam poetry champion. Li thought Yan was famous, a Lord of the underground scene; Yan thought Li was wildly talented, having seen Nian more than once. When the two bumped into each other at a queer Asian cabaret, they hit it off and soon formed a band: Good Asian Drivers. And as the moniker suggests, they took their act on the road.

“We thought, ‘You know, what? We want to see more people like us. So we're literally going to get in my Toyota Corolla, drive around the country, and find them,’” says Yan. “We were going to find queers, Asians, trans people, women, young people. We were just going to drive and perform in all those pockets.”

“We want to share our art with folks around the country,” adds Li. “We wanted to see what else is out there. I never explored America before that way. And you've barely been out of Hawaii. So for us it was like, 'Where are our communities? Where are our people?”'

By 2008, the duo began to feel the warp of internet fame. “At the time there really wasn't much, even in terms of trans representation, much less trans-Asian representation,” says Li. “Right now we have a lot more, but back then it was like ‘Tila Tequila is gay.’” And audiences, especially teens from the queer and Asian communities could not get enough of them.

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Kit Yan and Melissa Li Valerie Caviness Photography

“The stakes felt really high because if you meet a bunch of kids that pooled all their time and resources together to put on your show at their local cafe, it really feels that show was everything to them,” says Yan. Not to mention media started calling on Good Asian Drivers as the spokespeople for communities represented in their art. The pressure cooker dialed up, and Yan and Li erupted. The band was done. So was the tour. And most certainly, so was their friendship.

“We didn't talk for two years straight, and it was pretty sudden,” says Yan. But then he opened his mailbox and found a solo album with a letter from Li. “We each made a solo album, we mailed those albums to each other because we [couldn’t even] talk to each other,” he admits.

Just as quickly as it had ended, Yan and Li reconciled and began writing the musical about their two years on the road as Good Asian Drivers, and Interstate was born.

“The play is about a trans spoken word artist who goes on the road with a lesbian singer-songwriter,” Li explains. “They're best friends. They're from New York, and they have never seen the country. So they want to do that. For her, it's more about ‘I want to be famous and make my mark on the world.’ For him, he grew up in this insular community in Chinatown, Queens, and is goaded by his father to go see the world: ‘Go do the things I've never done.’”

As Interstate’s duo becomes famous, a 16-year-old trans blogger from Kentucky latches onto them as inspiration. The music falls into the style of Good Asian Drivers—without actually featuring songs from the band’s repertoire. As Li describes, “Very acoustic guitar, and there's poetry over it, or there's a lot of yelling at the audience…

“Pop-rock, ’90s, lesbian vibe,” Yan interjects.

NYMF 2018 marked the first production of the show, and it was not an easy process. “A lot of the challenges, creatively, were to shape something that felt like a journal entry into a show where we care about the characters,” says Li.

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Sushma Saha and cast Marc J. Franklin

While caring for the people onstage is always crucial in a musical, the stakes felt higher for Li and Yan. Representation is their mission. Their show is their activism—and that extends beyond Interstate.

“Our work is about being trans,” says Li. “We're not interested in writing a story that's a straight cis story that is universal and ‘everyone can apply to those trans people.’ These people are explicitly trans, but we're not going to just talk about them being trans.

“The perspective is different,” she continues. “So the stories can be universal, falling in love, having been rejected by somebody, child-parent conflict. Those things are things that everybody gets, but the perspective is from a trans person.”

Based on their audiences, they’re reaching their target audience. “It was all the fans from Good Asian Drivers, all the people that donated money to make it happen, kids from all over the country that found each other on Twitter or on forums on the internet and convinced their parents to get them tickets to come to New York City.”

Those kids are why they persevere, despite the fact that the pressure of representation nearly doomed them. Li and Yan agree the ability to tell a queer story, centered on a lesbian and two trans people (one who lives to adulthood and thrives), feels worth the risk.

“Making the best possible show, working on the story, getting into the dramaturgy, being in the weeds of storytelling,” says Yan, “is what we can do to contribute to what it means to be queer, trans, and Asian-American in the world.”

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