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Hometown Boy, a Southern play filled with juicy secrets and quick wit, receiving its world premiere November 3 at Actor’s Express, begins with a young man returning to his father’s home after a decade, only to find the doors locked. He spends much of the first scene trying to find his way in.

Playwright Keiko Green, a Marietta native, has returned to Georgia for the first time in 12 years to present the work, and her homecoming has been more welcoming.

Ryan Vo, who plays James, the title character of “Hometown Boy,” “has just been waiting to be a lead,” playwright Keiko Green said. (Photos by Casey Gardner Ford)

“I feel so honored, and it also feels inevitable that it would receive its world premiere in Georgia,” Green said in an interview at the Westside theater. “It fills my soul a little bit. How beautiful is that? I told my parents, and they were so excited. I’ve got people from high school whom I haven’t seen in a decade who are coming to see the show. It feels so right. Sometimes things fall into place in just the way they’re supposed to.”

A 2004 graduate of Pope High School, now pursuing her MFA in playwriting at University of California San Diego, Green workshopped Hometown Boy last summer in a joint program hosted by the Kennedy Center and National New Play Network in Washington. There, it came to the attention of Actor’s Express artistic director Freddie Ashley, who worked as a dramaturg in that program, then brought the play to Atlanta for a reading and workshop in fall 2020. This spring, it was selected to be part of the Actor’s Express season, directed by Rebecca S. Wear.

“When Freddie and I were workshopping it, it was with a bunch of people from D.C., who were lovely, but it’s true: People not from the South think Southerners are so slow,” she said, laughing. “The play was excruciatingly slow. One of the wonderful things about doing it here is that the actors know we can talk fast.”

One of the most winning aspects of Hometown Boy is its complicated, flawed Asian-American Southern characters.

“I hope people watch this play and see, ‘Wow, there are some real Asian-American Southerners, and, man, these people are American,'” Green said. “‘Look at this American story I’ve never really considered and what a rich history it brings.'”

The characters populate a story that will remind audiences of other twisted, dysfunctional family sagas in the American canon, such as Crimes of the Heart, August: Osage County and Buried Child.

“I’ve always been interested in what my version of a story set in the South is and what that meant,” she said. “I was interested in telling a story that deals with race and privilege, but it also isn’t a play about those things.”

Indeed, instead of politics, the script is filled more with mystery, plot twists, rapid-fire dialogue, solid comedy and big secrets. 

“I think people will walk away feeling really seen,” she said. “It’s a relatable story about where we belong and whether we find closure over our past.”

“Hometown Boy” talent (clockwise from top left): Michelle Pokopac, Daniel Parvis, Chris Kayser, Allison Dayne, Ryan Vo, playwright Keiko Green, director Rebecca S. Wear and Glenn Kubota

James (Ryan Vo), the title character, has returned to his Georgia hometown to help his father Walter (Glenn Kubota), who has begun to show signs of dementia. James resents Walter for abandoning their family when James was a teen, and there is much tension there. And James has brought his new girlfriend Becks (Michelle Pokopac) along to help with the situation. 

But James’ return causes immediate problems for Walter and other townsfolk, who wish James had stayed away. And Becks is frequently left to her own devices while James copes with how uncomfortable he feels back at home.

“There’s a conversation we’re trying to have about what it means to belong somewhere and what it means to be an outsider,” Green said. “It’s not just literally about the location itself. What is the history you bring into each moment? Does that make you an outsider versus whether you are actually coming from somewhere else?” 

Glenn Kubota plays Walter, who abandoned his family when his son James was a teen.

Also, there is tension at the heart of the play about who has the power and privilege to move on from bad memories and who gets stuck. The traumas that James revisits upon his return turns the character from someone functional to someone wounded and vindictive. The play paints all of its characters with nuance, rather than emblematically.

“One thing we’ve been talking about in rehearsals is that the character who seems, in retrospect, like a victim is also the character who exhibits the most toxic masculinity,” the playwright said.  “Just because someone is a victim in one way doesn’t mean they’re pure. They also treat others poorly. Their relationships might fall apart. We just try to make the play as complicated as possible.”

Green is becoming experienced at that. Her plays Exotic Deadly or The MSG Play, Wad and Nadeshiko have been produced by theaters in San Diego and Seattle. Green got her start in theater as an actress, and she believes that her past experiences onstage have boosted her writing.

With Hometown Boy, she said her goal is to make sure scenes and story arcs ring with emotional truth. So the heroes of aren’t solidly good, and the bad guys aren’t completely evil. Everyone is trying to do their best.

Vo has appeared in productions at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, including the 2019 staging of King Lear alongside Chris Kayser, who also stars in Hometown Boy.

Vo’s work is impressive, the playwright said.

“Ryan has just been waiting to be a lead,” Green said. “People that do Shakespeare are great to work with in new plays because they’re so used to dissecting each piece of text and mining the words. Ryan is one of those actors.”

As the play has been developed, the script has been updated regularly, with Wear working with actors on the building tension of the story and assuring that the comedy also zings.

“It’s been amazing to have actors, a director and a team that’s really game,” Green said. 

Some of the meatier scenes have challenged the actors to strike the right tone.

“When we’re dealing with material that’s especially dark, there has to be an acknowledgement at the very top that this darkness is what the material is about,” the playwright said. “From this moment on, we can’t judge the characters of this play while we’re working on it. We have to understand that everyone is the hero of their own story and has good intentions in some way.”

Coming back to the Atlanta area has allowed Green to revisit her Georgia roots. She considers herself a Southerner always and carries a love for her childhood home. But growing up here as a Japanese-American was complicated.

“It’s a place that I loved, and it’s also a place where I felt othered and seen only for my race sometimes,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been grappling with myself. Those experiences that weren’t positive, did they happen? Yes, they did. Was my love for this place real? Yes, it was. Both of those things are true.”

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Benjamin Carr is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His first novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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