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Lisa Sanaye Dring and Her Hungry Ghost

Ben Messmer, Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo in Hungry Ghost. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

The secret lives of girls and women are revealed on LA stages this fall, in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, Kill Shelter, and The Bluest Eye.

Add to that list Hungry Ghost by playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring, recently opened at Skylight Theatre. It’s her first fully produced full-length play; her second, SUMO, opens Oct. 3 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Hungry Ghost tracks a married couple who inherit a house in the woods and commit to having their first child. The two women, Dean (Jenny Soo) and Amanda (Tasha Ames) are a contrast in personalities, especially since the death of Dean’s mother, whose presence still fills the house.

Dean doesn’t know who she is without her mother, the woman who gave her a name and will never again speak it. But given their difficult relationship, she’s convinced she would not have inherited the house if her mother had been aware she was about to die.

“I miss her and I hate her,” Dean despairs. Amanda is exuberantly pragmatic: “There is no greater revenge than stealing a bitch’s house.”

Dean seethes about racism, which she experienced as a Chinese-American during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amanda accuses her of “remembering yourself into a victim.”

Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo in Hungry Ghost. Photo by Grettel Cortes

Into this domestic scene enters the title character, who starts out as a hermit stealing food and evolves, for Dean, into an imagined amalgam of that real-life person and her future child. Amanda ceases to see the mess made by the hermit/ghost (Ben Messmer): strewn cereal, knocked over objects, slithering vines. Dean’s encounters with him expand to squeeze the marriage the way the vines attack the house.

Ben Messmer in Hungry Ghost. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

The play is cleverly directed (by Jessica Hanna) and well-designed (by Yuri Okahana-Benson). Video (Nicholas Santiago) and sound (Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski) add to the mystery and menace that threatens to destroy a happy marriage.

The Buzz spoke to Lisa Sanaye Dring about her work.

You seem to be having a big moment, with productions in both Los Angeles and La Jolla. These two pieces seem different in many ways. Are there themes that they share? 

Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s interesting – the theme of grief that is so present in Hungry Ghost actually made its way into the current draft of SUMO. My interests in poetic/heightened language and wildly theatrical gestures are alive in both pieces.

There are critiques of capitalism in both plays, although I wouldn’t say that’s the primary interest of either text. Queerness isn’t a theme but is alive in both pieces, as are questions about belonging and alienation.

What role did being part of the Writers Room at the Geffen Playhouse have on your work generally and these plays specifically?

The Geffen Writers Room was really amazing. I was in extremely good company – I’ve been in a fair amount of writers groups and the critical component is the talent, generosity and insight of the other writers in the room. In that respect, I got very lucky. And the dramaturgical and production support from the Geffen was fantastic. I didn’t develop either of these plays in that group.

Skylight has been dedicated to showcasing the work of female playwrights. What has it been like to be a part of their Her Vision, Her Voice series?

It’s been great! I love being a part of a company that champions this kind of work. It’s one of the many, many reasons I’ve loved working with the Skylight Theatre Company.

What would you say has been your greatest influence?

Oh gosh, that’s a hard one! My whole life?! When I think about singular experiences that have changed me, so many things come to mind – meditation and a profound relationship with silence, my parents’ deaths, walking the Camino in Spain, visiting Japan. And those big moments impact every part of my life, including my writing practice. With regard to artistic influences, I think a regular theatre-going and theatre-making practice continues to ferment and season my soul and craft. And also, of course, love.

Hungry Ghost runs through October1 at Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave. in Los Feliz. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $38 and are available here. Running time is about 95 minutes.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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