Despite expressing personal doubts about their legacy here on campus, Esmé Ng ’22 has surely left a lasting mark on the University community. By working at the intersection of their passions and interests—including Critical Race Theory, theater, and the empowerment of people of color—Ng has found themself as a playwright, using their skills to explore and bring attention to sociopolitical issues. The Argus caught up with Ng to discuss the way their academic interests influence their involvement in the Wes community, advice that they would give their past self, and their plans for the rest of the school year and after graduation.
The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated as a WesCeleb?
Esmé Ng: Honestly when I got that email, I was like, ‘oh God, no, no, that’s like not okay.’ Because I mean, I understand why because I’m active in the theater community here. But yeah, I have to admit, I was a little bit like, no, Emily McEvoy [’22] was just the most recent WesCeleb. I cannot be in the same lineup as them.
A: So your nomination mentioned your involvement on campus with theater. Can you talk about your experience with that and maybe how it has framed your time at Wes so far?
EN: I was interested in theater from high school. I did a lot of musical theater and when I got to college, I really wanted to shift gears, and originally I wanted to do pre-law, but I was really just interested in Critical Race Theory and looking at literature from an American Studies, race, and ethnicity standpoint. Then I found that theater could actually be a really interesting medium to comprehend identity in that way, so that’s what really drew me to theater. Over the course of my time at Wesleyan, I’ve changed my main positions [in relation to theater]. I started out as an actor and then I really leaned into dramaturgy, which is more of a literary study of theater, like a critical engagement of it. Now I primarily identify as a playwright; I’m doing my own things, which is really fun.
A: What other things are you involved in on campus?
EN: Theater is definitely my main thing, but through theater, I’m a part of two different organizations right now. I was a founding member of Ensemble Theatre Collective (ETC) and I am sort of a resident dramaturg within that organization. I’m also a board member and one of the senior coordinators of SHADES, which is Wesleyan’s student of color theater collective. I think we’re in our ninth or tenth year or so of existing at Wesleyan. But SHADES has been around for a while and it’s just a group of students of color that do theater, trying to support one another, [and] give each other opportunities and love.
A: You mentioned earlier that you do a lot of playwriting. Have you had a chance to write anything in your time at Wesleyan that you are really proud of?
EN: This past summer, I was featured in a Staten Island theater festival with the Women’s Playwright Collective, which is another collective that I’m a part of off-campus. I produced a play called “Fucking Herald,” which was this 15-minute dark comedy about an ex-wife going to murder her ex-husband, but then meeting his sugar baby girlfriend, and then they just get really drunk together, and they start talking about how they don’t deserve him. Like he’s such a shithead. So that I’m really proud of, and the big thing I’m working on right now is my thesis, which is a play.
A: So what are your actual majors at Wesleyan?
EN: I am a Theater and American studies major with a concentration in race and ethnicity.
A: How does the American Studies major play into the theater?
EN: American Studies is a really flexible major here. One of the reasons I love it so much is because I feel like I’ve basically just taken literature courses that have a Critical Race Theory bend to them. So I’ve taken a lot of Asian-American, literature-based courses, a lot of film courses. I find that thinking critically about these pieces of media or these works of art from that standpoint really gives me a very clear kind of political thesis that I want to engage in with my work. I think that a lot of times people fall into this thing of not necessarily critically engaging with their own work. I’m just going to do it as how I honestly see the world, but we honestly see the world all colored through systems of capitalism and white supremacy. I think that by taking American Studies and my academic training [together], being really critical of those systems has allowed me to use my playwriting to articulate my stance or my feelings about what it has been like to be mixed, queer, Asian-American, et cetera.
A: So you’re obviously a senior now. How does that feel, and what’s one thing that you wish that your freshman self knew?
EN: Oh, God. In terms of how I feel, I’m on the verge all the time. Everything is so stressful. But it is weird. I’ve grown up so much since coming here. I think that the biggest thing I wish I had told my freshman self was to stop worrying about how other people were valuing my work. I think in reflecting on underclassman me versus upperclassman me, the big difference is I was really working on white people’s stuff for my freshman and sophomore year. I felt like my value came from trying to change and diversify Second Stage and the theater department because that’s what people wanted from me. That had a huge emotional impact on me, which wasn’t fair. I was that woke person in the room of typically all-white production teams. I really wish that I had taken more of that time to figure out what I wanted to do for myself and figure out my own individual voice as an artist because I think I’m doing that now. I realize that I could have been doing this sooner. I could have been producing my own work that I didn’t have to correct consistently.
A: Even though it’s the start of your senior year, do you know what your plans are for after graduation?
EN: Pshhhh. I’m excited to see how you write “pshhh” in an article. I really have no idea. I haven’t thought about what I’m doing after graduation. I know I want to do something in the arts. I know I’ll probably do some arts administration work for some time. I do have my eye on potentially pursuing more higher education, either continuing with American studies or theater. But we’ll see, I’m excited to figure it out.
A: Were you involved in your theater organizations for all four years at Wes?
EN: I have been a part of SHADES since I was a freshman. ETC I founded with Will Blumberg [’22] and several other students last fall.
A: And obviously we had COVID for like the past year and a half. How did that impact your involvement with theater? Did that change anything?
EN: Yes, definitely. Because of COVID, I did get really involved in Zoom theater. I helped to write, assistant direct, and independently produce this online Zoom play with my friends Will Blumberg [’22] and Nathan Mullen [’20], who is a recent graduate who I mentioned before. It was called “A Milk Kind of Play” and it was really just this kind of experimentation with Zoom. I also did “The Method Gun,” which was the department show that ended up going up over Zoom, spring of 2020. I think it was a really interesting challenge. I never thought about technology in that way. Even though I do prefer live theater, it was a really interesting experience to have, thinking about the accessibility of theater and how it’s historically never been accessible, especially in more recent years as it’s gotten more expensive. That has definitely impacted my work in a lot of ways. But also honestly, the separation that occurred between myself and Wesleyan because of the pandemic, because I wasn’t here, I think I needed that to realize that I don’t need to do everything in the context of this place…I think that that is a trap that a lot of people, especially young creative writers, especially young creative writers of color [fall into], that they have to subscribe to what the white people here want from them. What that historically has been [the case], at least for me, is they want watered-down politics; they want traumatic stories for the sake of white entertainment and the alleviation of white guilt. Generally, [that has] not [been] something that I think has been truthful to my own experiences and truthful to the work that I want to put out there.
A: What would you want your legacy to be at Wesleyan?
EN: Oh gosh. What do I want my legacy to be? I don’t know. I think I generally don’t really care if I am remembered here. I actually would prefer it if I didn’t have to deal with the fact that people who don’t know me know me, or people who I don’t know know me, like that’s always [been] a weird thing for me. And it’s an anxiety that I really need to get over as a theater artist. But I really hope that just the conversations I’ve had with individuals and the attempts to cultivate environments for people of color to explore their art here remain. One of the things I’m really proud of with SHADES is I established this program called “Playground,” which has a one-on-one mentorship scriptwriting program. I’ve worked with a couple of students over the past year or so working on their scripts and, you know, giving them some accountability and someone to bounce ideas off of. I think just generally I would like that to continue after I leave here, but also I’m a really big believer that Wesleyan will change however it needs to. Second Stage is not what it was way back in the day when it was founded. SHADES is not even what it was last year. And I think that that constant metamorphosis is one of the things that served us the best, and not being afraid to change.
Jo Harkless can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sofia Sarak can be reached at email@example.com