International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: International Law and the Theatre – An Interview with Playwright Anchuli Felicia King

International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: International Law and the Theatre – An Interview with Playwright Anchuli Felicia King

[Anchuli Felicia King is a playwright, screenwriter and multidisciplinary artist of Thai‑Australian descent, whose plays have previously been produced at the Royal Court, Studio Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company.]

In a symposium about international law and popular culture, it would be remiss for us at Opinio Juris not to solicit contributions from the other side of the divide – that is, from those making said “popular culture” and how they perceive the relationship between their art and international law. For this blog post, we conducted an interview with Anchuli Felicia King, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, whose body of work includes productions at the Royal Court, Studio Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. In the interview, Felicia talked to us about the interface between her work and international law, with a particular focus on her play Golden Shield. The play is loosely based a real case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and revolves around a fictional trial in a US District Court concerning a Chinese dissident’s claim against an American technology company for its involvement in building systems designed to facilitate online censorship in China.

Start by telling us a bit about yourself. How did you start your career as a playwright and screenwriter? What are you currently working on?

The short answer: I inadvertently stumbled into being a career writer! While I was doing my MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University (dramaturgy being the broad critical study of theatre as an artform), I was forced to take a compulsory playwriting class. I had no intention of ever writing plays myself, but I found that I really enjoyed it! So I wrote my first full-length play “White Pearl” while I was studying there. That play then got programmed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, which marked my playwriting debut in 2019. And it’s all rapidly snowballed from there! These days, I’m under commission with a broad smattering of theatres and I’m writing on some incredibly exciting TV projects – most of which I regrettably can’t tell you anything about yet. Okay, here’s one I can talk about: I just finished writing some episodes on a fantastic, viciously feminist horror-dark comedy called The Baby. That will premiere on Sky/HBO sometime in 2022.

What are your interests and goals as an artist? In particular, a lot of your work seems to focus on the interface between technology and globalization, as well as contemporary issues in international relations. Why do you think producing work on those issues is important?

My starting point when I write a play is always curiosity. I think that’s why I keep returning to themes at the nexus of globalization and technology, because I’m endlessly curious about how these two rapidly accelerating forces are transforming our lives. When these two phenomena collide, they inevitably raise some urgent moral and ethical questions – and that’s where my desire to explore them in fiction arises. I do genuinely (if perhaps willfully naively) believe that art can act as a mirror to society, that artists can affect substantive change by humanizing the existential dilemmas facing us as global citizens.  

Tell us a bit about your play Golden Shield.

Well, it started the way most of my plays start: I read something on the internet! In 2016, I read that a group of Chinese dissidents were mounting a class action lawsuit against an American technology company under a federal law called the Alien Tort Statute. The plaintiffs alleged that this billion‑dollar corporation had knowingly helped the Chinese government build systems that would enable online censorship and digital surveillance as part of the Golden Shield project, the CCP’s national security policy that has since become synonymous with China’s Great Firewall. 
I instantly knew that I wanted to write a play about this. I decided to try and map these complex issues onto a story about two Chinese American sisters called Julie and Eva: Julie’s a lawyer who hires Eva as her Mandarin translator. They work together on this legal case while navigating their fraught relationship and shared trauma. Their relationship acts as metaphor for the sisterhood of China and America, two economically codependent superpowers that continue to struggle with their profound ideological incompatibility. I also quickly realized the play had to be performed in both Mandarin and English, so the play’s central theatrical device is an omniscient narrator known simply as “The Translator.” The Translator not only translates literal text between Mandarin and English but also the play’s subtext and context for the audience, revealing the total sum of semiotic misfires that can happen when two parties try (and fail) to communicate.

The play deals with a lot of complex themes, including globalization, racism, cultural alienation and assimilation, the relationship between China and the United States, and the growing global influence of multinational companies. Why use the framework of a legal case to explore those themes?

I’ll answer first in terms of the practical storytelling: I had to balance a ridiculous number of themes, locations, and characters. There’s a reason writers love trial drama: testimony is a great structural device! But I equally wanted to explore the specifics of a case like this: one brought under the Alien Tort Statute, where lawyers are essentially arguing about human rights abuses under the auspices of a class action lawsuit. That, and they’re debating whether an American-owned multinational corporation knowingly colluded with a Chinese government agency, and whether that therefore entitles Chinese citizens to restitution from said corporation. That all raises some fascinating, thorny ethical questions. For instance, who’s truly liable in a case like that? And what’s the value of restitution? Is it practicable or largely symbolic? It all makes for great drama.

The play also depicts a vast cast of characters who get caught up in the case, including claimants, lawyers, translators, witnesses and participating NGOs. What did researching the play teach you about the risks and realities of international legal proceedings?

Essentially, I found that there’s a big difference between how international law exists in theory versus how it exists in practice. The ATS is a particularly interesting case study in the practical implementation of international law, because it’s this obscure 18th century statute which grants US federal courts jurisdiction over lawsuits filed by foreign nationals, specifically for torts that are “committed in violation of the Law of Nations or a treaty of the United States.” So you can already see why there’s virulent debate about the scope and interpretation of that statute, and why the Supreme Court keeps trying to limit its extraterritorial reach. But human rights lawyers and NGOs only resort to what are essentially legal loopholes like the ATS, because it’s so extraordinarily difficult to litigate cases about human rights abuses across different countries. I think it speaks to a broader structural imbalance enmeshed in our international legal institutions: that it’s far easier for powerful state actors and wealthy corporations to access (or evade) justice than poorer nations or oppressed individuals.   

Another thing that I discovered is that, as tempting as it can be to ascribe a moral character to faceless institutions like courts or corporations, or you know – nation states – all these institutions are ultimately comprised of groups of individuals. Which is it to say, international law is facilitated by flawed human people with their own biases and limitations. I think there’s a real risk that people involved in these proceedings get so caught up in their pursuit of ideals (or financial gain) that they can lose touch with their sense of empathy and human decency.

One of the key themes of this symposium is about how international law is presented in popular media; as a force for good or evil, progress or regression, order or chaos. Where do you think Golden Shield lands on that question?

Ultimately, I think the play arrives at the conclusion that any system – be it the internet or international law – is innately morally neutral. Where those systems attain moral or ethical force is in their enactment by individuals and institutions. My play suggests that, when used for the right reasons, international law can offer recourse for wronged peoples around the world, a recourse that’s desperately needed as the boundaries between nation states become increasingly blurred by globalization and the internet. When used for the wrong reasons, international law merely facilitates costly, hollow symbolic gestures that are impractical to enforce, often at the expense of the weaker parties.

As a writer, how do you research and educate yourself about international law issues?

I start by reading everything that’s publicly available – which when you’re dealing with cases in the US is quite a lot! For Golden Shield, I read the complaints from the District Courts and the Supreme Court opinions – plus there’s a large body of academic scholarship around the ATS being used to litigate human rights violations. Increasingly, I’ve found that if I’m really struggling with an issue of law, the best thing to do is just ask a legal professional in the relevant field. I know I can only ever acquire a preliminary, impressionistic understanding of the issues I’m exploring – so it really helps to ask an expert! And at the end of the day, it’s not my job to produce works of art with airtight legal fidelity: it’s to wrangle all that research into a compelling piece of drama.

What do you see as your responsibility as an artist to educate the public about international law issues?

Ultimately, my goal is never to proselytize or educate. Massive systems like international law, the internet, globalization: these are what some contemporary philosophers (borrowing language from computer science) call “metaobjects” – macrocosmic objects that you can never fully encapsulate, that are in perennial flux, that are in constant state of redefining themselves. I find that fiction, especially theatre, is a good space to grapple with metaobjects in terms of their immediate human implications. It’s a space where impossibly big phenomena can be transmuted into intimate stories, where the epic and the quotidian can coalesce. Which is all to say that I’m far more interested in exploring the deeper existential questions that arise from issues of international law than educating the public on its specifics.

For those in our readership who are looking for recommendations or pedagogical materials, what are some of your favourite plays, movies, television shows, or books about international law?

I wouldn’t presume to educate your readers on any legal non-fiction, so I’ll try to stick to fiction! One of my absolute favourites is a play called Oslo by J.T. Rodgers: it imagines the back-channel communications during the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine. It’s just been adapted into a film for HBO which I’ve yet to watch, but I hear is great! I’ve also just read an early copy of a fantastic novel called Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen: it’s the story of two women being prosecuted for their involvement in the counterfeit luxury goods market between China and America. The book will be released next year, so look out for it – it’s gonna be a hit. I also highly recommend an Italian TV series called ZeroZeroZero, which tells this dizzyingly expansive story of a drug syndicate that operates across Italy, Mexico, Morocco and the US.

Where can readers who are interested in your work follow you? And when can we next expect to see Golden Shield on stage?

You can follow me on Twitter, @afeliciaking or Instagram at @anchulifeliciaking. I confess that I’m on social media less and less these days, but I’ll usually post a little update if I have work coming out that I need to shamelessly flog. And Golden Shield will have its Off-Broadway debut next April at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York!

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