MJ Kang’s life thus far is a treasure trove of material for great theater. A few highlights from the archive: Her father’s family owned a farm along the DMZ that was completely destroyed during the Korean War; When she was eight, her babysitter was brutally murdered, and her mother was insistent that MJ and her sisters watch all of the news coverage; Before she was a series regular playing a single mom on the Canadian soap opera Riverdale, she worked as a Christmas elf at the mall just to pay her bills; She took a trip to Korea where her aunt locked her in a room for six weeks at the behest of her mother; Her grandfather was a Korean astrologer and palmist who accurately predicted the city in which she’d meet her future husband.
Born in Seoul, Korea, MJ immigrated to Toronto with her parents and two elder sisters when she was only two. Like many immigrant families, her parents struggled to survive in a new country where their education and professional training were not respected. MJ grew up watching her parents work multiple jobs and run several businesses to provide for the family. MJ escaped the stress of her domestic life through theater. As a teen, she was hired to create devised theater pieces geared toward youth. At nineteen, she had her first professional production of Noran Bang: The Yellow Room, a piece she wrote and starred in about a Korean-Canadian family fractured from their historical past.
Shortly after this, she was awarded a grant to travel to Korea to research her next play. This is when her aforementioned captivity by her aunt occurred. MJ used the experience as the basis for her play Blessings, which debuted at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto, making her the youngest playwright to have a mainstage production in the prominent theater’s history.
We talked about her early success and the cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. “In Canada being a playwright is more respected [than in the States] as a vocation” she says. I asked her why she thought that was the case, and she pointed to the subsidization of the arts by the Canadian Government. Because the entertainment media is saturated by American stories, Canada is particularly invested in “holding on to what is different and special about being Canadian.”
MJ’s work centers on the Asian and Asian-Canadian experience. She is continually observing and interrogating “how Asian are seen in the world.” It is still a common experience for her, even in a place as diverse as Los Angeles, to encounter people who treat her differently because they believe she’s foreign and can’t speak English. She describes her writerly obsessions as the things that “keep me up at night.” Being the mother of a bi-racial daughter has further nuanced her perspectives on race, gender, and identity. These are themes reflected in her new play Foxy Ladies which examines race and cultural appropriation. When MJ sits down to write, she asks herself “What do I want to see on stage?” Later she answers her own question. “The world wants honesty. Or zombies.” She’s going for the former (but not against the latter).
After having a child, MJ took a long break from theater, but she’s been steadily making up for lost creative time. The pandemic has helped, giving her more time to focus and generate. Currently, she is a member of several professional playwriting groups including: the Company of Angels, the Vagrancy Theater, Playground LA, and Restorative Stories for The Barrow Group in NYC. She will also write and perform her show My Grandfather’s Story with Enrichment Works, an educational theater organization serving Los Angeles.