The FPI Files: Hero Theatre’s Revival of TEA

By Alison Minami

Velina Hasu Houston

This month Hero Theatre of Los Angeles will open its revival of Velina Hasu Houston’s TEA, one of the most widely produced Asian American plays worldwide since it first premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. TEA follows the experiences of five Japanese war brides, women who immigrated to the U.S. as the wives of American servicemen, in Junction City, Kansas. Four of the women gather for tea after the violent suicide of the fifth, whose ghost reverberates throughout the play with an anguished urgency.  

At the end of World War II, roughly 50,000 Japanese women came over to the United States. Houston, who was herself born and raised in Junction City and the daughter of a Japanese war bride and African American father, traveled around the state interviewing nearly fifty Japanese war brides to research the depth and diversity of experience within this community. Worried for her safety, her mother insisted on joining her on the trip—this was, of course, before the ubiquity of GPS and cell phones! The two were both surprised and moved by the vulnerability and openness of traditionally reserved Japanese women sharing their experiences. Many of the women they spoke to were living in isolation as the only women of color in the towns where they lived. Their stories of immigration, cultural clash, alienation, racism, mental health, and domestic abuse as well as resilience, love, sisterhood, and motherhood were distilled into the characters that make up this all-female, all-Asian cast. Houston’s aim was always to “represent these women more meaningfully and truthfully, so that people would see that they were human beings beyond their stereotypes.”

Hiroko Imai, Elaine Ackles, Tomoko Karina, Olivia Cordell and Hua Lee. Photo by Jenny Graham

But the inspiration for the play, and really all of Houston’s work, has roots in her Japanese upbringing. Houston grew up listening to Japanese folklore from her mother. One of her early childhood memories was helping to serve tea to her mother’s Japanese friends when they came to visit her home. This job—replenishing cups of hot tea—allowed her to be the proverbial fly on the wall as she listened to their conversations of struggle and joy both in Japan and in coming to America. Houston says, “When you’re in an immigrant family, you just have a different perspective of U.S. society.” Children of immigrants are constantly observing America through two (or more) languages and cultures, often defending one over the other and constantly flitting back and forth or standing in the liminal space at their crossroads.

Over thirty years later after its first debut, TEA continues to carry universal and relatable themes that pull at the heartstrings and challenge society’s stereotypes around identity. Long before intersectionality was a widely coined term, Houston was writing about the convergence of race, ethnicity, language, nationality, and culture. As a mixed-race playwright, she has always naturally been drawn to the experiences of women who live between worlds. In the early days of her career, she was marginalized because her work defied categorization. She says, “I’ve spent my life never being Asian enough or never being Black enough.” When asked about the evolution of the play, Houston explains that while the themes have always remained the same, “the society listens differently” with a different consciousness that is reflective of our current cultural sensitivities and appreciations. Further, with every new production, TEA goes through the process of re-interpretation and re-imagination; from the acting, to direction, to set, and sound. Houston describes with delight “my experience of the play always changes” and that it is “forever alive and breathing.”

While the pandemic offered Houston the time and space to work creatively, she understands how badly theater institutions were impacted. She recognizes the need to be “sensitive as artists to help cultivate the industry back to health.” What better way to do so than to buy your tickets to TEA? Part of HERO theatre’s mission is to re-define the modern classics. Undoubtedly, Houston’s TEA has earned its place in the canon of American dramatic writing. Directed by Rebecca Wear, TEA will run at Inner-City Arts from April 21 to May 15. For full cast and schedule visit: http://www.herotheatre.org/tea.html

Two all Asian female ensembles tell the story of five Japanese immigrants in ‘Tea’ by Velina Hasu Houston
Photo by Elisa Bocanegra
Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

I’m Not Waiting ‘Til They Pick Me

By AR Nicholas

We struggle to write, often looking for something to take us out of the struggle. Just
for a few minutes, we tell ourselves, then we’ll come back fresh, inspired by new ideas
of how to fix what’s not working. Despite the struggle, we are compelled to write. It is
a calling and a padded cell of our own making. We feel bad about ourselves when we
don’t write, and guilty about doing anything else unless we’ve had “a good day” and
gotten a few words out. But when we overcome the impediments of the day job,
family, illness and limited time to actually write something–that is, to pull something
out of a hat where once there was nothing– it’s the best feeling in the world.

I’ve grown to love the process of writing even when it goes nowhere. Good thing,
because the results, if measured by my work being chosen by others, is about 200 to 1.
I send plays out far and wide to be considered for festivals, readings and labs, usually
landing a rejection in reply. Mostly though, I hear nothing. At least a rejection is
acknowledgment of my existence even if there’s no guarantee someone read my play.
And I am not being wholly cynical when I tell you that not all submitted plays get
read, or that theatres have closed-minded, pre-existing agendas for programming.
I’ve been a “selector” for various theatre contests over the years and witnessed the
behavior first hand. These theatres may appear inclusive but they want their selected
playwrights to tick certain boxes. Blind submissions? There are ways around them. A
similar process goes on with union actor auditions. SAG/AFTRA and AEA mandate
auditions for projects but they’re often going through the motions. Producers and
directors know who they’re making offers to when those auditions begin.

I don’t say these things to depress you. It’s taken me a very, very, very long time to
accept that the likelihood of a visionary Artistic Director discovering my work and
plucking me from obscurity is pretty much nil. And the older I get, the less likely it is.
Honor Roll, the advocacy collective of female playwrights over 40, has said as much,
which is why they formed to fight ageism and sexism in theatre. But I’m over 60, now,
so probably a lost cause. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also developed a true
love of writing for writing’s sake. But I also write because I want to share my thoughts
with other people. In theatre, that means a reading or production, when there’s an
opportunity for me and other humans to be in conversation about things we think
matter. So what happens when those opportunities don’t arise? Sometimes having
written is not enough and I need to find a way to get my words into the world.

The pandemic showed just how vulnerable the performing arts are to plague. But the
truth is, and for lots of different reasons–ticket prices, cheap streamers, the cost of
gas and childcare and other logistical hassles– it was increasingly difficult to get butts
in seats even before Covid hit. When it did and theatres shut down, theatremakers
sought other outlets and many found ways to share their work online. Zoom became
the go-to for readings and productions of various sorts. Previously filmed and taped
plays were brought out of the archives and streamed while some new work, when
able to be captured safely, found its way online as well.

You may be done with Zoom plays but even NY Times critic Elizabeth Vincentelli,
says online theatre is not going away. There are audience members who claim they
will never sit in a theatre again, who actively search out plays they can watch from
home. Yes, it’s difficult to get people to watch them sometimes but is it any easier to
get people to drive 45 minutes to a theatre? It will likely depend on what the play is,
who’s in it, etc. but I’m not talking about the star-studded, LORT, extravaganza. I’m
referring to the new play by the unknown playwright starring no name actors. That
play doesn’t get the buzz and it doesn’t get the butts.

So if you’re tired of waiting to be chosen, I’m making a pitch that you get your work
out using Zoom or other online tools. Take advantage of what these platforms offer
rather than falling victim to them. Turn them on their heads. And you can do it inexpensively–possibly even for free. I know because I did it with my one hour Rom-
Com, BRIDE & ZOOM, and we had a blast.

A Zoom account is free. You can record what happens on Zoom onto a hard drive.
Decent audio quality is well within reach with a few adjustments in preferences. And
once all is captured, you can edit what you’ve recorded using the editing software that
came with your computer. Put some titles on it and if you’ve hired non-union actors,
you may have created something that was entirely free. Of course you should pay
actors and if you’re not directing, you should pay your director and because you’ll be
editing the recorded footage, you will likely need to pay an editor, unless you want to
teach yourself. But you can produce your work and post it online for free.

Now consider producing for a 99 seat black box. Let’s say your show runs Fri-Sun for
4 weeks with a ticket price of $25. The max box office take would be $29,700. But you
know you won’t sell all those tickets, at least not at full price. And the cost of
producing the show will far exceed that amount, between renting the theatre (low
end $10K for 5 weeks), hiring tech–lighting, sound, costume and production design
(all in, maybe $12K)–actors (depends on how many but let’s say three AEA actors for
rehearsal period and the run, maybe $8K), not to mention building the sets ($5K),
equipment rentals, insurance, props, craft services… you are looking at a LOT of
money, close to $40,000, that you cannot get back from ticket sales unless your show
is a giant hit and goes on to theatrical success all over the country. Spending that on
ourselves should give any of us pause. Talk about a vanity production!

On the other hand, BRIDE & ZOOM was a union show conceived and written for the
Zoom format and produced for $6000, which included a website and professional
Zoom and Vimeo accounts. We used the SAG-AFTRA microbudget contract for
projects under $20K. (Note: The AEA and SAG-AFTRA contracts, are a moving target
so if you want to use union talent, read the fine print) and employed eleven actors!
B&Z was shot out of order with extensive editing so the SAG-AFTRA contracts were
the only option for us, which turned out to be fortunate. The project was eligible for
film festival submissions and has been official selected at a couple so far. The thing
to remember with the SAG-AFTRA microbudget contract is, if you, as producer, have
the opportunity to make money by posting your project for sale online, you need to
discuss with the SAG-AFTRA rep before you do so.

I started writing a rom-com as antidote for my pandemic gloom, and then realized
Zoom was the perfect place for it. If not for the pandemic, I would never have
thought to re-envision BRIDE & ZOOM for Zoom itself. But having produced for live
theatre, I can tell you producing for Zoom was a lot easier, not to mention cheaper.
And taking control of my writing felt empowering.

We all want someone to love our work and produce it for us, but in the absence of
that benevolent someone, it comes down to, “If not you, who?” Producing your show
online is a way to avoid the gatekeepers.

AR Nicholas is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and consultant who, during the
pandemic, created Bride & Zoom, a “vidgie” written for and shot on Zoom
(BrideandZoom.org). She is preparing her 3rd feature film, @oldladiesfindmoney. More at:
https://arnicholas.com, https://linktr.ee/ARNicholas

Looking at labels…

by Cynthia Wands

Photography by David Parr for San Francisco Rep’s production of MACHINAL

Last night was a night of nostalgia and perplexed inquiry. It involves a bottle of wine. We had saved a bottle of wine to pair with some exotic menu, sometime in the future, when we can entertain and have dinners with friends again. But given Eric’s ongoing chemotherapy, we know we might not be able to do this any time soon. So we had roasted a chicken, and thought, oh heck, let’s break out the good stuff:

Le Cuvier Sangiovese

This was a gift from wine loving friends. We love this winery, (“small-production wines utilizing wild yeasts, dry-farmed fruit and neutral barrel aging”) and the winemaker (John Munch: “a plenipotentiary & elliptical pontificator”), and we were really excited to finally taste this wine. (The only online mentions we could find for it: “Strong notes of bold cherries and blueberries followed by oak and chocolate hints in a deep inky body that had mild length and minimal tannins.” Also: “Not available in retail stores.” Also: Not currently listed as available from the winery.) It’s not an especially beautiful label, and it doesn’t tell you a lot about the wine.

Here’s where it becomes like theatre.

If you go see a performance, and you’re familiar with the venue, or the director, or a cast member, or the playwright, you might read the program for the show with a lot of interest, because, you want to know more about the ingredients that went into this production.

And you can find out bits about them: where they studied, or who they’ve worked with, what shows have they done, is that a wig or is that their real hair.

And the program can label their identity for you: Oh, they’re from an Ivy League school, or they worked with that guerrilla  theatre. Look, they got produced over there. And that’s an interesting seasons coming up. So you make assumptions about who they are and what they’re like.

That’s the same sort of assumptions that can happen with a wine label. We knew the grape (Sangiovese – used in Chianti) and we knew the winery and the wine maker. But then, it can happen the label doesn’t tell you enough.

Because this was such an INCREDIBLE wine – (like an incredible performance) and we wanted to know more. What year was it made? (not on the label). What vineyard did it come from? Is it a blend of vintages? Are there other vintages to compare it to? And can we find another bottle of this? (The answer is no.)

The label didn’t tell us any of that. Sometimes wineries will squeeze in all kinds of information on their labels about who they are and what they do and when they did it. But this winery is different. On the back of the bottle, we could read: “DIRECT QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO THE WINEMAKER. winemaker@lcwine.com”

“DIRECT QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO THE WINEMAKER. winemaker@lcwine.com”

(John Munch, the winemaker, has a blog about his adventures in winemaking. You can find it here: https://www.lcwine.com/index.cfm?method=blog.blogList&websiteContactID=C0104A27-D7A1-1167-7A54-E363760DC45E)

An online search of this wine and more comments about it was not fruitful (forgive the pun). It would have been more satisfying to drive up to the Le Cuvier winery and get a chance to talk to John about this wine and his approach to the grape. (Here’s one of his wonderful blog pieces about his approach: https://www.lcwine.com/blog/Why-Am-I-So-Stupid-)

But back to my comment about – here’s where it becomes like theatre. I’ve been to some incredible theatre, with a one page program, maybe it’s not very beautiful, listing the company (or not) and the production details (or not). And then there are the times when I’ve been able to go out with the cast/crew after a show, and you get a chance to talk about the performance, and the rehearsal, and the audience. That’s when you can really find out – how did this come about? Where did it come from?

A postcard for MACHINAL, directed by Michelle Truffaut at San Francisco Rep.
When I posed for this picture I had no idea of what the image would look like.

Years ago I performed in MACHINAL at San Francisco Rep, and the visual/performance aspects of this show were wildly imaginative, incorporating neon lights, staccato staging/blocking and original music. This production postcard was the best “label” that could illustrate that show. Looking at it now reminds me not only how difficult it was to do this version of the script, but how unique and brave it was.

Last night, searching for more information on a bottle of wine, I found another reminder of how we need to see beyond a label, and how it can spark an inquiry into the unknown.

When things break…

by Cynthia Wands

Yes. You can snap a handle off a sink faucet.

Lately I’ve been breaking things.

I dropped a favorite water glass and it smashed to bits. I also had a hummingbird feeder fall apart when I was trying to feed the charm of hummingbirds that vacation on our deck. And then I snapped the handle off the bathroom sink. Literally I snapped it off with my bare hands.

That was a surprise – I didn’t know I had that much raw strength in my hands. Or that I had that kind of ongoing angst that I can break things apart with such ease.

Actually it’s an old sink. An old faucet. I don’t really have that much strength. Or so I tell myself.

But I have a Yankee kind of “don’t throw it out it can be fixed” mentality. And I have a far fetched idea of Kintsugi, based on images I’ve seen online.

(Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.)

Ribbons of gold hold this bowl together. It’s beautiful.

See. I can’t do this. My attempts at repairing things in my life, in my mind, in my garage, don’t look anything like this. Instead, I have a lot of broken pieces of things, that I think I can fix, and they are waiting for that idea to actually happen. So I hate breaking things.

I think sometimes that’s why I’m anxious about rewrites to my scripts, and attempts at “fixing” my artwork. I don’t have this “embracing flaws” practice. It’s more a dodge ball game of what can I hide that I don’t like, or I’m uncertain about.

Recently, my 34 year old Kitchen Aid mixer died.

I loved this thing.

This was given to me as a gift when a friend saw me struggling to make twelve cakes for a big party. He couldn’t stand watching me do battle with a tiny hand mixer to put together all the cakes and buttercream. I’ve treasured this machine for 34 years and, for some reason, I thought it would outlive me.

But recently I was baking some sample cakes for a friend’s upcoming wedding (small cakes) and it broke. The engine died. Attempts to have it repaired were not successful, and I was having a meltdown about this. My husband, bless him, ordered me a replacement, (even though I was struggling with the purchase price and the money issue, he went ahead and did it anyway.) Bless him.

So, broken things. I’m about to jump into rewrites for a script that has wrestled me into a corner. I’ll see if I can find those ribbons of gold to patch things together.

And here’s the new Kitchen Aid mixer. It’s different than my beloved workhorse mixer. The bowl is different, the power of the motor is different. But I’m adjusting to the idea that I can have new things.

The new mixer is the color of “Ink Blue”.

And the plumber is coming on Friday to replace the faucet. Another new thing in the house. I’ll try not to snap the handle off on this one.

What we see when another war becomes visible…

by Cynthia Wands

A Russian soldier surrendered.
Ukrainians gave him tea, food, and let him call his mother on video.
<via @lapatina_>

March of 2022

Another war. Unlike other wars I’ve followed in newspapers/television and online, I have more access to see this happen in real time. I’ve seen more video, tweets, and images of this war than any other because of my access (and the available time to view it) on social media. It’s horrifying and overwhelming.


People trying to evacuate from the Kharkiv central train station
sourced from syvokon on Instagram

Anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg, Russia (by Anton Vaganov of Reuters)
Attributed to Ukrainian photographer Dmitry Muravsky

I’m thinking of the images we that don’t get to see right now, the images that we don’t know about, that will be revealed to us, later on.

I think about this because my father served in the United States military during the Vietnam War – and the only images I knew of that experience were shown on television, or in Life Magazine, or in the newspapers. Those images were carefully curated by the media, and by my family. I didn’t feel much connection to the loss of life and the horror that played out in that war. My father never talked to me about what he did in the military, and I didn’t know what his job was. When he was asked about his military experience, I heard him say: “I served in the Air Force for 25 years.” And then he would change the subject.

This kind of omission, and the determined silence around it, led me to believe that he just “worked in the Air Force”. After he died a few years ago, I was given more information on what his actual job entailed, and it wasn’t as sinister or as noble as I had imagined. But I still remember my blind acceptance of what I was told. And what I saw.

I wonder what will the writers and playwrights and artists and creators make of the images that we’ll see because of this war. I am trying to keep my eyes open.

Questions…

So I submitted a play. Woo hoo. I sent in my play after a whirlwind writing session. Didn’t re-read. Just hit the page count required for a 10-minute play, print in PDF and uploaded it to the submission site. What the heck was I thinking?!?

Well, I was thinking. “woohoo, finished a complete thought!” I didn’t think I’d get chosen (which I don’t know if I have yet, but I seriously doubt it). I just wanted to present an alternate point of view from a rarely talked about group of people. They haven’t announced the chosen plays yet but after some discussion with another writer, I realized my error. I didn’t consider the group of actors who would be reading it. So now should I consider where I’m submitting it to and who will be reading it based on their acting company?

Should I consider this when I name my characters? Will that affect the reviewers who simply skim the piles of scripts they get? So if you have a character named Chris, how will your reader view them at first? Male or female? If you have 4 characters, one is named Nancy, the others Ned, George and Chris (sorry, I was watching a Nancy Drew marathon). So looking at that, how are the gender roles divided between the cast? If you had to make a split-second decision looking at just names you may say 3 male roles. But in reality, it isn’t. My script had 2 she/her roles, 1 he/him role and the last character was listed as they/them. Ugh. So where does this leave me?

I also love the idea of submitting for a theme. It gives me focus and the desire to write a new work instead of trying to adapt an existing script. OMG, and that’s another thing. How do you even do that? If I have a script and want to submit it to a particular event that has a given set of guidelines. How do I get this across and say “Yes, my play meets your theme”. If they can’t see it while reading my play, is it not all lost? The interpretation of my play is now dependent upon someone else’s understanding of the world and should I think of these things while I’m writing? or just write? I usually just write. But writing for a specific theme is so much more fun.

But ultimately. Ugh.

Ok. I’m off to finish crafting a short play to meet the guidelines of a Climate Change Festival. Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear how you label your characters. I’m still working on that.

Happy writing…Jennifer

My Mother; My Muse

I lost my dad on May 12, 2017, right before I graduated from undergrad which he was hella proud of. My mother transitioned January 1st, 2022, yeah, a few weeks ago. That shit was like being hit with two deaths at once since my mother was helping me grieve my father’s death. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to explain how different my life is now or how sad I am. But before my parents passed away, they both got to see my plays. They were actually my biggest supporters. They’d drive from anywhere during any weather to see my work. My mom was always my muse. Like if you read all my plays, you’d see different versions of her that represent different stages of her life. I don’t often write about men, but when I do there is always a character that has strong Rickey Jackson traits. Normally a gentle man. My mom got to see the play I wrote about them in 2019. It was so special. She went up to a cast member and was like “You was playin’ me!” all happy and smiling from ear to ear. Eyes glossy from the tears she was holding back. I miss my mama. She was truly a remarkable woman. I’m so grateful I got to have her as my mother and my muse. 

Here is a picture of her and my brother. Watching a play I wrote about her. Archived.

Meet Kimba Henderson

When Kimba Henderson was a young child, her mother required her to pick three articles from the newspaper every Sunday and write summaries of the events. This, in tandem with the criminal accounts she heard at home from her mother’s dictation as a court reporter, were the origins of Kimba’s love of storytelling. She first began writing and producing her own plays as a middle schooler, heavily influenced by the scintillating drama of Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon’s novels.

A Graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program, Kimba is both a playwright and screenwriter. One of her first plays at NYU about an African American woman who grew up in an all-white town and decides to go to an HBCU, sparked an unexpected and lively debate in her class. Initially, Kimba slid down her seat nervously at this reaction until her professor gave her a quiet nod and wink, as if to say, this is exactly what theater is meant to do. As Kimba puts it, that’s when she realized the power of her words to “make people feel and discuss.”

When I ask Kimba what she’s drawn to write about, she talks about legacy and the reverberating consequences of the choices people make. Thematic to her creative explorations are questions of cause and effect: “How does it [legacy] live? How does it haunt you? How do you rise above it or escape it?” In her award-winning solo show, WOMEN ON THE VERGE, she examines a family of women, all with disparate tales, and how their choices ultimately affect the central character Vanessa and the woman that she becomes.

Her play THE RECKONING, produced by the Robey Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, is about a Black family running a crawfish farm on a former plantation in Louisiana. This is a family play that has gothic influences and features plantation ghosts who carry secrets and their own agendas for sticking around.

 Kimba, an African American writer, who grew up living in an upper middleclass neighborhood of San Diego and going to private school, recognizes the tacit desire of the industry to demarcate the boundaries of identity for writers of color. We discussed at length the issues of representation and the question of who gets to write what story? Her take—and I agree–is that historically, white people have always been telling the stories of people of color and now it can often feel as though they desire diverse voices but still want to control the transmission. Meanwhile, the white power structure continues to write (and project) the stories of marginalized people. She says, “It’s another form of racism or othering” and as a writer “your brand goes beyond your ethnicity and culture.” Kimba is first and foremost a storyteller, and she doesn’t limit her content to her own lived experience. Instead, she does her due diligence in getting to know her characters and their environment through her research. It goes without saying that her lens as a Black woman informs her perspectives and renderings of character.

Kimba reflects on her writing life during the pandemic.  Despite all the madness of COVID and amidst the murder of George Floyd, she used the forced quarantine to hunker down and generate. She says “Crazy doesn’t shut me down. Crazy makes me curious”. And Thank God for that, because her latest play reflects her skill for telling complex multi-character drama with humanity and humor to boot. RED HARLEM, developed with the Company of Angels’ professional playwriting group, highlights the true story of the Communist Party’s recruitment efforts in the 1930s by casting a propagandist film with Black performers from Harlem that was written by Langston Hughes and shot in the Soviet Union. The intersectionality of race, class, nationality, and politics are seamlessly woven into a fascinating tapestry that depicts a virtually unknown bit of history.

In addition to her playwriting, Kimba has written for True Crime and Origins docuseries. Her latest collaboration was writing the introduction to the upcoming book “Black Hollywood” which re-imagines classic films with Black actors through iconic photography. This book will be released in October.

MJ Kang Back on the Scene

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.  

Feel your feels

My daughter has epic temper tantrums. They are developmentally age appropriate, but they are very uncomfortable to sit through as a parent. I witness with a mix of emotions–awe, envy, and irritation as she rages on. I must clasp my hands together, as if in prayer, and remain across the room for fear that I will grab her or hold my hand to her mouth, or worse. Sometimes I see my child self, and then my adult self, in her unrestrained volcanic eruption, and I think of my own parents, how they may have been raised, how they were so ill-equipped to understand a child’s mind, which is empty of words but full of raw emotion, how they would not allow or make space for my feelings, how everything was personal. I wonder if those feelings are lodged somewhere deep in my psyche or muscle tissue because they were not given permission to exist. My daughter’s fits are pure, unfiltered by the demands of civility. Once, after she’d calmed down and was sitting in my embrace, she told me “It’s hard to stop [crying]” because I had wrongfully implored her after a full half hour of her wailing to “Stop! Just STOP!”  I thanked her for sharing, for naming and processing the emotional experience so that I could understand just a little of what she was going through, and it was helpful and instructive; I got it. I was reminded that the tantrum is beyond her control; it needed to move through her in order to expel. Her self-awareness astounds and inspires me.

I’m thinking a lot about how we are not taught in school (or life) to name our feelings, to own our feelings, to make friends with our feelings, or to take responsibility for our feelings. Everything is so behavior oriented, but feelings are what prompt action. (Is it funny to think about a feeling? The writer’s brain must force feelings into justification, reason, transmutation.) I think about acts of violence and how the perpetrator was unlikely ever given permission to hold space for their own feelings, to sit with, to honor, and to forgive rage enough to let it dissipate. Yes, I am someone whose heart breaks for the school shooter as much as it does for his victims. I think of how social and economic forces are squeezing the citizenry to the point of self-destruction; their feelings, unprocessed, turn to darkness. We are not our feelings, I am told. Yet they are so seductive, so entrancing, so controlling…and they move us both negatively and positively depending on how we interpret them.

In his book “The Untethered Soul” Michael Singer writes:

When the energy can’t make it through the mind because of conflicts with other thoughts and mental concepts, it then tries to release through the heart. That is what creates all the emotional activity. When you resist even that release, the energy gets packed up and forced into deep storage within the heart. In the yogic tradition, the unfinished energy pattern is called a Samskara. This is a Sanskrit word meaning “impression,” and in the yogic teachings it is considered one of the most important influences affecting your life. A Samskara is a blockage, an impression from the past. It’s an unfinished energy pattern that ends up running your life.

It’s a fine balance, our brain’s relationship to the emotional experience within our bodies. One the one hand, we should acknowledge what we feel, but on the other hand we should not allow our feelings to define us, at least when they are negative. But isn’t our feeling world–particularly our pain and anger–what activates our creative expressions? And don’t our creative expressions elevate our sense of justice, ethics, and humanity?

My favorite poem by Amiri Baraka

Young Soul

First, feel, then feel, then
read, or read, then feel,
then fall, or stand, where you
already are. Think
of yourself, and the other
selves…think
of your mother
and sisters,
and your bentslick father, then feel, or
fall where you already are
if nothing else will move you
then read
and look deeply
into all matters
come close to you
city boys–country men

Make some muscle in your head,
but use the muscle
in yr heart.