When Inda Craig-Galván was a young child growing up on the Southside of Chicago in the early eighties, her mother, a trained beautician, started losing clientele with the rise of at-home hair kits. In need of steadier income, she took a job at a beauty care products store owned by a Korean immigrant. The owner, unable to pronounce her name, renamed her Julie, which had always felt wrong to Craig-Galván. But as she got older, she realized that in many ways the two had had a mutually beneficial arrangement—for example, her mother was able to bring her daughter to work and the owner was able to pay her in cash. This unlikely pairing of two people at the margins is the inspiration for Craig-Galván’s new play “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” which is having its World Premiere at the East West Players of Los Angeles.
In the play, Veralynn takes a job at Mr. Kim’s beauty supply store. The scenario and setting may be seeded from real life, but the story that unfolds is fully Craig-Galvan’s imaginative exploration of two people of color who are both trying to survive while negotiating shared space. Craig-Galván wanted to write an intersectional play bringing two communities uncommonly represented together that wasn’t about war or marriage, but rather about “dealing with each other, finding common ground, misunderstanding each other, and overstepping each other.” As a Black woman and an Asian immigrant with a heavy accent, Veralynn and Mr. Kim must come face-to-face with the racial stereotypes and cultural barriers between them. In so doing, they take the difficult but brave steps to bridge their divide and acknowledge their humanity.
A hallmark of Craig-Galván’s playwriting is an element of magical realism, and this play does not disappoint. While Veralynn works at the store, the beauty poster advertisements come to life, haunting and prodding her as she tries to build connection with Mr. Kim.
In her own words, Craig-Galván is “obsessed with using storytelling in a super theatrical way,” in “exploring someone’s inner mind—their thoughts and their skewed vision of life.” The posters are a window for both Veralynn and Mr. Kim as we discover how much they’ve sacrificed in the way of their own artistry just to live in America. Thematic to the play is the question, as Craig-Galván posits, “How do we continue to find and make art where we are made to feel unwelcome?” It’s a fitting question for anyone trying to make meaning out of their creative lives whilst struggling with the economic pressures of American capitalism.
Bringing together all the elements of this play took considerable creative collaboration. Under the dramaturgy of Playwright Alice Tuan, the play was developed in the East West Players’ new play development Playwrights Group. Director Scarlett Kim, also the Associate Artistic Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, brought her background in theater and video and technology to the project, as well her own Korean immigrant perspective, which was integral to the fleshing out of Mr. Kim. Because of the extended developmental support, the play had the great fortune of actor input by lead actors Julanne Chidi Hill and Ryun Yu.
For Kim, the play was an ideal project where her many skills and sensibilities could converge. She describes the play as depicting “how two characters move beyond prescriptions of what society tells them”, and one that refuses to fall into a right-or-wrong, black-or-white binary or be told through a white male gaze. One of Kim’s driving values as an artist and director is what she describes as unclassifiable spaces, a “central framework for life and art.” In many ways, she says this play is “the story of unclassifiability in both content and form.” The integration of multimedia to carry out the fantastical elements of the play is magical and isn’t additive but rather illuminating to the characters’ inner lives.
Both Kim and Craig-Galván rave about this female-powered creative collaboration, with Kim calling it a “dreamy, joyful, generous” process and Craig-Galvan amazed at the visual interpretations of her own, as she quips, “ridiculous stage directions.” The show promises to be a truly theatrical event.