Waiting for the light to shine

We’ve been working on cleaning out the family house, which has been accumulating stuff since 1987. It’s a slow-going but fascinating personal archaeological dig. Between transitioning from said house to a series of apartments after college, surviving the gauntlet that is moving to NYC, and deciding to stick it out in that New York apartment at the start of the pandemic, I’ve been left me more emotionally ready than ever to let things go — but I want to examine things first, possibly recording them in digital form or selecting those rare artifacts that earn the real estate of being kept. 

The above newspaper clipping was always going to be in the “keep” pile. It’s from my citizenship ceremony in 1987, when I became a U.S. citizen on my second birthday and the U.S. Constitution’s 200th birthday. I don’t have any memories from that age, and by all reports, I was a lot more concerned about my Cheerios at the time. But I sure did give that photographer a great shot, and I was reminded of that image of myself when I was working on a production this past fall.

It was in 2013 that the phrase “undergoing the mortifying ordeal of being known” entered the cultural vocabulary. In that case, it referred to the author’s anxiety about others’ opinions regarding his rental of hundreds of goats. Highly specific, perhaps, but also no more highly specific than many of the other things that shine the spotlight on us. I have to admit, one thing that I appreciate about art’s piercing vision is that it’s often one-sided: I can be seen without that which has seen me even knowing it. It’s then under my control to do what I please with this newly revealed part of me. (Usually. There has been one instance of a blow hitting so absolutely and unexpectedly close to home that I was visibly reeling afterwards, and a very kind friend whom I ran into directly afterward both asked no questions and made sure that I didn’t go wandering off into the night in some kind of fugue state, never to be seen again.) They say that art holds up a mirror, but that feels so woefully insufficient a description, implying a passivity and flat blankness on the part of the art. Maybe instead it’s the carefully engineered series of circuits, making the connections that illuminate a whole room in which I can now see myself.

It was also in 2013 that I finished grad school and was making preparations to imminently move to NYC once I was able to get something like work prospects lined up. In what was a reflection of the PWI-centric nature of much theater programming and education prior to 2020, I’d never been acquainted with the work of Lloyd Suh (a travesty), but I received an email from Ma-Yi Theater, whom I’d also never heard of (another travesty), inquiring about my interest and availability for a project starting that September.  And that was how Lloyd Suh’s The Wong Kids in The Secret Of The Space Chupacabra, Go! literally started my career in New York.

Continue reading “Waiting for the light to shine”

Hit me with your best shot: being prepared for that Modern(a) life

Do photos affect anything algorithmic on non-social media sites? Is anything not social media? Is anything not an algorithm?? Oh well, here’s my face, just to be safe.

There it is, looking as raggedy as my vaccination sticker – thanks, spring allergies! But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the sake of engagement. As more folks are heading into getting their vaccines (particularly shot #2), I wanted to note how the second shot went for me and what I found helpful, especially since reading accounts from other people helped *me* to be prepared.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen a pretty wide range of side effects/immune reactions from folks I know. Even narrowing it down to just my age group (late 20s-late 30s), it’s spanned from “literally nothing” to “nearly a week of severe fever and misery.” (For what it’s worth, the one person who suffered the latter is still in support of the vaccine and would get it again – it’s still better than Covid and it was felt to be worth it for the sake of preventing further loss beyond those who have already died.) The majority were on the mild end of the spectrum, having a sore arm and some fatigue, maybe a bit of headache, the day after. I was more in the middle, perhaps slightly on the side of severe.

So here’s my story from Team Moderna!

Continue reading “Hit me with your best shot: being prepared for that Modern(a) life”

I got through all of last year and I’m…

Once upon a time, a giant silver bird descended from the clouds. It had flown halfway around the world before finally alighting upon the land of opportunity. From within its silver feathers, a child dropped to the ground on fat legs. The child was new to this land and received a new name, but their title at birth remained as an echo in their mind: shining at the top.

Have you ever wondered if you’re secretly royalty? Or at least been served a targeted ad trying to sell you a genealogy test to find out? Or been nine or twelve or fifteen years old and trying not to get too excited about it but holding open the possibility that your upcoming birthday will reveal that you’re actually a princess or a wizard or a hero of ancient prophecy even though at the current moment you’re stoically enduring the indignities of being ordered to clean your room?

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. Psychology gave it a name: the theory of narrative identity that “postulates that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life. This life narrative integrates one’s reconstructed past, perceived present, and imagined future. Furthermore, this narrative is a story – it has characters, episodes, imagery, a setting, plots, and themes.” And naturally, we’re the protagonists of our own stories.

Of course, not only individual identities are built upon stories. Community identity is also narrative. The largest, most consequential of identities of nations and religions are founded in myth, whether it be “I cannot tell a lie” or “in the beginning there was.”

In my case, being internationally adopted sent this narrative impulse into overdrive.

After all, my past was a mystery, and an abstract one at that. As a child, the concrete realities of motherhood and parenthood – the physical act of childbirth, the labyrinthine logistics of governmental family policies, how issues like systemic sexism and racism and unchecked capitalism have specific impacts on an individual person’s life situation – are difficult enough to grasp even without adding in the layer of never having known the people involved, in a country on the other side of the world of which you have no memory. Emily down the street probably actually should know if there were royal wizards in her ancestry, but me? Anything could be possible!

(And really, what is more quintessentially American than viewing history as a blank slate and identity as something to be shaped anew and claimed as one’s own?)

And then, actual events in my life conspired to signal that I was, in fact, the hero of a grand mythology that was taking shape.

It’s commonly told to writers that there are only two plots: a stranger rides into a town and a man goes on a journey. Both boxes checked there, and again even more so than for a non-adopted child who, while they do definitely make an entrance, has kind of been there for a while. Meanwhile, I had journeyed to literally the other side of the world, as far away as a person could possibly go, before I was four months old.

(As a note, that aphorism about the two plots is given a multitude of attributions but originates with an imprecise paraphrase of John Gardner.)

And who are these journeying strangers? Heroes like Momotarou, the Japanese folk hero who was found as a baby in a peach floating in a river and journeys forth to fight demons, and Kal-L, that alien who was adopted by a couple in literal Smallville who rename him “Clark Kent” and who grows up to be a journalist and the Man of Steel, protecting Metropolis with his superpowers.

For me, I was renamed and immersed in the American Dream. At my baptism, the pastor apparently blared a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” as the closing hymn.  

I became a citizen on my second birthday on the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. My citizenship ceremony was onstage in a grand theater with a large U.S. flag flying. There were photos in the local newspaper. To be fair, it wasn’t only my citizenship ceremony, but I arguably stole the show, if only because I reportedly threw my entire container of Cheerios across the stage during said ceremony, then cheerfully declaring “I get them!” and proceeding to do so. For each individual Cheerio.

Growing up in an extremely white area, I was, of course, singled out on the playground early on as being different because that’s what kids do if they aren’t given guidance, but confident in my role as hero, this was not a threat but simply a challenge. My refusal to be cowed was respected as there not being any actual active malice involved, merely small-minded ignorance, and I was clearly not an easy target but rather, someone better to be befriended (or at least allied with).

Being an intelligent, confident over-achiever who believed that sexism was wrong (also don’t waste water and also cigarettes are bad for you etc.) and who also wasn’t old enough know much about jobs beyond things like “firefighter,” “artist,” “teacher,” or “doctor,” naturally an aspiration of mine included becoming President of the United States.

Turns out that there’s a problem there, and it’s called Article II, Section 1: “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President.”

I remember feeling extremely indignant when I learned this. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t even remember that other place where I’d lived for less than four months of my life. What was being implied about me?

It also activated a specific part of my personality.

If I were a video game character, my catchphrase would be “Now that sounds like a challenge to me!” I start work at a new job and I’m advised that the shop head is extremely ornery and doesn’t like anyone? Now that sounds like a challenge to me! I’m out for a run and find the usual path closed but it’s technically possible to get from Point A to Point B via a snowy hillside with a 50-degree incline? Now that sounds like a challenge to me!  Friend offers a selection of cocktail recipes for their online birthday, including one “joke” recipe that includes setting a shot on fire and a warning that nobody should actually do it? Now that sounds like a challenge to me!

Which is all to say that exclusion or rejection doesn’t make me likewise spurn with “Well, I don’t want it anyways!” nor plead with “Please please take me!” Rather, I become defiant with “You’ll wish that you had me!” It’s a positive sort of spite, one might say.

So I grew up as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. Of course I never denied that I was Korean because I have vision, possess multiple mirrors, and am not delusional. But what I would say was that that didn’t matter. I basically melting-potted, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, yellow, purple, or polka-dotted”, color-blinded myself. I was my own hyper-assimilationist first-generation parent.

Over the past decade, however, the narrative began to shift.

Continue reading “I got through all of last year and I’m…”

If I’m gonna die, I’ll life the live that frees me

Four years ago today – rocking out with my friends. It was the closest I’ve ever had to that fabled, only-in-the-movies experience of “being in the band,” where you throw yourself into the music and the lights, and the headaches are many but worth it, and you spend far too many late nights and too much money in the bar, not because you’re trying to drown your sorrows but because you want to have as much time as you can with these delightful people who are somehow all here together.

I’ve spent the past few days incapacitated by rage and also regret that I did not punch somebody in the face.

It was just a few days after the happy memory from four years ago that we went to a nearby bar following tech rehearsal. My assistant and I were the last ones to arrive (par for the course for stage manager – first ones in, last ones out), but as we approached the table where we saw our colleagues, we could tell that something wasn’t right. The place was surprisingly packed for a Wednesday night, even in Hell’s Kitchen, and the energy was… charged. And not in a good way.

You know how difficult it can be to remember more than snippets of dreams? And how the parts you tend to be able to remember are whatever have the most narrative coherence? Because it’s a challenge to hang onto things that just don’t make any sense. So I can’t tell you many specifics of what we overheard being said. But it was enough to, in the moment, put together that we were in the middle of a bar packed full of Proud Boys.

Yes, those Proud Boys.

It wasn’t clear if this was their event itself or some sort of hangout following a meeting. Either way, we heard all varieties of offensive things, ranging from simply bizarre to simply hostile.  

The feeling of violation was visceral. Intellectually you might know that “it can happen anywhere,” but it’s a hard slap to the face when it actually happens, especially if you’ve had the privilege of being relatively sheltered from the blows of the world. Or maybe there’s a special sting with the awareness of how harsh things can be elsewhere – “at least here, in this place of my own, I find safety.”

Eventually, they noticed us gawking at them. That’s when things threatened to get ugly. One man began aggressively getting in the face of the largest white man in our group, demanding that he answer if he was “a Republican, a Democrat, or an American.”

I can’t remember if that was the trigger. I can’t remember if it was another trigger. I can’t remember if the trigger was anything in particular or just a final straw landing on the camel’s back. This is something that I know about myself – I’m very precipitous, a stretch of even ground that’s almost too extensive to be able to see where the cliff drops off. Simply as a matter of personality rather than any sort of conscious decision, I don’t do warning shots. So all I know is that at some point, I saw red. And that was when I felt someone grabbing onto my elbow and pulling me outside.

My friends and I absconded to a nearby little hole-in-the-wall gay bar. (Has that refuge survived the pandemic, I wonder?) We got many drinks and shouted our outrage to each other. When I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. I grabbed my iPod classic, put on clipping.’s Splendor & Misery, and went for a 3AM run in the (technically closed) park near my apartment. If anyone had had the foolish idea of messing with me, it wouldn’t have ended well, but that part of my night, at least, passed without incident.

A few days later, I put on my cowboy boots and returned to the bar to demand answers. The owners weren’t in, but the bartender, who was outraged on my behalf, took my information, and the owner called me later that day. He affirmed that that wasn’t what their establishment stood for and that such gatherings wouldn’t be tolerated in the future. A week after our incident at the bar (although unconnected to it, at least specifically), the Ghostlight Project gathered theatre practitioners to pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone – to create a light in the darkness.

What a fine, fine resolution that all was.

All I’ve been able to think about over the past days is that I should have just fucking punched someone in the fucking face.

Continue reading “If I’m gonna die, I’ll life the live that frees me”

Search high and low, follow every social media platform, every path you (don’t) know; or, Of Names and Mountains

So apparently it took a pandemic for me to get an Instagram account. It’s over @shiningathetop – which might have you wondering why I’m not at the usual carotidartistry. Allow me to save you from what I’m sure would be endless sleepless nights of wondering. At the root of it, of course, is the fact that I resisted getting an account for so long that both my traditional username (which, for the record, I’ve been using since I needed a new, non-embarrassing handle for the resurgently popular Les Misérables messageboards in 2012) (no shade to the other account here, you got there first, it’s fair play, I should have known better as a former LiveJournal user) as well as any variant on my professional name that wasn’t excessively Early AOL Chic were all taken. So I was stumped for a bit, until my brain turned up a question that artist Chloe Rozo once posed, which asked that if you were to get a dream tattoo, what would it be? Now, I am far too commitment-shy to get a tattoo, but I’d considered the question and spitballed a geometric abstraction of the meaning of my birth name, something that I hadn’t thought about in a long while.

The meaning of my birth name is, as you might have now guessed, allegedly “shining at the top.” I say “allegedly” because neither accuracy of records nor cultural competency were particularly hallmarks of the international adoption scene of the mid-1980s. But where’s the fun in letting rigorous accuracy get in the way of some good personal mythology? So, no, while my very healthy ego has been supportive to me during these trying times, this isn’t based (entirely) in my sense of personal superiority. There’s also a lot of personal stupidity and pig-headedness. Realizing that this name was available to me set me reminiscing about the opposite of quarantine and the ultimate in distance: my trip to South Korea in 2017, after I’d finished working on an opera for the Japan Society at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan.

It was my first time returning to Korea since birth, and I knew that one of the things I needed to do while in Seoul was go hiking around Bugaksan. Simply due to the dates of the job, I was arriving at the tail end of chuseok when many attractions would be closed, so I’d planned that I’d go whenever the first day of good weather occurred. That ended up being my first full day there. So, with no experience with the transit system whatsoever, a three-year-old’s grasp of the language, and no actual hiking gear, I set out from my adoptee lodging house, got off the bus too early, learned the hard way that google maps doesn’t work for walking directions there, and had already walked for heaven knows how long before I even reached the entrance of the park. Up I went, climbing so many stairs, passing signs warning about wild boars, climbing more stairs, and then running out of stairs but still having farther to climb, all the while reliving my childhood memory of the martial arts instructor at Camp Mujigae telling us how taekwondo has so much kicking because Korean people have strong legs because they had to climb so many mountains. I honestly had no idea where I was actually going, just that as long as I could still go up, I’d keep going. And then at some point, sweaty and dusty, literally climbing hand and foot up rocks, I reached a peak. I ate my convenience store kimbap and then just sat alone for a long while.

Based on the map I found when I came back down, I somehow deduced that it was maybe Bohyeongbong Peak, but honestly, I don’t really know. I was very informed and civilized for the rest of my trip, dressing up to go to the palace and visiting many museums and participating in many other cultural pursuits, but somehow, stubbornly walking along the side of the road to get to a park to climb up a mountain past the point where the path stopped – without specifically aiming to, I feel like I started out that journey with peak me. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing for me to be keeping in mind.


Yeah, me, too, buddy.

Grief be nimble, Elliot B. Quick; or, I’m still not over it and now there’s a fucking pandemic

I lost a friend a little over a month ago. After weeks of processing, I shared some thoughts about him with our mutual acquaintances. They probably won’t mean as much to someone entirely outside of our circles, but I wanted to put them out to the world anyways. Both because I’d love to talk about him to as many people who will listen, and also on the chance that anyone else who is experiencing the conundrum of grief, where something vital has been lost and yet the affairs of the world somehow continue on, especially in a time so heightened as this, might find something here to be shared.

Other people have eulogized Elliot B. Quick so wonderfully that it feels uselessly performative of me to do so at this point. You were either lucky enough to have known him or you weren’t. He was brilliant, passionate, kind, and funny. He gave great hugs. He had a magnificent laugh.

I hadn’t wanted to make this loss about me and my grief – not when it’s the person who has passed, of course, who should be at the center of this all, and not when there are those who were so much closer to him. But it stopped being a thing that I could just keep to myself without affecting others when all of my wrestling with myself led to more and more days passing without my getting in touch with folks I’d meant to get in touch with. And “Sorry I haven’t texted you about getting together, I’ve been kinda depressed since my friend died in a freak accident” seems like an awful lot to throw at a person. Maybe just a little rude.

It was unexpected. It was a shock that literally knocked my legs out from under me.

And then it’s a series of small events. Being found sobbing in the bathroom by the assistant director after you get off the phone with the friend who’s been centralizing the information. Solidifying arrangements to miss work on the projected day of the memorial service. Finding out that the memorial service will actually be on a day when it’s impossible to miss work. Reading the obituary: “He was 35 years old.” Each chipping away a little more at the world that existed where he was around; each one more brick in building a world without him in it.

There’s also an odd feeling of unfairness that’s uncomfortably founded on privilege. It’s not as though this is a wake-up call to seize the moment and follow one’s dreams, a reminder to not put off one’s passions because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We were already doing that. My circle of friends and I, we have the gift of doing this work that we love, often together. So it’s not as though I can say, well, he might be gone but this has inspired me to reexamine my priorities and devote myself to what I believe really matters. We were already doing that, for fuck’s sake. So… good job, don’t change anything, keep carrying on? Where’s the narrative arc in that? Terribly unsatisfying.

I first worked with Elliot on a keen, vigorous production of The Seagull at Yale. Not that every production doesn’t have its challenges and emotional stakes entirely unrelated to the material at hand, but this one was particularly juicy, what with being scheduled so that we reached that dreaded Week Three of rehearsal (i.e., when everyone is feeling like absolute shit about their work) right at the end of first semester, when most of our cast also had large projects due for their classes. Everyone was exhausted and at their wits’ ends, and that was before even uttering a word of the text. It was the dead of winter, and so dark and cold outside. The production design had the audience sitting onstage facing the house, and the heat in the building was definitely not built to accommodate that, so the production team in tech was bundled up in coats and running space heaters. As we began our very short tech process, the director (fearless leader Alexandru Mihail) realized that he wanted every door to open magically each time a character entered or exited, instantaneously creating dozens of new deck crew cues (all called). At one point, a crew member was wheeling a full tea cart across the stage when a wheel of the cart fell off, and we all got to watch in nightmarish slow-motion as the entire fragile tea set went crashing to the ground. This was, of course, after we had already earned the ire of the entire props department by possibly setting a record for the most furniture broken during rehearsal, a streak which we would continue to build upon throughout the performances because true winners never stop winning. The post-production seminar class, during which the entire technical design and stage management departments had a post-mortem discussion about the recent process, became a debate of theatrical pedagogy between the heads of the two departments who were seated on the far opposite sides of our onstage house, the rest of us stuck between them like spectators at an immersive tennis match that was also a surprise production of No Exit.

That play was beautiful.

My main memory of the production was during one rehearsal in the lovely, warm-hued Room 221 at 149 York Street. Alex had proposed some idea, the exact nature of which I have absolutely zero recollection. What I do remember is that Elliot vehemently objected to it on fundamental artistic grounds. “But no, I want to do it,” Alex insisted (please be sure that you have applied the appropriate Romanian accent to his words). “Sure!” Elliot nearly shouted back with the incredulous smile of a man absolutely mortified and offended by what he was witnessing. “Sure, you can! I’ll just never speak to you again!” Alex was undeterred.

We took a break. Alex went downstairs for a cigarette. Elliot went with him. When we got back from break, Alex thoughtfully reported that he had ceased pursuing his original idea but we were going to try something else. The rest of the room breathed a collective sigh of relief that mommy and daddy hadn’t gotten a divorce.

If I had to pinpoint any one thing as being a turning point in my understanding of the meaning and potential of artistic collaboration, it would be that show. And it would be because of Elliot and the artistic family that could not have existed without him. It was possibly one of the most valuable things that I took away from my three years of graduate education.

We went on to bring most of that production group back together for another production that was, again, absolutely bonkers, both onstage and off: The Last Days of Mankind at Bard College. For most of the process, Alex, Elliot, and I were the daily presence together in rehearsal with our cast of delightfully unique undergrads. Alex and Elliot were roommates in some weird shed-turned-lodging situation. I lived alone in an isolated house of taxidermied horrors where I wasn’t allowed to leave my toothbrush in the bathroom. I remember the three of us going out for pizza relatively early in the process as the realities of our situation sunk in. One thing we did determine at that dinner was that I was, unquestionably, a heavy eater.

Something that was so interesting about The Last Days of Mankind is that Karl Kraus began writing it in 1915, while the Great War was still in progress – indeed, while it was just getting started. He finished it in 1919, one year after the war ended. That’s been on my mind as the COVID-19 pandemic has been working its way around the world, devastating lives and also upending an entire artistic landscape like a high-magnitude earthquake that has stricken permanent changes into our fundamental topography and whose aftershocks are just beginning. (Canceling a memorial service. Making a chip. Laying a brick.) We have no choice but to live it; we have the choice to also write it.

It’s a very self-centered thing, but for me, I feel like the blow of our current circumstances has been a little softened by the fact that my preconceived notion of the future, which I hadn’t even been aware that I’d held, had already been shattered just mere weeks earlier. It certainly wasn’t the first loss I’ve had in my life, or even nearly the closest, but it was the one most sneakily threaded into That Which I Had Assumed Would Be. When that ripped apart, I realized that my hands were clenched in ways that I hadn’t been aware and that I needed to open them still further in order to let go. And then I found myself with a framework of thinking that left me more prepared than I otherwise would have been to process what came next.

And then I think: oh, fuck you, Elliot.

Most of this ran through my head as I stood at the second highest altitude in Manhattan, a stone-walled overlook where you can regularly hear the seagulls circling above. The connection was so easy that it felt almost cheap. But sometimes, one thing just naturally leads to another. We’re always collaborating with our pasts, whether it’s building upon them or fighting against them. I’m still mourning for the in-person collaborations that won’t happen – to say nothing of the late-night drinks and the too-indulgent pizza dinners and the entirely too-niche jokes and completely universal laughter. But I’m never going to stop working with him, whether I want to or not, because I’d have to stop working with myself for that to happen.

I can hear the seagulls right now from my room. Farther away, and I can’t see them through the buildings that block the view from my window. But even though I’m crying again, I’m also smiling. And I’m looking forward to gathering with any and all of you again, in whatever forms that takes.

Nothing like summer in the city: a dispatch from off-Broadway

Now is the summer of our discontent made mind-numbing winter by the air conditioning of the Public Theater. No, seriously, I was getting cold urticaria on my hands the other night. It feels like a horrible thing to complain about when last week was hot enough to drive Lin-Manuel Miranda and Shockwave to release the third installment of their hex-annual “Hot as Balls” NYC Heatwave series, to say nothing of other discomforts such as Scarlett Johansson colonizing yet another demographic, precedent for the revocation of naturalized citizenship being set, kids in cages (some resources to help listed here), and the threat to the Constitutional rights of vulnerable citizens for decades to come via hostile takeover of the judicial branch of the United States government. But sometimes, it’s the little things that are just insult to injury.




I’m currently on Day 18 of my 39-day long streak without a day off. By far not the longest that anyone will ever have gone without a day off, let alone at jobs that they love and completely voluntarily agreed to. Still, I’m undeniably glad to be almost halfway through this bed that I made to lie in. Five and a half weeks of 74-hour work weeks (and that doesn’t count the two days per week where there are hours between shows when I’m technically not working but am physically stuck at work) is a lot of time, even for something that you enjoy, to say nothing of the resultant trashfires that are my apartment (there’s an actual tower of unopened mail on my desk) and also me (#tfw it’s a predicament situation between sleeping and showering… but at least showering is less of an urgent matter because it’s not like I’ve been exercising).

In other words: kids, this is why they say “don’t do it unless you love it.”

The first few days of this period of time, one of the jobs was still being done remotely, as it was the pre-rehearsal preparation work. I was starting to experience some mounting anxiety, which is normal for me during any prep week, especially if I haven’t worked with anyone involved. People sometimes jokingly refer to first rehearsal as the first day of school, but as a description, it’s not all that off. Who are these people? Will they like me? Will I leave a good impression? Am I prepared? Have I taken care of everything that I need to? Sure, I may technically be holding the same position, but everything is still entirely new and different – will I do a good job? Do I even know how to do my job anymore?? What is stage management??!!

Knowing that I would have the personal challenge of starting this second production while still running the first just added to my anxious energy. It was like I was getting pushed closer and closer to that pool where you know that the water is freezing cold and your legs suddenly stop listening to your brain because you  know the pain that lies ahead of you – only in this case, whether my legs were listening to me or not didn’t matter because I stand upon the relentless treadmill of time that’s carrying us all to our eventual biological deaths and erasure from memory. Barring apocalypse, the day of first rehearsal would arrive even if I did finally suffer that nervous breakdown and go running for the Adirondacks to live the rest of my life as a hermit. I might as well stare it dead in the eyes and meet it like the honorable warrior that I am in my very active fantasy life.

The production that I already had running is Ma-Yi Theater’s Teenage Dick by Mike Lew, currently playing at the Public Theater. (Yes, the Public is the Hamilton people.) Commissioned by the Apothetae, a theatre dedicated to productions that explore and illuminate the disabled experience, the play is a reimagining of Richard III set in high school – a Shakespeare high school AU, so to speak. Richard is now a teenager with cerebral palsy who has his sights set on the senior class presidency, with a tongue no less agile, charm no less entrancing, and mind no less dangerous than his namesake. Gregg Mozgala, the actor playing Richard and artistic director of the Apothetae, noted that part of the impulse of making the show happen came from the experience of all of the uncertainty and physical indignities of adolescence amplified by the realization that, unlike most of one’s peers, one’s body wouldn’t grow out of this phase to become “normal.”

Another part was having the play titled Teenage Dick.

Continue reading “Nothing like summer in the city: a dispatch from off-Broadway”

What’s cold and flat and white all over? Fargo, don’tcha know.

“So how was Fargo?”

“Cold. Flat. White.”

“Yeah, they were still getting snow, weren’t they?”

“No- I mean, yes, but- I mean… white.

There are times in your life when you are in tech in Fargo, North Dakota when, a week before that moment, you had expected to be in neither tech nor Fargo, North Dakota. I’d been sitting in a stage manager friend’s work apartment in New Haven, getting ready to finish up my overnight couch-crashing expedition with some of that mashed potato pizza at Bar and a visit to my old grad school office, when the email came in, asking me if I was by any chance available to leave in three days for a week-long work trip to Fargo because their stage manager had a medical emergency that might preclude them from traveling.

My brain immediately slammed on the brakes, because I’d had plans for the next week. Granted those plans had been for a second week of “unpaid vacation” – the only kind of vacation that you get when you do gig work is unemployment between jobs – but writing regularly, playing the piano, doing my own personal exercise bootcamp, catching up on watching a series that my friends were on my case about, and generally spring cleaning my life was something that I’d been kind of looking forward to, particularly given that I have a busy summer (#grateful) ahead of me. And most importantly, I’d had plans, and I’m not sure about you, but my brain is naturally pretty reflexively resistant to course changes, even when for the better.

But the fact was that I was available for that week, if just barely – I’d need to go straight from the final performance to the airport so that I could be in rehearsal the next afternoon – and I’m a goddamn sucker for playing hero. The doctor had not yet given final word, but I agreed to be on deck for them.

“Sorry, I take back what I said last night,” I re-commented to a friend’s post. “Probably can’t make it to Smorgasburg on Sunday because I’ll be in Fargo.”

At this point, my brain had shifted to accepting this as a win-win situation. If the doctor cleared their stage manager, I got to enjoy my originally planned Spring Cleaning Week and watch Mob Psycho 100. If the doctor nixed it and I was called into action, then I received money, adventure, and glory.

So much in life comes down to having the power to say “yes” and “no.”

Not two weeks before that, it had been the day before St. Patrick’s Day. The fact that St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday meant that my plans were to have my own traditional corned beef and cabbage at home and not leave the neighborhood all day, and so hopefully avoid the unruly drunken throngs. Just as I was about to go to bed on Friday, I did one last check of my Facebook feed… and saw a friend’s post with a ticket available to see Sleep No More the next night. Despite close friends having been pushing me to see the show for something like two years, scheduling and finances had created a higher barrier of entry than my interest level could top. But for there to be a ticket opportunity presented to me? There was a minute or two of hemming and hawing as I considered the motivations underlying my original plans and imagined the horrors of the St. Patrick’s Day evenng crowd downtown, but my answer really could be nothing but: yes.

I had a great time – and I was able to see a friend perform.

Not sixteen hours before that, my stage manager friend and I were getting good food and terribly slow service in a restaurant in New Haven. At that rate, we were going to be late for the show playing at Yale Rep, for which my friend had complimentary tickets due to being a guest artist. Noting the time, my friend commented that the last of the student Shakespeare series was having its final dress rehearsal that night, and it didn’t begin until 8:15pm. A professional play at Yale Repertory Theatre or a rehearsal for a student show in a blackbox… I’d already mentioned my plans to attend the former, but I knew which one I’d rather see.

It was a pleasure to get another chance to consider A Winter’s Tale, and to say hello to faculty who were present in the audience.

So by the time the initial inquiry had had the chance to settle in for a couple hours, I had shifted again into the Land of Yes.

(And what would you know, but not 48 hours after that, I received a text from another stage manager friend telling me that I absolutely had to – had to – come see the workshop at the Public that they were working that night because my life would be significantly better for it. I had about 18 hours until I would be boarding a plane at LaGuardia, and I’d planned to have a leisurely evening of finishing packing and prepping for the show and getting to bed early but…

Get your tickets to Ain’t No Mo by whenever and wherever it ends up having its world premiere, is what I’ll say to that.)

I landed in Fargo near the end of April Fool’s Day, when the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar was just wrapping up. At the baggage claim, I opened up my suitcase and took out the winter coat that I’d been about to pack away for the season a few days ago. After bundling up, I headed out into the 40-degree temperature drop from when I’d left New York.

So yes, it was cold. And the landscape was, indeed, very flat. Heck, even the topography of the grocery store was flat – the aisle shelves were short enough that I could stand at the entrance and see across the expense of the entire store, from wall to wall.

And then there was how the only Asian people I saw the entire week were the violinist that was part of our New York production team and the sexy beast that I saw in the mirror each morning.

If you’d given me a pop quiz about the demographics of Fargo prior to my going there, I probably would have been able to give you some pretty good guesses. Something like my hometown, maybe, where “The racial makeup of the town was 97.66% White, 0.45% African American, 0.29% Native American, 0.28% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.28% from other races, and 1.02% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.81% of the population.” I was still caught off-guard by the feeling, though. My hometown has the advantage of familiarity, of course. But also, my hometown is a literal single-traffic-light tiny hamlet in the middle of the woods. This was the largest metropolitan in the state, where we were working at the state university.

Also, there were my multiple encounters with still-current use of the word “oriental,” which dropped on my brain like a record scratch each time.

“I think that I’m single-handedly shifting the vocabulary of the racial discourse in Fargo, ND,” I texted my director at one point.

These people were kind and generous and did not have bad intentions.

That didn’t really matter.

If I go for a drive and accidentally run somebody over, as far as that person’s medical condition is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether or not I intended to hit them with a car. Sure, it matters in determining whether or not I’m a psychopath who should be charged with murder, but in regards to the well-being of the person underneath my car, there are so many things that were more direct contributors to that moment than whether I was literally thinking “I’m going to hit a motherfucker today because I want to cause harm”: how well I knew the traffic flow and road conditions where I was driving, if I was paying attention to my surroundings, if I was driving too fast.

Again, none of this changes the medical condition of the person underneath my car.

And yes, I will judge a person if they speak of certain things in certain ways, even if it’s just a matter of education or the lack thereof. It’s not a condemnation but a judgment made for my own well-being. Things like “oriental” tell me how much I can trust a person – which is a different thing from judging the trustworthiness of their character. There are many good, upstanding, trustworthy people whom I wouldn’t trust to, say, take me skydiving. If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, I’m not going to trust you to push me safely out of an airplane. Likewise, if you haven’t bothered to learn not to call a person like me “oriental,” I’m not going to fully trust you with my well-being in this world. If you’re still running Windows ME and haven’t even installed any patches for the past decade, I don’t know if I’m compatible with your system or what malware you might have been susceptible to. The OS that I observe throws up red flags for how you might be processing me.

And I understand that you might not have an out-of-town Asian guest to be your personal tutor and gently hold your hand through these changing times. But there are books. There are movies. There’s the internet. There’s literally the entire world. It’s within your power to stop being comfortable and passively consuming only what has been hand-fed to you within your own bubble.

As a person belonging to various non-dominant demographics within U.S. society, I grew up being trained in empathy for those unlike me for my entire life.  I’m overjoyed by all the little straight white boys who are now being presented with more growth opportunities than were easily available merely ten years ago: Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Love Simon. These things aren’t “niche” and irrelevant to straight white boys any more than Indiana Jones was niche and irrelevant to me and my taste in hats. Embrace these growth opportunities being presented to you. And if it feels a little uncomfortable – well, maybe that’s just growing pains.

Meanwhile, I’m back home. And by “home,” I no longer mean my hometown, although I still call that “home,” too. I’m back in NYC, where it’s warm, crowded, and I’m often out of place but only need one ride on the subway to feel that everyone is at least a little bit out of place and a little bit connected in this big, tiny, crazy world.

(Post-Script: I do have to give special shout-outs to the amazing Drekker Brewing Company and Proof Distillers, as well as the Toasted Frog in downtown. Highly recommend all if you end up in the area.)

“Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.

Last week, Thursday was a major holiday in my world. The atmosphere was already high from the Olympics running in PyeongChang. And it was the Lunar New Year (i.e., “Chinese” New Year, which is a fine name for it if you’re actually Chinese, but pro-tip: maybe don’t repeatedly ask an Asian what they’re doing for Chinese New Year if they’re not, you know, Chinese). And on top of that, it was opening night for Black Panther. (Thank you to the marketing folks who realized that old people with early bedtimes get very excited about movies, too.) And not only was Black Panther just, you know, Black fucking Panther, but two schoolmates from graduate school had major roles in it, one of which was their first movie role ever.

Basically, Thursday night was the night of Turn The Fuck Up.

As you might have heard by now, this was a movie event where the hype did not match the reality – because what was expected was a movie that brought a black heroic narrative into the mainstream and didn’t fuck it up, and what was delivered was many steps above that.

(And here’s where I say: if you haven’t seen Black Panther, stop reading this and go see Black Panther because spoilers and also treat yourself.)

There are plenty of people with insights and opinions about Black Panther who know a lot more about the subject matter and/or film in general than I do. Here are a few of them:

My thoughts about Black Panther don’t really matter, to be honest. But what Black Panther means to me does matter, if only to provide just one more example to illustrate how wide-reaching the effect of this movie is.

I’m not sure how many other people who were little non-black POC girls in the early 1990s had this experience, but I remember poring over the American Girl catalog and trying to decide between Revolutionary War era Felicity, the settler immigrant Kirstin, bougie Victorian Samantha, and spunky WWII Molly. The Revolutionary War was already my jam, but immigrant stories touched me in a certain way and also Samantha had the best clothes. So I hemmed and hawed as I tried to decide which American Girl would be the one that went in my letter to Santa.

Then, Addy was released. And I went full Issa Rae:


I did, indeed, become an Addy girl and proceeded to be a Civil War history nerd for a good five years or so, which is a lot of time when you’re in elementary school. And not just within the American Girl oeuvre, either – I’m talking As Seen On TV boxes of historical flashcards, family trips to Gettysburg, hats. I eventually shifted over to the French Revolution, but for me, growing up in a white family in an overwhelmingly white community, Addy had started my connection to Black history. This didn’t make me woke by any means but, in hindsight, it raised my awareness and investment above the sadly low mainstream level.

Now, let me pause right here and emphasize that I have no claim to either the historical trauma of Black people in the United States of America or the present-day injustices still endured. I may feel drawn to increase my awareness and knowledge not just because I believe being an educated citizen is a moral duty but also due to finding a personal resonance, but it’s just that: resonance, not identification. Is there a Black culture equivalent of “weeaboo” that’s public-use-acceptable by non-Black people? I just barely dodged the former during the anime phase my adolescence, so I hope to hell that I would not be foolish enough to pull those tricks as an adult.

The relationship between Black American culture and Asian culture, both American and abroad, has long been interesting to me. While Asian-held anti-Black sentiments are far too common and I can guarantee that you’ll pretty much always peep one East Asian motherfucker at any given white supremacist rally, Eddie Huang (of restaurant and Fresh Off the Boat fame) is a current publicly-identifiable face of a notable affinity and exchange that has been going strong for decades. Korean hip-hop artists are coming to more prominence now (the artistic and moral integrity of the commercial music industry is another topic) and, well, the Wu-Tang Clan exists. Samurai Champloo. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

But curious to me in my specific experience, I think back to lunchtime during my freshman year of high school. My elementary school was so overwhelmingly white (at its most diverse point, the 500-student population had six non-white kids, myself included) that there really was no choice when it came to demographics, and my middle school was so small that my entire class fit at only two lunch tables (boys and girls, which I still regret in hindsight). But looking back at the start of my high school career, when I came in not knowing anyone to a class of 70-odd young women who mostly also didn’t know each other, I can’t help but wonder what led me to end up at, to put it bluntly, the Black lunch table.

It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. But when you’re the odd one out, you often gravitate toward other odd ones out. And in many parts of the U.S., there is that little voice inside of you screaming to get out of that sea of whiteness.

(Jordan Peele was, in fact, correct about Get Out being a documentary.)

There was a lot that was conscious decisions and deliberate awareness in my anticipatory lead-up to Black Panther. It was a fact that the team was good and could be counted on to do good work. It was the fact that this movie was placing Black culture to the forefront in an unprecedented way. It was a fact that the teaser trailer had more women in it than the whole of the MCU. It was the fact that I had gone to graduate school with two members of the principal cast, one of whom was actually a year-mate with whom I’d worked on a number of shows. All of this meant that I signed up for ticket sales alerts months ahead of time and bought my opening night tickets for my second-choice showing as soon as I got home from work on the ticket release day in January because my first-choice showing was effectively sold-out after only four hours. I wanted to see a good movie, and I wanted to give my financial support to it.

I think that there are things that goes further back and deeper down for me, though. Continue reading ““Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.”

Nothing holds all of me

Today is my thirty-second arrival day – i.e., on this day thirty-two years ago, I arrived in the United States from my birth country of South Korea and began my new life. I know other families with adopted kids have their own terms for it – “gotcha day” is a very common one. While I respect the personal, positive meaning that it may hold for some, I’m very uncomfortable that phrasing (and I’m not the only one). It frames the event in terms of the acquiring entity, which strikes me as diminishing of the experience of the actual adoptee and, quite frankly, kind of creepy. (“For Karen Moline, a Parents For Ethical Adoption board member, the word “Gotcha” is deeply insulting, especially in light of unethical international adoption agencies. No matter how pure your dreams of being a parent are, Moline reminds people, “a child just isn’t something to be gotten like a car or a computer.””) I don’t know what led my parents to choose the “arrival” terminology, but I’m very glad that they did.

Arrival day. I traveled from Point A to Point B. On that day, I arrived. Them’s the facts.

I’ve talked about Hamilton before, including how I accidentally saw it for the first time back in previews Off-Broadway when a friend’s travel plans went awry and they graciously offered me their ticket. (Being a freelance stage manager without a set work schedule, I couldn’t buy a ticket as far in advance as the initial availability ended up requiring.) So the tickets to this brand new show, which hadn’t even opened let alone had any sort of cast recording, fell on my head from out of the blue with one day’s notice, and my other friend and I slipped into our seats just as the lights went down and the show started.

To steal words from the show’s mouth: I was blown away. Not only by the amazing writing, the astounding performers, and the unbelievable direction and choreography (I’m still not over how they actually put a war onstage in a breathtakingly effective manner) – but by the claiming of the U.S. mythology.

Just the power of seeing those bodies and faces onstage – it was only comparable to when I was 11 years old and turned on PBS and saw this thing that I subsequently learned was the tenth anniversary concert of this show called Les Miserables. Seeing Lea Salonga as Eponine shook up this Broadway nerd’s world, and for the first time I envisioned myself as doing something other than aging up through the cast of The King & I. Even though I obviously switched to backstage years ago, the change in consciousness was something that extended into all aspects of my life.

Then in ways that I did not expect at all, Hamilton was, on an incredibly personal level, both so relatable and so inspiring to me. And cathartic.

I’ve never seen myself as an orphan – I really won the familial lottery. But biologically and historically, maybe I am or maybe I’m not. That’s what happens when you were adopted from a foreign country when you were too young to know where you physically came from.

And sitting in the Newman Theater, the proverbial light bulb went off over my head, as I witnessed this immigrant’s story. In hindsight, it seems so clear. (I went through a huge Ellis Island phase as a kid, for one thing.) But what it means to always be looking forward because there’s nothing to look back to. To be searching for how to put your roots down. To have something to prove. To have come from somewhere else. To be an immigrant.

It’s not a betrayal of what and whom I’ve found here to acknowledge that I came from another place. It’s a source of strength, not suspicion. Anyone who wants to take it otherwise can fight me, but I don’t need to be fighting myself.

In additional to the national holiday of my arrival to this country, there is also a State of the Union speech happening. The most affecting commentary I’ve seen lately on the state of our union, however, was from a man who has been dead for thirty years: James Baldwin, via the recent documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. PBS had it streaming from mid-January through today, and I watched it last week to take advantage of that availability. While I’m certainly no scholar, I also wasn’t a stranger to Baldwin’s work, so it wasn’t like I was making some huge discovery. But something about the skilled way in which the documentary brought his words to life and set them within such a strong contextual frame reduced me to weeping more than once at that towering intellect, eloquence, and humanity standing in such contrast to the shameful abyss of hatred that he was forced to confront by not just the brute reality of America but also by his own integrity. (It is he, of course, who is the source of the words “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”) I would put this movie on my list of things that I believe should be required reading/watching for Americans. And while the PBS streaming ends today, it is still available to anyone with a New York Public Library card via Kanopy.

Today, on that subject, is also momentous for me because this afternoon, I went out and got my library card. I’ve been living in New York City for nearly four-and-a-half years now, and I’d still yet to have gotten my NYPL card, despite having about a dozen of their fundraising magnets decorating my refrigerator. (If you live in NYC, you know.) But being in between jobs right now, I had absolutely zero excuse to not walk the half-mile to my nearest branch.

It was the first time that I had set foot inside a public library as a patron in approximately a decade.

While that might actually be exceptionally strange for an average citizen of 2010’s American social disconnect, if one guessed that I had been the sort of bookish, nerdy child to grow up among the stacks, one would be correct. I got yelled at for not stopping reading, even when it was mealtime or bedtime. Belle was 100% my favorite, most #relatable Disney princess (aside from the whole “prince” business). But the last time that I had walked out of a public library was such a negative experience for me that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to return.

My hometown library was nothing to write home about. While my memories are faint, it was approximately the size of two small living rooms. And even that was a 15-minute drive away. Sure, I absolutely won the book-reading contest there every summer, but while my consumption rate was impressive, the competition wasn’t exactly stiff. My mother was clearly well aware of the limited resources there and how it would not take much longer for me to begin running up against said limits, so when I got my own library card, it wasn’t to there. Instead, we used my grandparents’ suburban address to make me a member of their library.

Even in its first iteration, it was actually possible to lose a person in there. And it wasn’t long into my childhood that they moved into a new building, even bigger and shinier, one with different rooms for things like music performances and lectures and the like. It wasn’t just a place where I read but where I learned cat’s cradle and studied storytelling, where I borrowed Broadway cast album CDs and discovered new shows.

Going away to college had me out of the area for most of the year, of course, so my use dwindled drastically. Following graduation, I got a local job and was living at home, so I went back to get some books and music. For some reason, though, the self-check-out machine wasn’t reading my card, so I lined up to check out at the desk.

The library scanned my card and handed it back to me. “You can’t check things out,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled and annoyed.

“You’re not in the system.”

What followed was several rounds of back-and-forth between me, holding my library card and nearly twenty years of memories, and the librarian telling me to my face that I had never been there. But what about the children’s story hours that I’d attended, I wanted to say. But what about the garden out in that patio dedicated to my high school best friend’s dead mother, the ceremony for which I’d attended just last year, I wanted to scream.

Instead, I just left the books and CDs sitting on the counter, went out to my car, and broke down in tears.

I had never been there. That was the kicker. At no point did the librarian say that my card was expired or that my address was ineligible. Her words were that I had never been there.

The emotional impact was doubtlessly compounded by the point in my life when it was hitting. Just out of school and in near-disablingly poor health and without a firm idea of where my future was heading, I was feeling the uncertainty of modern American adulthood. If there were to be any sign that childhood was over, having someone tell me that it had literally never existed was rather the hammer to the head.

And so maybe it’s fitting that I claimed this library card on my Arrival Day. A day of being here.

And to everyone else out there: you, too, have been here. You, too, are here, whether “here” is Point A or Point B or Point M or halfway between Point Q and Point K. We’re all still in transit, each one of us. And yet, we’ve also all still arrived… to somewhere.

Let’s just be good to our fellow travelers and respect the journeys.