You don’t have to do more than cursory research to see that playwrights of Asian descent aren’t particularly well represented in Chicago theaters. “I know stages are getting more diverse. But I don’t think we can rest on our laurels,” says actor Mia Park, a regular on Chicago Med and one of the curators of Our Perspective: Asian American Play Readings, a series of staged readings of four short plays by Asian Pacific American (APA) playwrights, all hailing from the midwest.
The showcase at Victory Gardens Theater marks the start of the second year for Our Perspective, produced by the AA Arts Incubator Program of Asian Improv Arts Midwest (AIRMW). Steppenwolf 1700 hosted last fall’s Our Perspective; additional Our Perspective readings are planned for May 20 at Steppenwolf and in September, date and venue TBD. (If you want to submit for the May 20 readings, the deadline is Friday, February 15.) The January plays were picked from about 30 submissions and curated by Park and collaborators Stephen George, Sydney Mercado, Karissa Murrell Myers, and Friday Savathphoune.
Iowan Zhen E Rammelsberg made the cut with her submission, Black Box. Adopted from South Korea in 1974 when she was two, Rammelsberg penned a quasi-autobiographical drama about a South Korean adoptee growing up in a tiny, all-white midwestern town. “I was the only nonwhite person in an all-white community, population about 700,” Rammelsberg says of her upbringing in Van Horne, Iowa. “It wasn’t like I was in the only Asian family. I was the only Asian person, period.”
“People would always ask my mother whether she was going to tell me I was adopted,” Rammelsberg says. “My mother was smart and funny—she’d say something like ‘I think she’ll figure that out on her own.’ I learned to use humor as deflection early. I was adopted at a time when you assimilated. You forgot you were from another culture. Parents didn’t cultivate that other culture.”
Rammelsberg gave her character a narrative that blends South Korean culture with elements of fantasy. “You know how Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoons was always typing that same sentence as the start of his novel, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’? Well, my dark and stormy night is this: ‘In a corner of the world stood a black box, and in the black box was . . . ‘” She trails off and then continues, “I’ve had that sentence in my mind since I was a child. I was never able to finish it. Until this play.”
Park directs Chicago playwright Preston Choi’s Yankee Princess, a 1960s-set story about two North Korean teenagers coming of age in the midwest in the wake of the Korean war. “It spoke to me,” Park says. “My mom’s entire family escaped from [North] Korea. Some escaped in the bottom of a rice boat. Some walked chest high in the ocean, carrying their babies strapped to their backs. So yes, I have this direct emotional and spiritual connection to this story and to the identity struggles it gets into.”
The other two plays in the series are both by Chicagoans: Following is a comedy about stalking and social media by Art Institute of Chicago librarian and Apollo Chorus singer Alvin Dantes. Games, which follows the travails of a Korean-American teen determined to break into improv, is by Chicago Dramatists resident playwright Susan H. Pak.
The overarching goal of Our Perspective is to steer the plays toward full productions. That hasn’t happened yet, but Park is undaunted. What she calls an “unseen glass ceiling” between APA theater artists and the stage is slowly cracking, she says. “People in charge might not know that they’ve built or are holding up that glass ceiling. All we can do is present opportunities and allow every institution to smash their own ceilings to elevate everyone. Or at least crack the ceiling.” v