Art Talk with Sun Mee Chomet
“[T]he best art, it stays in your muscle memory for the rest of your life. And that's the kind of theater I want to create, that's the kind of work I want to do on stage and on the page. I'm not interested in something just for the moment. I'm interested in something that hits people and it take them a while to unravel what they've just experienced.” – Sun Mee Chomet
Who am I? Who do you think I am? Who do you want me to be? These are just some of the questions actor Sun Mee Chomet explores in her role as a playwright. Musing about her work-in-progress--about her Jewish grandfather who escaped from Austria shortly after Hitler came to power--Chomet said, "I'm interested in family secrets. I'm interested in what people don't talk about, I'm interested in dual identities and emigration that happened not necessarily by people's choices." Her first two plays, Asiamnesia and How to be A Korean Woman tackle emotional and physical dislocation, loss, and grief with both humor and a great deal of heart. Chomet also investigates and obliterates stereotypes of the monolithic Asian woman, all the while creating more opportunities for Asian actors to work on stage even as audiences gain a deeper understanding of the complexities and multiplicities of Asian identity. We spoke to Chomet by phone--on her birthday!--to find out what compelled her to start writing, how her upbringing in Detroit and Fresno affected her view of who she expects to see on stage, and why, sometimes, you just have to "keep crying and keep writing."
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
SUN MEE CHOMET: My dad took me to see musicals. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. I remember going to see The Wiz with him, I remember going to see Annie. So it was kind of just a child-like wonder, I think especially just seeing young people up on stage. And then it was auditioning for the school play when I was in school in downtown Detroit and falling in love with the feeling of making people laugh.
NEA: From there, how did you get to the point of becoming a professional artist?
CHOMET: I ended up going to a performing arts high school in Fresno, California. My mom moved out there…. I went there and then got my first professional job right out of high school with the California Shakespeare Company; I think we did Measure for Measure. I think the other thing was when I moved to Minnesota I got cast in a multi-racial version of [Ntozake Shange’s] For Colored Girls… with Penumbra Theatre, which was fantastic for me because there weren't a lot of plays written at that time--this was the 90s-- for Asian-American women that were in their 20s. So for me, having grown up in Detroit, and I went to a predominantly African-American school, you know, the culture I grew up in was very diverse. It was amazing to be able to sink my teeth into that show. It was interesting cause Laurie Carlos who was in the original Broadway production of For Colored Girls… she was one of the mentors for the project cause she lives in Minnesota. And she said that Ntozake Shange originally wrote the play for a multiracial cast.
NEA: How did you move into playwriting?
CHOMET: I think for a lot of Asian-American artists, especially actors, I think you look toward playwriting to enhance the American canon because there aren't very many roles that speak to the diversity of the Asian-American experience. And it's one thing to be consistently called in to audition for Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, but it's very rare that I'm going to be cast in A Streetcar Named Desire…. The first play Asiamnesia was about the stereotypes of Asian-American women in Hollywood, and I just wanted to write a piece for four to five Asian-American women that would give them a lot of material to sink their teeth into. Everyone played at least five roles in the show, and so I think that more than anything [the purpose of my playwriting has] been to create opportunities. Not only for employment for my fellow Asian-American actors but to create voices that are underrepresented in the American canon. Minneapolis has a thriving Asian-American theater community so the reception of that first piece that I wrote just as an experiment, it was just overwhelming to have so many people come up to me afterwards and say, "Thank you for allowing me to see myself represented on stage. It doesn't happen that often."
And then from that point, the next play was How to be a Korean Woman, and that was written kind of as a very soulful piece because I was on a reality television show in Korea in 2008 and through it I found my birth mother. My 80-year-old grandmother saw the show and called the TV station and… I wrote that piece because I needed to process this entirely brand new identity I'd been handed as a full-grown adult. Identity has always been a central interest of mine. I majored in sociology and anthropology in college because I think it's innately connected to theater for me, this [idea of] how people are influenced by their environments. And I think that's a question I've always held inside as an adoptee. So when I was reunited with my birth family, it was jarring. I grew up in a very liberal household. My dad's Jewish, my mom's Protestant. I went to an all African-American public school in Detroit, and then I went to a very diverse high school in Fresno, California. I've lived in Mexico…. And then suddenly in my 30s I'm meeting my birth family, and having all of these expectations put on me--out of love, granted, but still pretty overwhelming--of how I'm supposed to be a Korean woman. It was like being completely showered with love, but it was also being completely buried suddenly with all of these ways I was trying to fulfill their ideas of who I was supposed to be. And I think it was very connected to wanting to be accepted and loved by them. So I came back and I was kind of a mess.
Honestly, as an adoptee, many adoptees feel like somehow if they're reunited with their birth family, there's some void that would be filled, but for me, if anything, I was more confused, I was more distraught because the void didn't go away. So when I came back here, I wrote the play to give myself a chance to process everything because I felt so confused about identity. And then I worked with my mentor here Zaraawar Mistry who directed the piece and he just said, “You have an amazing story to tell.” And I said, “I can't write this without crying,” and he said, “Well, just keep writing and keep crying because it's a compelling story.” So we did a showing of it at this very tiny theater in St. Paul. The entire run sold out…. We ended up doing some fundraising and we did it for another three weeks. The entire run sold out before it opened. I did it in Seoul, Korea, this past summer at a conference for 300 Korean adoptees from 17 different countries. So now I'm working on taking this show to Europe to do a tour, and then I did it for a run at the Guthrie and the whole run sold out before we opened. And they said that was the first show to sell out that space in five years.
I don't know if you know this or not, but there are more Korean adoptees in Minnesota than any other place in the world. There's over 12,000 here, and the next highest [concentration] of Korean adoptees in the world is in France, and for the entire country, it's 10,000. So, everyone in Minnesota is connected to adoption in some way, and I think it just resonated. And I think more than that, people would come up to me after the show, and people were adopted that weren't Korean--Caucasian adoptees, Guatemalan adoptees, Ethiopian--and just said thank you for speaking to this loss and grief that you house that you don't even realize you carry with you your whole life. So I think I wrote the piece as a point of healing for myself, but also I wrote it because there are so many Korean adoptees at this moment in history searching for their birth families and… there are very few lighthouses helping you process what to do after reunion. And how do you that a thousand miles away, and how do you do that when you don't speak the language?
NEA: What plays have informed or inspired your work?
CHOMET: Immediately I think of Top Girls [by Caryl Churchill], I think of M. Butterfly [by David Henry Hwang], I think of Suzan-Lori Parks' works…. I'm interested in plays that reframe a topic without the audience even realizing it's happening. With those three plays, I think about the multiple characters that are being played. I was in In the Blood in grad school at NYU, and I think [with] all three of those plays you're kind of left at the end with your jaw on the ground because you didn't see what was coming. Whether it's reframing roles for women, whether it's reframing Asian-America and breaking out of ideas of stereotypes. With Suzan-Lori Parks, I think of just the profound punch of her work, where it's playful, the language is gorgeous, and you can not see or read one of Suzan-Lori Parks' plays without being different at the end than you were at the beginning because either it's an emotional punch or it turns something on its head. I love the Greeks--I was in Burial at the Thebes at the Guthrie, I played Antigone--and I think of plays that just make you think of the larger scope of huge life choices.
NEA: If you could invite any artists—past or present—to a dinner party you were hosting, who would you invite and why?
CHOMET: I would pick Chekhov cause he's brilliant and funny and wise. I would pick Nicky Finney because she's a living poet who I met a couple of years ago and she's absolutely brilliant. I would pick Iris Chang because I think she died way too young. She was a historian, and she was mostly recording and revisiting Asian-American history but she also wrote The Rape of Nanking and she also wrote The Chinese in America, and she was this brilliant PhD student. She graduated from Berkeley or something, and then she committed suicide when she was 33, from the intensity of her research. She couldn't handle it. Who would be fun? Who would be funny? That comedian Aziz Ansari--he would just throw in something interesting--and maybe Toni Morrison. I mean there's so many people, like Audre Lorde…
NEA: What does the phrase “Art works” evoke for you?
CHOMET: This is what someone from the Guthrie said when we were talking about the future of my show How to Be a Korean Woman. They said, "A play begins when you hear about it and a play ends when you stop thinking about it." I don't know who said that but that was profound for me because I feel like I'm still getting e-mails from people about my show. It was basically an opportunity for me to process the complexity of adoption and reunion, yet a woman e-mailed me, who's Caucasian, whose mother passed away when she was young, and she said it was so incredible to process that loss through my play. And so that's what I think of with art, the best art, it stays in your muscle memory for the rest of your life. And that's the kind of theater I want to create, that's the kind of work I want to do on stage and on the page. I'm not interested in something just for the moment. I'm interested in something that hits people and it take them a while to unravel what they've just experienced. That's what I'm trying to do.
NEA: Anything to add?
CHOMET: There’s all this stuff in the air in American theater and internationally about Asian-Americans in theater, about stereotypes, about diversity. And I think the only other thing I'd add is that growing up, especially in Detroit, I always saw productions where there were people of color on stage. And I don't know if that's just because I was in Detroit, or if it was the plays my parents took me to. I also worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival summer seminar, and I always saw that it was a place where I belonged. And it's just integral to my belief in the American theater that it sustain as a place where [there is] a conscious effort for everyone to belong. And I've realized, by becoming a professional actor over the last years, that it doesn't happen without a lot of work, and it doesn't happen without artistic directors and playwrights and casting directors consciously making that happen and making it possible for the American theater to be representative of the diversity of our country….I grew up seeing myself reflected onstage and I see it less and less today, and that's disheartening and I hope the tides will shift.