“Life undulates very oddly,” begins one of the four characters played by Esther K. Chae, the self-declared “creator, performer and polymathic artist” of her one-woman show, So The Arrow Flies, presented by The Sejong Society of Washington, DC. In what felt like 10 minutes, the Yale-trained, Hollywood-polished actress presented an 80-minute performance that pitted a Korean American FBI agent (Agent Park) against a recently captured North Korean spy (Catherine), further complicating the narrative with the inclusion of Mina, the spy’s feisty 12 year-old daughter, and Agent Park’s sharp-tonged elderly Korean mother, Mrs. Park, whose memories of the Korean War contextualized the opposing power dynamics and similarities between the interrogator and her captured suspect.
What was both commendable and eerie about Chae’s performance was that even the simple adjusting of her facial muscles could alert the audience that she had switched characters. Even before she opened her mouth to speak or swept a modest cardigan around her shoulders to signal Mrs. Park’s arrival, it was clear which of the four distinct women’s voices she was using. To say that the solo performance was effortless would be a gross understatement; the ease of transition between characters (which Chae created over five years and several workshops with theatrical master teachers and peers) was further enhanced by her own cultural fluency. The Korean-born actress channeled her aunties and other childhood woman elders–including her own mother and grandmother–to create an amalgamation and one hell of a woman: Mrs. Park. Uttering such unforgettable disses as, “A-ya! She is an Asian woman acting like a white man!”, Chae’s characters illuminated the realities of inter-ethnic racism and the divisions between Asians of the diaspora depending on one’s education, class, birthplace and self-identification. While Agent Park hailed from Georgia, Catherine, the alleged spy and double agent, wore many “masks,” as a former North Korean National Actor whose many forced plastic surgeries and split national loyalties brought her only suffering.
From the moment Mina complained of her “stupid, short chestnut haircut,” I flashed back to myself as a 12 year-old Hapa (i.e., mixed, half-Asian / half-White). Sadly, my mom opted for similar cuts for me and my sister–many would argue that the bowl cut is a right of passage for any Asian youth–and later teased me that I looked like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap #fail. But, Mina also possessed a “traveling horse spirit” she could not hide and a fierceness not typically associated with Asian American youth. Any work of art aiming to shatter ‘model minority’ myths gets a nod of approval from me. “Specificity is important,” the actress explained about her choices in each character’s distinct ethnicity and identity in a post-performance talk-back with the audience, “so that we [Asians] aren’t glommed into one type.”
After the performance, Ms. Chae discussed the extraordinary all-female cast she created. “You have to trust in yourself,” she advised, “Otherwise, you can’t move forward [in your work].” She continued to describe her characters as “fragile heroines,” responding to an audience member’s query about the lack of male voices in the play by stating simply, “This was the story I wanted to tell.” Honesty of artistry? Also a winner in my book.
I was left with this provocative memory that Chae described, an adaptation of stories told to her by her mother, which served as inspiration for her ambitious solo work. During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, loud fireworks exploded, signaling the opening ceremony festivities. Chae’s mother cowered and asked her daughter, terrified, “What is that?!” Once she was able to calm her mother down and assured her these noises were only fireworks, her mother reminded her of the first living beings she witnessed being ushered out of Korea: the zoo animals. In a Noah’s Arc-like vision, Chae watched the animals be loaded into boats, wondering if the circus might be coming or going. Sadly, this was the beginning of the Korean War, and the memory was branded into her skin with the empty look in her mother’s eyes and a very tight squeeze of her hand.
Most intriguing, though, is the idea that Chae intends to adapt this brilliant one-woman play into a digital film with live animation in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. Chae described this product-in-the-making as the “Aha 2010 Take on Me Asian American on crack.” I’ll be looking out for this–anyone else curious to see that? And, for all the CS reader who missed the DC premier, don’t fret. You can still check out a few excerpts from the TED talk here.