Sun Mee Chomet, left, and Katie Hae Leo. (Photos by Charissa Uemura)
AAP staff report
ST. PAUL — Two Korean adoptee return to Korea and tell very different stories of their experience with The Origin(s) Project: Memoirs in Motion at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul.
Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo have a shared experience of growing up in the Midwest as Korean adoptees, and are both actors and playwrights. Yet, in this full-length show, they pair as two one-woman shows to each tell a story from an adult adoptee perspective.
Founding Artistic Director of Dreamland, Zaraawar Mistry served as director and dramaturg for both pieces.
“I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Sun Mee and Katie in helping them develop their new one-person plays,” Mistry said. “I have known both of them for over a decade and I had helped Sun Mee develop a 10-minute monologue titled “Sun Mee, You American Girl” when I worked at Theater Mu in the mid-nineties.”
Chomet’s “How to Be a Korean Woman” is based on reuniting with her birth family. She uses text, music and movement to explore how this affected her sense of what it means to be a woman.
Leo was not successful in attempts to find her birth family and her story “N/A” uses narrative storytelling and speculative mythmaking to explore her body and personal health, to reconcile an unknown medical or genetic history.
“They are tied together in the journey of being and adoptee,” Leo said. “Mine is about not knowing, and hers is knowing the past and reconciling that with who you are.”
For non-adoptees, Leo said they can relate to the identity issues and of figuring out who we are at points in our lives.
The Origin(s) Project: Memoirs in Motion will be the first time these two artists, who have been friends for 15 years, will present in collaboration this type of intimate, deeply personal material.
“All these years later we are best friends and working on a show about adoption and our own experiences from the view of adults,” Leo said. “It feels very much a full circle moment.”
Chomet said her story is based on the sudden expectations on her from the new birth family. She negotiated the new role with her life as an American-raised woman with how to be a Korean woman.
“I try to tackle it with humor, rather than being weighted down by it, but it is just kind of a crazy experience,” Chomet said. “It’s the most difficult thing that I have ever written. It is so recent and the subject matter is so personal. At the same time I really feel like I needed to write it to more fully understand the experience for myself.”
Chomet has written monologues about the adoptee experience but that was as a college student. She said this play is mature with the subject matter.
After a lifetime of developing an identity Chomet said she is handed another portion of her autobiography that she didn’t know about. “It shifts everything about how I see the world, self and family,” she said. “Its not clear how to absorb everything.”
The experience of meeting her birth mother, grandmother and aunt in Korea presented a lifetime of expectations. The play puts the confusing experience in perspective with the simplicity of creative storytelling and in collaboration with a musician.
Chomet said she and Leo have experiences that are shared by many others and they wanted to present both possibilities of finding family or not as two distinct stories in one show. “We had no road map to guide us in this adoptee journey, and its very confusing, emotional and the expectations are not clear all the time,” Chomet said.
N/A is the evolutionary product of Leo’s essays about her health. The patient forms would inquire of her family history and Leo said she became accustomed to entering “N/A” in the boxes as an adoptee who doesn’t know her health history.
“I kept budding up against unknown,” Leo said. “It got me thinking about this process as a mystery. I am a detective who is trying to figure out her past and trying to answer questions for myself.
Leo did try to find her birth family. In 1998 she returned to the police station where she was left, and even questioned locals in the Tuchon area about a person identified as a foster mother.
She was interviewed by local media but her attempts were before the adoptee searches would lead to a television show, “I miss that person” to seek birth families.
“I went back in 2007 and specifically to attend The Gathering, an international conference,” she said. “I had no time to search and would like to return one more time and take advantage of more services in place now.”
The play is about how to make peace with the fact that as an older adoptee it will be more difficult to find a trail to her birth family. She said there were better for the younger adoptees to search.
Leo first submitted the story to Gayle Isa, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia. The story got her into a residency program and she developed it into this performance piece.
The result is humorous narrative storytelling about Leo’s lifelong questions about her body and health. She uses imagination, Korean folktales and mythologies to explain what is happening to her with incidents bringing her back to reality.
Unlike her full productions on adoptee experiences in the past, she said this 30 minute piece feels so much more personal and with it come vulnerability and risk.
The story is accompanied by original music and sound effects from Twin Cities musician Greg Herriges.
“It is a very interesting oral landscape for the entire piece, with an undercurrent of mystical and magical sound that runs through everything,” she said.
Leo was raised in Indianapolis and graduated with an English degree from De Paul University. She and a group of six girlfriends moved to Minneapolis after college.
Her sister was in an acting program at the University of Minnesota, and Leo said she had no idea at the time there was such a large Korean adoptee population in Minnesota. She got involved with the early days of Theater Mu and The Playwright Center.
Chomet is well known to Guthrie audiences with roles in The Burial at Thebes, Macbeth, Tony Kushner’s world premiere: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Naomi Iizuka’s world premiere: After 100 Years. She has performed in several Mu Performing Arts productions and her first Twin Cities role was the History Theater’s “100 Men’s Wife”
As a playwright, Chomet’s first play, Asiamnesia, was voted Best New Script of 2008 by Minneapolis Star Tribune. It was published in the anthology: Asian American Plays for a New Generation.
Raised in the Detroit area, Chomet received her M.F.A. in Acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and her B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology from Earlham College. She is now a St. Paul-based actor, dancer and playwright.
Leo is a playwright, poet, and essayist whose writing has appeared in journals such as Asian American Literary Review, Water~Stone Review, Kartika Review, Asian American Poetry & Writing, and Asian American Plays for a New Generation. Her chapbook Attempts at Location was a finalist for the Tupelo Press Snowbound Award and is available through Finishing Line Press.
The plays that Leo produced include Bride/price (with MaMa mOsAiC) and adaptations of Baseball Saved Us and A Single Shard (Mu Performing Arts/Stages Theatre Company), as well as Hmonglish Musical with the Youth Leadership Group at Center for Hmong Arts & Talent (CHAT). Her most recent play Four Destinies premiered in October through Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theater. Her solo performance piece N/A debuted in November 2011 at Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia.
Leo holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. from DePauw University in Indiana. She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations in nonfiction, The Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize, and a Gesell Award for nonfiction, as well as funding from the MN State Arts Board, Jerome Foundation (through Mu Performing Arts), The Loft Literary Center, and The Playwrights’ Center.
Leo currently lives in Rochester with her spouse, who is an IT specialist and actor.
“While both of them are writers and performers, I think of Katie primarily as a writer and Sun Mee as a performer,” Mistry said. “Katie’s piece, a shorter 30-minute play, deals with the impact that not knowing about your ancestry and birth family history can have on your health and body. Sun Mee’s full-length play addresses what can happen when you do find your birth family. These complementary pieces bring together two outstanding artists contributing their powerful personal stories to the contemporary discourse on adoption.”
Mistry is an Indian-born actor, writer, director, teacher and producer now living in the Twin Cities. He co-founded the Center for Independent Artists, and was Associate Artistic Director at Theater Mu until 1999.
Zaraawar has an M.F.A. in Theatre from UC, San Diego and a B.A. from Bennington College in Vermont.
The show runs 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, May 31-June 2 and June 7-9, 2012. Dreamland Arts is located at 677 Hamline Avenue N., St. Paul, MN 55104.
Ticket prices are $15 for adults and $10 for students. Group rates and pay-as-able tickets are available. For reservations call 651-645-5506 or visit www.dreamlandarts.com.
This project is made possible by a grant to The Origin(s) Project from MRAC, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, through an appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature. The project’s community partners include AK Connection, Adoptees Have Answers, AdopSource and Korean Heritage House.