By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In Korean and other East Asian cultures, “hwangap” indicates a manner of celebrating one’s 60th birthday. At 60, you’ve come to the end of the traditional lunar calendar, and beginning a new cycle.
Some folks throw big parties with plenty of food. Some folks travel.
But in the case of “American Hwangap,” a stage play from Korean American Lloyd Suh, the birthday celebration runs bittersweet at best. Suh’s story focuses on Mik Suk Chun, a Korean native who raised a family in West Texas — until he ran away, without warning, to his native North Korean soil.
He returns to the place he once called home, finding his ex-wife and now-adult children still angry, still hurt, and just maybe, still loving him. A whirlwind of confrontation and long-simmering feelings follow.
“I approached [actor] Kathy Hsieh a couple years ago with the idea of doing the show, and seeking her expertise in putting together a cast,” explained AJ Epstein, the head of West of Lenin, the theatre presenting “American Hwangap” to Seattle.
He also credits the co-producer of the play, SIS Productions, an organization founded by Hsieh and other Asian American women, to further creative projects featuring Asian American women.
“We are all incredibly lucky to have a community-minded and passionate group like SIS in this town,” Epstein emphasized.
Each cast member brought specific talents to each piece of the onstage family puzzle.
“I play Esther Chun, the middle child and only daughter of the Chun family,” commented cast member and local actor Mara Palma. “The most difficult, and most crucial aspects, of bringing her to life are tied together, which is to find the hope and lightness in Esther despite the pain and loss she has experienced in her life.
“It would have been very easy to only play the pain, heartbreak, or negativity, but in reality, human beings experience the full spectrum of emotion, so I also had to find those moments in the play and in the character. So, ultimately, it was how to create a nuanced, dynamic, full character on-stage. Of course, that’s what I bring to every character I create, but I especially wanted to bring truthfulness to such a play and such a story.”
In addition to Palma as Esther, the characters in the show are Mary Chun (the mother, played by Kathy Hsieh), Min Suk Chun (the father, played by Stephen Sumida), Ralph Chun (youngest son, played
by Michael Cercado), and David Chun (oldest son, played by Moses Kristjanson Yim).
“This is a bunch of thoughtful, empathic, and passionate actors, and I’m really enjoying building a family with them,” Epstein affirmed.
Although the story concerns a Korean American family, Epstein believes firmly and confidently that the topic, and the approach, should interest the general public.
“It’s all about family, and how we are all human and struggle with what our parents gave us, good and bad, growing up,” the director concludes.
“We’re bringing this forth by taking the time to be emotionally honest in every moment of the script. It’s detailed work, but it’s very rewarding.”
“American Hwangap” plays from Feb. 1–25 at the West of Lenin theatre, 203 North 36th Street in Fremont. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit westoflenin.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.