Multiple border crossings and confluences via solo performance

by Esther K. Chae

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

As my play SO THE ARROW FLIES is publishing this summer through No Passport Press, I have had the chance and challenge to reflect upon my work, its process and germination, standing at a distance.  I’d like to share some of my discoveries of ‘multiple border crossings and confluences’ through this microcosm of a solo performance piece.

It was an early flight – 6:30 am to be exact.  After Jet Blue flight 85 took off from JFK, I comfortably reclined my chair and fell fast asleep.  I don’t remember what exactly woke me up, except that I awakened with my shoulders in a startled hunched position and in a confused daze.  I looked over to my left across the aisle, where an African-American man was staring at his small screen, watching live streaming TV, a novelty then.  I hurriedly turned on my screen too.  And there, I saw it.

On September 11th, 2001, as we flew from New York to Los Angeles, I watched the second World Trade Center tower fuming dark and disastrous smoke while the news anchor kept repeatedly emphasizing that what we were seeing was not a movie.  Our flight was promptly ordered to land in Kansas City. I remember an older man (was he the same guy sitting next to me?) muttering, “Thank God the terrorists don’t look like us.” Hm. I guess he meant that none of the predominantly non-white passengers who were flying that morning looked like a typical Middle Easterner.  Or Muslim. But what if that terrorist did look like us, like . . . me, a harmless Asian woman? Like Hyun-hui Kim, the North Korean terrorist that took 115 lives on board the Korean Air flight 858 in 1985 when I was in elementary school?  I would later realize that one of the characters in my solo performance play, So the Arrow Flies, about an alleged North Korean spy and the FBI agent who interrogates her, evolved from that moment.

I am fully bi-cultural and bi-lingual in English and Korean, having grown up and educated in both countries. As a professional actor, I am comfortable slipping into different characters that might be completely different from myself. This kind of fluidity and ability to cross multiple borders of identity, geography, and cultures is, indeed, a gift I cherish, and it allows me to understand one’s layered humanity and different points of views.  Sometimes I wonder, “Would I have made a good spy?” I still have silly worries that the CIA will try to recruit me someday.

At that time when I left my New York City actor life, I had initially thought, “I’m just going to check out L.A. for a short while and see how it goes.” But now with New York City so devastated and everyone still in shock, it seemed pointless to go back.  Several years into my L.A. life, in 2005, I received an exciting invitation. Roger Guenveur Smith, Peabody Award-winning actor and writer for A Huey P. Newton Story, called upon six writers/performers based in Los Angeles to develop 15-minute short solo performances using the facilities at the Mark Taper Forum (sadly, initiatives like these for artist of color no longer exist).  In this workshop, So the Arrow Flies started out with three characters: Mina, the young hapa daughter; Catherine, her mother and alleged North Korean spy; and the FBI agent, Agent Ji-young Park. In the following year, during the high stress time I was taking care of my mom who had suffered multiple brain traumas, I added one more character – FBI Agent Park’s mother Mrs. Park.  She is a survivor of the Korean War and an immigrant to the U.S. who serves as the narrator of the play.  The character Mrs. Park is also a dedication to my mom and dad.

After adding on Mrs. Park, a very interesting voice emerged for both Mrs. Park and her daughter, FBI Agent Ji-young Park. They both started to reflect upon what it means to live in the U.S. as immigrants. And to struggle to survive, succeed and integrate as immigrants in their own perspectives. What is national identity in this globalized world, and how do we navigate it?  Mrs. Park became an angry citizen about the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the so-called ‘war on terror’ and addressed the atrocities of war and of torture. And of kindness.  I wanted to approach this hard topic in an intimate and artistic way where the audience empathizes with the fictional characters’ experiences.

I feel strongly about my characters – they are in depth, complex and contemporary Asian female roles rarely seen in Hollywood and theater at large.  I wanted to challenge the notion of a monolithic identity based on race. Though all the characters are female of Korean background, their ideologies, nationalities, personal histories and views of the world could not be more different.  As in real life.  As a professional actor of Asian descent working in the United States, I am acutely aware of the more simplistic representation that mainstream culture has of someone like me, that of being a ‘foreigner’ or ‘of other.’ And of the working opportunities that are available usually in the form of a supporting role. These are outdated concepts that exasperatingly persist.

Looking back, I also realized that I had unintentionally combined two different genres for So the Arrow Flies’ theatrical and esthetic structure – that of theater and film. Having been classically trained for the stage; and also having been on TV sets (where I would have a full blown emotional scene with no real partner who would later get edited in); along with many lonely audition preparations, talking to myself – I had created a confluence of the two forms. A “polilogue,”  The Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s reviewer Matt Johnson coined after watching my performance:

 …Chae portrays all (of these) characters herself, without costume change or even leaving the stage; using just the swivel of a chair and the alteration of accent and manner in her metamorphosis between personae. I’m stuck for a word that can describe such a performance. Is it a monologue? There is only one performer; yet I feel tempted to make up a word and describe the play as a polilogue – a multi-polar performance, that presents a discourse between different characters, but is expressed through the mouth and conduct of one solo actor.

The theatrical conceit is that the audience understands and can fill in the blanks in multiple interrogation scenes with two people. They each present their point of view and respond to their scene partner but they are both played by one actor.

The title So the Arrow Flies emerged as I recalled the old 5th century Korean fresco images of “Horse Warriors” (gi-ma-jok) I’d seen in history books as a child. When I was young, it wasn’t the girly princesses in gowns stuck in castles that captured my imagination but rather the Hua Mulan-type princess warriors who took no prisoners on the battlefield. I wanted to explore the Eastern idea of gi-ma-jok tied in with the Western concept of hamartia in the play. The Greek word, hamartia, the fatal error of a tragic hero, literally translates into “missing the mark” in archery. Mina symbolizes these mythical ethoses of So the Arrow Flies as she expresses through performances the concept of hamartia from Greek tragedies, and later embodies becoming a Korean horse warrior – riding to battle armed with bow and arrow, shooting down her enemies.

So the Arrow Flies — but to where?

The two heroines, Catherine and Agent Park, must struggle with this question. They must confront the choices they have made, as best they can, even at the expense of those choices becoming their hamartia. And perhaps, demise.

My journey, crossing multiple borders with So the Arrow Flies, has been unexpected, to say the least.  I am proud that I have contributed to the effort to create more dynamic roles for women of color. And I am excited to continue to fly with the arrows to witness where it next aims, hits, and lands with other artists and in different media forms.  Thank you for taking this special journey with me.

Esther K. Chae is an award-winning actor, writer and TED fellow based in Los Angeles and New York. Her artistic work has been seen and heard on stage, television and film in the United States, Korea, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Italy, Nigeria and Russia. Esther has acted in television shows such as NCIS, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, The West Wing, 24, The Shield; and on theatre stages such as Yale Repertory Theater, La Mama, Mark Taper Forum/ Kirk Douglas Theater, P.S. 122 and Harvard/A.R.T. Her plays include So the Arrow Flies, about an alleged North Korean spy and the FBI agent interrogating her, Ae-ri in Otherland, featuring Korean percussion music ‘samul-nori’ and Ddan dda ddan!!!, an absurd short play about a superwoman socket puppet and her struggles.

Chae graduated from the Yale School of Drama (MFA in Acting), the University of Michigan (MA in Theater Studies), and Korea University. She served as the Martin Luther King, Jr./Cesar Chavez/Rosa Parks Visiting Professor (University of Michigan), keynote speaker for the Arts Council of Korea and as a visiting artist at the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, founded by Anna Deavere Smith, at Harvard University.

Chae was born in Eugene, Oregon, grew up in Seoul, Korea, and has traveled all over the world. She has climbed Machu Picchu, the Indian Himalayas and Mt. Kilimanjaro. She lives with her husband Paul von Zielbauer in Santa Monica, CA.