On Saturday, April 17th at 8:00pm, Constellation Theatre opens its 14th season, titled “Electric Impulses,” with the award-winning one-woman show by playwright and actor Sue Jin Song, Children of Medea, in a fully staged production directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. The performance will be streamed live from CulturalDC’s Source Theatre. My thanks and appreciation to Ms. Song for finding the time between tech rehearsals to speak with me.
In your upcoming show, “Children of Medea,” you bring together an ancient Greek tragedy with the experiences of a teenage Korean American who faces the challenges in her life by retreating into a private universe. That universe has a huge range, from characters beloved by children, like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, to the fierce, revenge-focused Medea. How do these extremes of literature—from children’s fairy tales to a murderous play—inform your work, and why did you bring them together?
When I wrote the play, I was interested in thinking about why I loved theater and why I had chosen to dedicate my life to it. I went back to the ancient Greeks and the purpose of theater: to put a mirror up to society using myths. In high school, I had read Medea. The character haunted me; I was very horrified by her. She’s someone I meditated on a lot so when I decided to write a play, I knew that she would be in it. I thought about the fact that she was a foreigner, an immigrant and that shaped my understanding of her. Then I imagined two Korean-American sisters, the immigrant story and the female story, how we try to find ourselves as women. So, I created the characters of these two sisters who were at pivotal points in their development: one is 17 about to graduate from high school, on the cusp of womanhood, and the other is 10 and on the cusp of puberty. In the case of these two girls, their mother didn’t kill them like Medea killed her sons; their mother abandoned them, so I wondered what that would have been like. TV and film are very popular, they can do some things that theater cannot, but there are some things that only theater can do. In this play, I looked at the transformative power of theater and at transformation itself. One of the girls sublimates and pushes a lot down into her subconscious. In that world you can also go into these other characters like Alice in Wonderland, and the others.
Speaking of the subconscious, you studied psychology and worked as a counselor. Please share your thoughts on using your knowledge of psychology to create characters and narrative.
I was very interested in psychology all the way from high school to college where I was a psychology major. In both high school and college, I was a peer counselor and volunteered at battered women shelters where I worked with battered women and children. While in college, I also worked at the D.A.’s office in Poughkeepsie, New York, with the Domestic Violence Unit. It was at that time that I realized I could not continue in psychology because I would get way too emotionally involved. I took what I saw home with me, and it wasn’t good for my mental health. But that kind of empathy works well for acting. During this play’s table work and rehearsal process, the director, Allison, asked a lot of probing questions of me as a playwright so I was able to explain what was going on with these characters subconsciously as well.
We know the obvious differences between theater and film/television, but what is it about theater that is unique for you?
I love the live experience. Theater requires a lot from audience members. When people go to the theater, they’re expecting to think and work, whereas many times people turn on the TV because they don’t want to think, they want to let the brain rest, and the TV does the work for them. Theater really is audience participatory. Children of Medea is very fast moving, there are lots of quick changes and transformations, the audience is going down the rabbit hole with me, so they have to keep up and process things constantly. I think it will be challenging and stimulating for the audience.
You acted in another Euripides play, “Iphigenia at Aulis.” How do you approach the interpretation of an ancient character?
I was actually doing that production when the Twin Towers fell. That messed with me a lot. I was playing Iphigenia; she is the young girl sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so he could fight in the Trojan war. I would go to the theater in the East Village wearing a mask because of all that debris in the air. The debris also came from body particles so you could smell the decay. I was walking the streets smelling the dead bodies in the air, while also seeing children jumping rope with their masks on, it was very surreal. And then onstage I’d beg my father not to kill me to go to war… and in real life we were going off to the Middle East. It was very, very difficult, a time when theater and the real world collided in a way that was very real and disturbing. It actually took me a long time to recover from that. I would say that, in my approach to the ancient Greek plays, I see the human experience as being timeless. Performance styles change over centuries, but the human experience remains. I think that’s why people are always attracted to stories. Whether in theater or film, people always want to explore stories because they help us understand ourselves. So, I try to understand the individual character, to find the truth about that character’s human experience rather than looking at her as a big ancient Greek figure that I can’t identify with. I look for the human connection.
In your television and film work, do you find you have to step away from your stage experience when you embody characters for the camera?
With the camera, I don’t have to project that much, I can trust the camera. With theater it’s very much about technique. You can’t be a good stage actor without technique. The audience can see you from head to foot so they can see if your body is lying, and you also have to carry the show from the beginning to end. Whereas a camera is more of a director’s medium, they can choose the shots, they choose what the audience sees and doesn’t see, so it’s a lot more under the control of the director and editor. But the camera picks up a lie so quickly. If you’re not genuine and feeling something, the cameras know. In the theater, sometimes an actor may not feel something but because their technique is so good and they know the performance well, maybe the audience won’t realize it, and it doesn’t matter as long as they can make the audience feel. The film world is like being in theater tech rehearsals, which are about the technical details. They call you in to do the scene and it’s very quick, so it takes concentration, but short bursts of concentration. If you have an emotional scene coming up you have to pace yourself to be ready when the camera is on, because it may take hours: you may get called at 6 in the morning and your scene isn’t shot until 3 in the afternoon. It’s a different sort of discipline. But they’re both fun and challenging in different ways.
How was your experience growing up as a Korean American in Virginia?
My parents immigrated here the year before I was born, but they moved around a bit. I was born in Jersey, the next year my brother was born in Indiana. But from the third grade on I grew up in Northern Virginia, so my memories are from there. It was pretty diverse, and people were educated, they talked about inclusivity back then. I actually became more aware of my ethnicity and being considered a minority when I went to grad school at NYU—yes, they were liberal artists, but I was the only Asian person in my class, and at one point I was the only Asian person in the entire school. Before I went to NYU, I went by Sue, but when I got there, I took on my full first name, Sue Jin. There were many discussions about the Black experience but not so much about the Asian experience. I had a fellow student tell me: “you’re Asian, that’s like white, you’re not a person of color.” That’s what I faced more at NYU, these sorts of blind spots where people were not very cognizant of what being of Asian descent means. Now with the violence against Asians, people are talking about how a lot of times we’re forgotten and kept out of the conversation, and they are starting to realize: “oh, wait, Asian people do have to face challenges, and are considered ‘other’ and foreign in this country.”
I read that Asian Americans are the least likely to report hate incidents. What kind of advocacy and educational initiatives would you like see happen to implement change?
Right now, the conversations are happening, which I think is great, and even Asian-American politicians are realizing that we all have to speak up more. The younger generation is finding that we can have these discussions and people are more open to hearing us. When I tried to talk about these issues in my circles at NYU, I don’t think people were open to hearing them at the time. But it’s changing. Maybe part of that is a reaction to Trump, maybe part of that is a reaction to the violence. In the last 4 years, race has come more to the forefront of people’s consciousness. So, education is starting with these conversations. When the shootings in Georgia happened, I was surprised to see the coverage about that. The media brought in people to talk about different aspects, like, for example, the sexualization of Asian women; there were these conversations that I don’t think would have happened ten years ago. The younger generation is very vocal about gender identity, race relations, gun violence, climate change; they’re very conscious. They’re giving me hope for the future.
You also worked in real estate. Tell us more.
I did. When I came back to Virginia, I thought I was quitting acting. I loved L.A. but I wanted to be with family and lead a civilian life. That’s how I started in real estate. But when I told my friend, Craig Wallace, a prolific actor in DC, that I quit acting he said: “I don’t believe you.” He asked if there was nothing I wanted to do before leaving acting. I told him I had started writing a one-woman show, Children of Medea, and I was sorry I never finished it, and he said: “Read it to me.” I read it to him, and he said, “that’s great, I’ve always wanted to direct, so you finish that play and we’ll do it at the Fringe.” So, he was the one who forced me to finish writing it, he directed it, and it won the award at the Fringe. It was redone the next year. That’s how the DC theater knew I was around, and I got pulled into plays every once in a while. Then the Manhattan Theater Club in New York found me in Virginia because they were having difficulty casting for the play, The World of Extreme Happiness, a world premiere, and they asked me to audition. I did the New York leg of the show for them, then my New York agent asked me to come back to acting. So, I wound down my real estate business, and now I’m back in L.A. and pursuing acting again as my full-time career. Real estate takes so much time, it’s people’s most important asset and I can’t be a responsible real estate agent if I’m pursuing acting full time. But I still get real estate clients calling me. I was good at it because I wasn’t money-oriented, because as an actor I’m not money-oriented, so I would talk people out of buying certain homes that weren’t good for them. My psychology background helped; real estate is very emotional. A lot of times I was like a counselor, people called me having breakdowns and freaking out and having doubts.
Any special message for your fans?
I want to say to everyone, thank you for hanging in there. I know this has been a really hard, hard year. I appreciate people who will see this play and everyone helping the theater community go on, in a different format. This is showing us how resilient the human spirit is and how we will always find a way to embrace life and art. I can’t wait to be in a theater with a live audience, there’s something so great about that communal experience, people laughing and crying together, breathing together. We’re almost there!
For tickets to Children of Medea Opening Night Live Stream on April 17 at 8:00pm, and On-Demand streaming, please visit the Constellation Theatre website.
Photos of Sue Jin Song by Johnny Marlow
Photos of dress rehearsal of Children of Medea with playwright and actor Sue Jin Song by Sarah Anne Sillers