Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo are finding that their experiences as Korean American adoptees are resonating with far larger an audience than they ever imagined.
The two joined forces to create The Origin(s) Project - essentially two one-woman shows, back to back - which they staged at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul this past June.
The show was such a success that, just five months later, they've brought it back for another run.
Sun Mee Chomet in 'How to be a Korean Woman', part of The Origin(s) Project
Photo: Charissa Uemura
Their two stories look at the experience of being a Korean-American adoptee from two different angles, but both raise issues universal to the adoption experience.
In Sun Mee Chomet's "How to be a Korean Woman" she details the longing an adoptee feels to connect with their birth family, no matter how wonderful their adoptive parents are.
"In 2009 I decided to search for my birth family - a serious search. I went to Korea and like many adoptees from my generation I found that there isn't much information because of the poor records kept," Chomet explained.
"My last ditch effort was this show called 'I Miss That Person.' It's a reality show in Korea, for Koreans to search for lost relatives, and the most popular stories are about adoptees. It's pretty humiliating for some people, but I decided I didn't care, and I got on to the show."
In "How to Be a Korean Woman," Sun Mee Chomet recounts her search for her birth family, and the harsh truths she learned in the process.
Photo: Charissa Uemura
Chomet eventually reconnected with her birth mother, but it wasn't the happy reunion she imagined. The experience overtook her life, and her art.
"I've been a working actor in this town for 7 years, and you come across moments in your life where you have so much going on that you can't be generous enough to play another character," said Chomet. "I felt like I needed to work through this. But ultimately I don't really feel like it's about me because this is the story of so many Korean adoptees."
Chomet explains that as the first major group of international adoptees, Korean Americans don't have any role models to help them navigate the search for - or reunion with - birth families.
"I think Katie and I both want other Korean adoptees to know that they're not alone. It's a roller coaster; some adoptees have been united but don't communicate any more, others still haven't found their families, others are in relationships that are profoundly complicated."
Katie Hae Leo in "N/A" - her one-woman show is based on a series of essays she wrote, which is now working on turning into a book
Photo: Charissa Uemura
While Chomet's story took her to Korea, Katie Hae Leo's journey was a more internal one. Her story, "N/A," explores the frustration of suffering illness, but having no family medical history to help diagnose what's wrong. How do you fill in all the information about your body when you have no connection to your family?
"I think you do what a lot of us have done since we were kids which is make up stories. I remember when I was young having this image in my head of what my birth mom was like. And that's based on what my parents told me based on what the adoption agency told them," said Leo.
"I'm really fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves, because they reveal sometimes as much as the truth. They reveal who we think we are, who the culture has told us we are.. in fact they reveal more than the so-called truths sometimes."
Leo said that over time she's learned to see her body as source for clues about the birth family she may never meet.
Katie Hae Leo in "N/A"
Photo: Charissa Uemura
Chomet and Leo expected their audience to be filled with other Korean American adoptees, but they were not prepared for the parents, spouses and social workers who also streamed in
"We were nervous about having parents come because I think adoptees often edit how much they long for their birth families, because they don't want to hurt their adoptive families," explained Chomet.
"We had spouses write that this show cracked open conversations that they hadn't been able to have before in their marriage," added Leo.
Non Korean adoptees came to the shows first run as well, including a group from AFAAD (Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora).
Now, as they prepare for the second run, Leo reflects that maybe it's not so surprising the show resonates with audiences.
"The heart of this play is about human longing," said Leo. "It goes beyond human adoption, to how we wonder about our past.
The Origin(s) Project runs October 25 thru November 3 at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. After the run Leo plans to take a break from performing to focus on finishing the book that inspired her half of the show.
Chomet has plans to perform "How to Be a Korean Woman" at the Asian Artists Initiative in Philadelphia in December, at the Rochester Civic Theater in January, and in Seoul, Korea at The IKAA Gathering - a major conference for adoptees - in August 2013.
One of the cool things about writing about music is that from time to time I'm able to read musicians' excellent takes on their art -- meditations that often explain their work far better than I could. The next one up to do his duty is guitarist Todd Clouser, who I interviewed last summer for a piece on the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. His band, A Love Electric, has been a big hit in Mexico, the Upper Midwest and beyond.
Clouser, whose work fuses modern jazz, rock and funk, performs tonight at the Red Stag in Minneapolis, followed by a show Tuesday at the Amsterdam in St. Paul and another Wednesday at Café Maude in south Minneapolis.
Here he is on those concerts, in his own words:
The idea for this week's A Love Electric shows is simple: is to take some time to explore writers I've been influenced by and reinterpret their work through the lens of improvisation and my own sensibilities as a player and arranger. I develop these phantom personal relationships with artists I love, and get out of playing my own music for a while. It's a whole different piece of the imagination I get to exercise.
Monday night we're at the Red Stag playing the music of Elliott Smith. It has been an invigorating, if a bit trying, experience arranging eight of Elliott's tunes. I listened to his music very intently in my late teens, as I identified with what could be seen as a largely existential expression at that time. His writing is far more daring than anything you would find in the great majority of modern songwriting. It's just impossibly good at times. That can make it difficult at times to approach as a player or arranger. There were songs I began deconstructing and arranging that I just completely left behind, they were too perfect. The songs I settled on, we will present in our own manner, using the language we use in A Love Electric: improvisation, energy, expression. All the arrangements are unique and took a good deal of time for me to feel they were appropriate to each tune. It's music that commands respect for its emotional sincerity.
Tuesday we are at the Amsterdam presenting deconstructive arrangements of Nirvana's iconic "In Utero" record. Another situation that requires care and vision, as the record is such a complete and poignant artistic statement. The way I've approached it is to completely deconstruct the songs, pulling elements from the tunes and creating a canvas for us to improvise upon. I'm going to be singing a bit as well, which has been a new direction for our band, but feels true to how I feel we can best express, and make our statement, right now.
Wednesday at Cafe Maude with [bassist] James Buckley and [drummer] Greg Schutte we are going to play Brian Eno's Discreet Music, which is largely a soundscape sort of situation, but there is this complete beauty in the commitment Eno had to each note he used on the record. The first piece runs over 30 minutes and is largely just two notes that comprise a major third. Being confined to that, the exploration of possibilities becomes that much more intentional. You can't just blow all your stuff all over the tune. It's very intricate, if simple sounding in its end.
Then I'm down to Mexico for a few week tour as A Love Electric, through Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, the South Baja. It's a different experience performing down there, one I have come to embrace and I think has been mutual. A lot more music happening up to the New Year, when we'll begin pushing for our new A Love Electric record, which I'm really proud of, it's an irritated art rock sort of statement that we recorded up in Woodstock, N.Y. with our band from Mexico City, Steven Bernstein on trumpet, and Brandon Wozniak on saxophone called "The Naked Beat."
I'm really in love with playing music right now, more than ever, and feeling comfortable performing. Self doubt has always been my greatest inhibitor, paralyzing at times. [I] think it's that way for all of us in whatever we do, but I'm feeling really great and just eager to express, create, leave the piece of art as it was made and keep moving. It feels healthy and keeps me digging towards something that transcends complacency.
Walking the beat
I continue to be impressed by the incredible work of jazz rhythm sections in the Twin Cities, where there are great bassists, including Billy Peterson, who performed with drummer Dave King in an incredible show over the weekend.
Another bassist who should be on everyone's list of must-see performers is Anthony Cox, who is near the top of my list of artists to interview. (It could happen...) He takes the stage tonight at the Icehouse in Minneapolis, with drummer JT Bates, pianist Bryan Nichols and saxophonist Michael Lewis.
Check them out.