99: The Long Life and Lasting Sacrifices of Turning American

by Leslie Ishii

Ishii (center) in rehearsal with actors David Huynh and Julia Cho

As the director of Artists at Play’s production of 99 Histories by Julia Cho, I went to work and researched down many-a rabbit holes that opened my imagination to create the richly detailed world of this play.  An American diagnosis of Schizophrenia as Korean Shamanism, a Korean Shaman dance, musical child prodigies, long-term caregiving, a household coping with being left father-less, husband-less, racial tensions and violence against Korean Americans, the Korean war, missionaries in Korea and Korean American Christianity, unplanned pregnancy, family secrets, memory, and immigrant mother-daughter estrangement, are the very real story elements woven into this complex play about what it has meant to become American.

Helen Zee writes in her book, “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People”: 
Missing from the tons of newsprint and miles of videotape were…the tales of valiant women and men of Asian ancestry who struggled and sacrificed to make contributions to their country, the United States of America, and who wished to be seen as full Americans.  I’ve been struck time and again by how little is really known about us and the America we are part of; how the rich textures of who we are, why we are here, and what we bring to America remains so absent from the picture.

But a community as large, diverse, and dynamic as the Asian American and Pacific Islander peoples cannot stay on the edge of obscurity, frustrated by images that have rendered us invisible and voiceless….

And our play, as Helen Zee puts it, “…reflects conversations and stories that Asian Americans tell one another, about the challenges we’ve met, the people we’ve encountered, and the lessons we’ve drawn.  It’s about…evolving into an American people. 

Does mainstream America really know the details of becoming an American if you are of Asian descent or a person of color?  Does mainstream America really know what has made us Asian Americans who we are? 

I have had the distinct honor and pleasure of witnessing our cast and crew open to become vulnerable and empowered during the rehearsals and running of this play.  In our Hope Chest, for you, our audience, we have left you the telling of this story infused with all our hearts and souls that you might experience chung, love, healing, and the possibility of reclaiming yourself to come out the other side more whole and at peace with who you are in America.

I am so moved and grateful that Artist at Play stands by their mission to find and bring forth Asian American plays that have been given initial interest, then gone disappeared or fallen into obscurity.  99 Histories was produced 10 years ago at Mu Performing Arts in Minnesota, but has never been produced in Los Angeles where this play is set.  It is a true homecoming for this play.  It is our last week and I am so proud of these artists, our collaboration, and our histories!  Enjoy the show!!

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