Sun Mee Chomet, actor and playwright, longs to see her birth mother’s face “to see someone who looks like me.” As a transracial adoptee from Korea, she has carried this ache to connect with her birth mother throughout her life. In 2013, the Minneapolis-based performing artist crafted the arduous search for her umma into a one-woman stage play. How to Be a Korean Woman brings audiences into the complex maneuverings of the Korean adoption complex, which dates back two generations to the post–Korean War period, as well as the secrets of Chomet’s family of origin and the searing emotional fallout for both her birth family and her comfortable identity as a Jewish-Asian-American woman. The work, an East Coast premiere that runs through January 14, completes Theater J’s Here I Am series of three one-person productions curated by new artistic director Hayley Finn.
Set on a nearly bare stage, with just a stool and a pair of folding chairs serving as special markers, the 90-minute intermissionless piece begins with a series of slides culled from Chomet’s childhood. We see the cute baby pictures, the school-age girl in a leotard for ballet class, with her brothers, and with her all-American parents, surrounded by a gaggle of girls at a standard suburban birthday party from the 1970s.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about Chomet’s upbringing, but her inner life, she explained standing centerstage barefoot and clad in yoga pants and a tank top, haunted her. “What do I want to tell my birth mother?” she pondered. “That I have had a good life, I am safe … whole … happy.”
Then Chomet invites us in to follow her on her 2009 journey to Korea where she navigates a system with the help of an NGO that helps Korean international adoptees find, if possible, their birth parents. This trip also brings her to Holt International Children’s Services, founded as a Christian-focused agency to bring Korean War orphans, often with American fathers, to adoptive families in the U.S. and Europe. Korea’s conservative ethos played a role in the thousands of Korean adoptees sent abroad in the past 70 years: recognizably mixed-race children faced bitter discrimination as did single mothers in the religiously and culturally conservative society. What began as a humanitarian project promulgated by the Holt organization devolved into a money-making enterprise that left both birth parents and adoptees emotionally scarred, something Chomet alludes to as her journey unwinds.
Told by one agency counselor, “Don’t get your hopes up,” she returns to the U.S. no closer to finding her umma. Throughout, Chomet takes on the voices and postures of the characters she encounters, the officious women of the adoption agencies with their colorful Korean accents, both of whom insist on calling Chomet by her English adopted name “Rachel” — with an emphasis on the hard L at the end, rather than her preferred Korean Nam Sun Mee. While some of these encounters are amusing, as are descriptions of a hit Korean reality TV show called I Miss That Person, which broadcasts pathos-filled segments of searching adoptees who hope to connect with long-lost family members. As silly as it sounds, the fact that it’s entirely true makes one pause.
Director/dramaturg Zaraawar Mistry has a light touch, supporting Chomet to tell her story, her way. That includes moments of wordless movement monologues as the actor stretches her body into a gentle lunge, arms reaching outward before she draws them back into her body, toward her heart. Not quite enwrapping herself, her arms undulate, not quite into a self-hug. This intimate dance ruminates on the wordless sentiments of her longing for connection to a birth mother she’s never met. The simple, sustained choreography, too, suggests sundo, a Korean martial art and mind-body form akin to t’ai chi.
When the reunion comes, it is filled with love, grief, unanticipated questions, and painful revelations. Chomet understands that her childhood questions of “what if” are far more complex than a simple family reunion. How to Be a Korean Woman offers her lessons in experiencing the road not taken. How might she fare in a society where female beauty, perfect skin, makeup, and gender roles are far different from the feminist upbringing she experienced with her Protestant mom and Jewish dad.
In this production for Theater J, Chomet leans further into her Jewish background, including revising her script to include more of her father’s and grandfather’s experiences. She recalls her grandfather confiding in her about his own experiences with racism as a boy in Hitler’s Vienna. In doing so she gives voice to the parallels that Jewish Americans and Korean Americans experienced in their immigrant and assimilation stories, while also opening up conversations for transracial Jewish adoptees. As culturally specific as How to Be a Korean Woman is, like any strong piece of theater, this one resonates with a soulful search for understanding one’s identity and connecting with one’s family of origin and family of choice in ways that are both moving and significant.
How to Be a Korean Woman plays through January 14, 2024, presented by Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($50–$70, with member and military discounts available) online, by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210, or by email ([email protected]).
How to Be a Korean Woman is the third in Theater J’s Here I Am series of three one-person plays focusing on identity and the relationship between the individual and the family. The first was Iris Bahr’s See You Tomorrow. The second was Moses.
The Here I Am series program is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.
How to Be a Korean Woman
Written and performed by Sun Mee Chomet
Directed by Zaraawar Mistry
Scenic Design: Nephelie Andonyadis
Lighting Design: Jesse W. Belsky
Production Stage Manager: Becky Reed
Assistant Stage Manager: Shee Shee Jin