Sandra Oh and Kevin Carroll in Satellites
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Sandra Oh and Kevin Carroll in Satellites
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Two and a half years ago, Diana Son was in Los Angeles on business and got together with her good friend Sandra Oh. The two had last worked together in 1998 on Son's hit play Stop Kiss at The Public Theater, in which Oh starred. Since that time, both women have achieved a measure of success in Hollywood -- Son as a screenwriter for The West Wing and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Oh for her breakout role in the film Sideways and her current TV series Grey's Anatomy, in which she plays Dr. Cristina Yang.

When Oh asked if Son was working on a new play, the writer admitted that she was not, remarking that there were probably a number of psychological blocks that prevented her from doing so. Her friend ventured a theory that perhaps the playwright's status as a new mom was the cause. (She had given birth a few years earlier.) As Son relates, "Sandra told me, 'I think you've been surprised by how single-mindedly devoted to your son you've been. You write for TV, but that's just work you do for your family. You can contain it. When you're in a rehearsal room with a play, you love every minute of it. I think that must feel threatening to the mother in you because, since you had your son, you haven't really let anything compete with that.' I felt very liberated; no one had said that to me before. So, I thought maybe I should write a play about how a working mother tries to engage in her work while remaining devoted to her child."

The result is Satellites, which is receiving its world premiere this month at the Public in a production that stars Oh as a Korean-American architect named Nina. A new mother, Nina has recently relocated to Brooklyn with her unemployed husband, Miles (played by Kevin Carroll, who was also in Stop Kiss). They live in what Son describes as "a broken-down brownstone in a dicey area." Nina and her business partner, Kit, run their architecture firm out of the brownstone's basement and are in the midst of preparing a project for a major competition.

"I'm always trying to tell several stories at once," says Son. "I titled the play Satellites because all of the characters are free-floating. A satellite is an entity that orbits around a larger entity; all of the characters lack a defining thing within their lives, so they end up colliding into each other." For example, Nina and Miles feel disconnected from their ethnic identities, and they long for their child to have such a connection. Nina hires a nanny who's able to sing Korean lullabies to the baby and, in Son's words, "basically do what a Korean mother would do." Miles is an African-American male but was adopted by a Caucasian family. Says Son, "He grew up in a white neighborhood and knew what it was like to stand on your front lawn and be called a nigger."

In this play, Son is very specific about the characters' ethnicities; in Stop Kiss, she was not, although she did include a note saying that she wanted the cast to reflect the diversity of New York City. (She was "very disheartened by the fact that, no matter how many times I said that, most productions of the play featured all-white casts.")

Son wrote the part of Nina with Oh in mind. "In every character that she portrays, she's so real, so authentically invested," says the playwright. "Both Sandra and Kevin Carroll, for whom I wrote the role of Miles, knew upon first reading where

Diana Son
(Photo © Julio Grinblatt)
Diana Son
(Photo © Julio Grinblatt)
the characters are coming from. You think you can be so clear in the stage directions and the storytelling that people must know exactly who your characters are, but my experience of seeing many different productions of Stop Kiss has been, like, wow! I think, 'Why are these characters being portrayed as ironic, sarcastic, detached New Yorkers?' My plays are not ironic. I used to feel self-conscious about that: 'Oh, I'm not cutting edge, I'm not cool.' But, ultimately, I'm a very earnest playwright."

Helming Satellites at the Public is Michael Greif, who directed Son's Boy at La Jolla Playhouse in 1996. "I love the way he works with actors," says Son. "He can say things that will spark them to do exactly what I want with the characters, but without saying it in the literal way that I would."

Satellites is Son's most naturalistic work to date. "My early plays were much more fantastical and adhered more closely to ideas that I developed when I was a young dramatic literature student at NYU," she says. "I was very heavily influenced by Brecht and other European writers -- but, at some point, I began to feel that I was spending too much time trying not to tell the story I was telling. So I just decided to tell the story."