To have Asian and Asian-American performers cast in any lead role in theater, film, and television is a significant achievement even now for a race that has historically been marginalized in the entertainment industry. But to have a show created by Asians that features a predominantly Asian cast is practically a miracle.
One such miracle is on display right now at A.R.T./New York Theatres in the form of KPOP, the latest innovative theater piece from Ars Nova, presented in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company, conceived by Jason Kim (previously a writer for HBO's Girls, and currently Lincoln Center Theater's resident writer) and the immersive theater company Woodshed Collective. But KPOP isn't notable just for featuring a preponderance of Asian talent onstage and behind the scenes. By bringing audience members into the inner workings of a Korean pop music factory, Kim and composer-lyricists Helen Park and Max Vernon pose difficult questions about why Asian pop music, and by extension Asian talent in general, still has a long way to go before cracking the bamboo ceiling.
Luckily, theatergoers have a chance to ponder those questions while KPOP runs through October 21. Three of the show's major creative forces — Kim, actor Jason Tam (who plays Epic, the lead singer of the show's fictional K-pop boy band F8), and actress Ashley Park (who played K-pop diva MwE through October 8, and who is currently preparing for the upcoming Mean Girls musical) — discussed their experiences with the show, the K-pop genre, and the entertainment industry.
How much did you know about the K-pop world before embarking on this show? Has the show made you more of a fan of the genre than you were beforehand?
Jason Kim: I was born and raised in Seoul and grew up listening to early incarnations of K-pop: H.O.T., Fin.K.L, Seo Taiji and Boys. Since then, K-pop has become a multibillion-dollar industry. I used to think that K-pop was all bubblegum. Working on the show, I have come to realize that K-pop is not bubblegum at all. It explodes genres, defies harmonic conventions, pokes fun at itself, and is often equal parts earnest and subversive. It is somehow maximalist and laser sharp at the same time. In writing the show, I tried to emulate K-pop's radical understanding of form — mix genres, shift tones, have heart, and pose questions.
Ashley Park: I am Korean-American: born in California, raised in Michigan, and sadly haven't visited Korea yet. As a child, I mostly listened to classical piano music, musical theater cast recordings, or Charlotte Church, Céline Dion, and Sarah Brightman albums. But I have a vivid memory of the first time I watched a video recording of a performance by the girl group Fin.K.L on the Music Bank TV series. I was about 9 years old and I spent the next week learning every word of that pop ballad (which was my first time memorizing a Korean song). I realize now that that was the first time I had seen Asian-American women performing live as the central focal point on a major stage — the only Asian female protagonist I had seen on my screen up until that point was Mulan in the Disney animated film. I think that was one of my only interactions with K-pop before this show, but it was an impactful one for me. In 2014, when I was offered the very first song and dance lab of our KPOP show, the first thing I thought of were those Fin.K.L lyrics. I still remembered all of them.
Now I have BoA's hit albums on my iPhone along with "best of K-pop" playlists (guys, K-pop is such great music to listen to while working out and running!). I listen to Max Vernon and Helen Park's K-pop demos from the show constantly. I'm hoping there's a cast album because I can't wait for everyone to be able to jam out to these tunes.
Jason Tam: Before working on this show, my only knowledge of K-pop consisted of the weird dance moves in the "Gangnam Style" video, which I'd whip out at wedding dance floors and sometimes in supermarket aisles. Now, I'm a full-fledged fan of K-pop. If Exo, Black Pink, or iKon perform in America anytime soon, I'll be first in line. I'm also super into K-dramas now. Descendants of the Sun is my jam!
This show is breaking ground in everything from its predominantly Asian cast and creative team to trying to bring more awareness to K-pop music. Beyond the walls of the KPOP experience, there is still a long way to go for Asians in entertainment. Have any of you ever experienced discrimination in the entertainment industry?
Jason Kim: I keep being told that my English is great. Yes, it is. Why wouldn't it be?
Ashley Park: I'd say that I've been fairly disappointed whenever I've been cast in a role and people, or even good friends, have said to me, "Oh, so they were going ethnic with that role." Things like that always catch me off guard, especially from people I love and respect. Also in a show I did, everything that a female suggested was met with an eye roll, a sigh, and a no from the creative team, while anything a male suggested was applauded and immediately incorporated into the show.
Jason Tam: A couple years ago, during a rehearsal, a white creative couldn't remember my name and called me Yo-Yo Ma.
KPOP poses the question to audiences of why this genre hasn't quite conquered the American pop music scene yet. Why do you personally think this is the case, and what do you think can be done about it, if anything?
Ashley Park: People are eager for answers and fixes, but how can we find those if we aren't willing to ask the hard questions? Jason Kim gave me and the cast of KPOP distinct and nuanced rhetoric, humor, and complexities to shape our characters. This is rare in stage and screen writing for someone who looks like me. And [director] Teddy Bergman guided us in exploring the scenes in a way to effectively engage the audiences into asking these kinds of questions by the end of their KPOP experience.
Jason Kim: Every night, one of the characters in the piece poses the following question to the audience: "So many Asian stars have tried to break through in America and not a single one has been successful. Why?" The responses have been fascinating, ranging from "Asians are weird" all the way to "systemic racism." I think the answer lies in asking the question and listening.
Jason Tam: A month ago, a drunk white man started up a conversation with me on the subway and scoffed when I told him I was rehearsing a show about Korean pop. He thought K-pop was "infantile." Americans, including myself before I started working on KPOP, tend to view it as only one thing — in my case, "weird," and in the case of drunk subway dude, "infantile." How do we fix that? In a way, KPOP is a cure, or rather a bridge leading to the cure. The bridge has been built; it's up to you whether or not you want to cross it.
For tickets to KPOP, click here.
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