Q&A with Playwright May Lee-Yang
A chat with the creator of A Korean Drama Addicts Guide to Losing Your Virginity, which plays at Park Square Theatre through Aug. 19
May Lee-Yang (center) with the world-premiere cast of A Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity.
Photo by Dan Norman
A Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity is one of the more straight-forward titles to hit the Twin Cities’ theater scene this year. This world premiere by local playwright May Lee-Yang has all the best (or worst, depending) tropes of the genre: a hard-working protagonist, the CEO love interest, a character literally called “Evil Mom” … even some magic. With her play beginning previews with Theater Mu on July 27 and running through Aug. 19 at Park Square Theater, Lee-Yang still found time to chat with us about how it all got started, cultural representation and respect, and Korean drama recommendations.
What gave you the idea that started it all?
I started watching Korean dramas in about 2012, and it's one of those things where you don't want to get started—it's an obsessive habit to get into. I felt a little guilty spending so much time watching them, and so this happened. A couple years ago, I was doing some outreach with some young people at Theater Mu of all places. I think my job was to provide context for Twelfth Night to mostly refugee and immigrant to help them understand Shakespeare before seeing Theater Mu's version, and I ended up using a Korean drama as an example. They're like, “You get it”—it's exactly like To the Beautiful You with gender bending. Then the teenagers started joking, “You could do your own Korean drama play,” and when I had the opportunity to work on a new show, this is what I proposed to Theater Mu. It was part passion project and part of just feeling guilty about spending a lot of my life on Korean dramas and wanting to put it to good use.
When your play debuted (as a read through) at Theater Mu’s New Eyes festival in 2017, it had a different name, The Moon Embraces the Song. What led to the title change?
It was a play [on words] off a Korean drama, but then I realized that's really something that only something folks into Korean dramas would get, insider jokes I suppose, and I wanted and needed a title much more accessible accessible to people, regardless of who watched Korean dramas or not.
Courtesy Rich Ryan
So reading the description of the play, it hints at some magic. Yes? No?
I didn't know how much we wanted to talk about the supernatural element [in the description], but a part of the show is a Hmong woman with a Korean drama addiction and a ghost problem and what happens when she meets a real life Korean guy. She starts to see ghosts in her regular life, and we end up learning why, and you know, when we were talking in introduction meetings, people were asking—there's reality, what I call Korean Drama Land sequences, and then we go into Hmong Drama Land, so these fantasy sequences are juxtaposed to reality—“What about the ghost part sequences?” They're actually just part of reality. They're not a fantasy. They're part of her reality.
What do you mean by reality versus Korean Drama Land or Hmong Drama Land?
So reality is just this world that happens to be. It's set in the Twin Cities, so it's very much here today, in Minnesota, in the cities. … She uses Korean dramas to understand the world in some ways, and in that sense we go into Korean drama and sequences. … Parts of the real world start looking like Korean dramas, not necessarily because she's manipulating it, but because I thought I can't do a Korean drama play without doing scenes from Korean dramas, the soundtrack, or some iconic images or whatever, so we play around with all of that.
One of my pet peeves is when people write about a cultural topic but haven’t respected it. I'm talking about Korean dramas, but there is for me a love and respect for it as well. Then there is a Hmong Drama Land sequence because I know people who come and see the show will say, “May, you're a Hmong woman; why are you writing about Korean dramas? What bout your own culture?”
Do you often find yourself deliberately trying to balance your own culture and your plays’ stories?
A lot of my shows in the past have been centered around Hmong stories. Some of them are literally my stories, so I don't feel like I answer to anyone although people sometimes call me out anyway. I definitely didn't want to seem like I am appropriating anything. Even though I'm Asian, I'm not Korean, definitely not from Korea, and I thought a lot about the pieces of it. How do I make it unique so I'm not regurgitating Korean dramas that already exist? How do I approach this story without appropriating a mother culture? For me answer was to write about it from my lens, a very Hmong, Minnesotan sense, and so we integrate all that.
Courtesy Rich Ryan
Is there anything else you want to say about the play?
I always wonder about who would wonder and see a show like this. I hope people will see the title or hear about it and think it will be fun. The writing process is fun, the rehearsal process, promoting it, but I think one of my fears is that there's always going to be that person who says, “I'm not Hmong,” or, “I don't watch Korean dramas; should I come see this play?” At the end of the day, it's a romantic comedy, but I think if you want to dig deeper, there's a lot of deeper elements. We can talk about cross-cultural conflicts or there's a lot of stuff about gender in here and a lot of commentary about the ways Asian Americans live versus Asians in Asia. There's an interesting dichotomy. I don't know if any of that stuff is interesting to everyone, but I think this play is good for fan girls and good for scholars.
So, do you have any Korean dramas you would recommend to first-timers?
I think that My Love from the Stars is one that’s good for people just beginning a Korean drama. It's about a 400-year-old alien with a ditzy international movie star. I really like the Master’s Sun, and it actually has the best correlation to my play because it's about a ghost-seeing heroine, and when she touches the hero, the ghosts disappear. It’s a great vehicle for touching each other a lot in a culture that doesn't touch. And I'll throw one that's current that I really like. It's called Are You Human, Too? and it's about a robot who looks exactly like a Korean heir, but the robot's more human than people.