In Julia Cho's new play, "Office Hour," three English teachers at an unidentified college share a cup of coffee to discuss a problem student.
Dennis comes to their classes wearing a hoodie, a baseball hat and dark sunglasses. He is sullen and largely non-verbal. But it’s his writing that alarms the faculty. Dennis’ stories are filled with violent sexual imagery, and the teachers fear he's poised to commit a campus shooting.
I was walking out of the play and I was behind a couple talking about the play. The woman said, "I think we all knew somebody like Dennis. I wonder if I was kind to him." Which I guess is really what the play is all about.
That is fantastic. This play leaves me emotionally thin, so that really affects me to the bone. After opening night, a kid who works at the theater came up to me. He goes, "You know, that play is about me."
I didn't know how to deal with that except to say, "I love you." We're given this responsibility, once we embody these characters, to be aware of these things. Now I feel like I'm hyper-aware of that.
The play, written by Julia Cho, was inspired by two campus shootings, one at UC Santa Barbara and one at Virginia Tech. Both perpetrators were Asian-American young men. Did you have conversations with Julia about what ethnicity meant in those situations, and what it meant to her as a playwright?
She said when [the Virginia Tech shooter] Seung-Hui Cho happened, she had a very deep connection to it immediately. She said she wasn't surprised that he was Korean, mainly because I feel like a lot of us Koreans possess a rage that comes from I don't know what, several generations of oppression or I don't know what it is, but we have it.
I see it in my mom, I see it in my family. It taps into something that has to be from a cultural place. In addition, [with] a lot of Asian-Americans, silence is a virtue. If you don't have anything good to say, especially to elders, you kind of just keep your mouth shut.
In that way, [when] you add on bullying or something where you're not able to express yourself in a certain way, it exacerbates the whole situation. There are a lot of angry Korean- and Asian-Americans out there as a result, and maybe therapy is not a thing that is widely discussed.
(Left to right: Raymond Lee, Sandra Oh, and Corey Brill in the new play, "Office Hour")
Does that mean that the shootings at Virginia Tech and UC Santa Barbara were not a foreseeable consequence of that, but somehow linked to that?
I would say so. Seung-Hui Cho in particular, he was dealing with a form of selective mutism. Apparently he was diagnosed with that early on but it wasn't really dealt with. In addition to that, he spoke funny according to other people because he was from Korea. Not being able to communicate affected his particular situation.
I want to ask about acne. Your character, Dennis, has very bad skin, and it's part of the story. What is that about?
I do the makeup myself. With each blemish, I see Dennis start to develop more and more. Acne is kind of crazy, right? Everybody has their own understanding of how bad they actually look, and sometimes it can not even be that bad, but it can look really bad to themselves. So anyway, you take medication like Accutane that's supposed to help the situation, but it only makes it worse.
It causes depression, suicidal thoughts, and all these crazy things. You just need to have acne to understand the torment that you put yourself through, where you don't want to deal with people or anything. I had experienced that as some point in my life, and I get to exorcise those feelings through this role, so it's pretty fantastic.
Dennis is more than withdrawn. He calls himself dead, that he was largely bullied when he was growing up, or girls found him revolting. It's a really sad person we see on stage. How do you get there as an actor?
It starts with the nugget of being mistreated. Any time we've been rejected by a person, or rejected in general, we remember those moments really well. ... Doing research on all these shooters really helped to get into the minds of these people. And then to blow that up to a place where you might even think about killing yourself — and then to be able to deliver that to the audience.
(Left to right: Sola Bamis, Corey Brill, and Sandra Oh portray three teachers in "Office Hour")
There's a point in the play where Dennis talks about how civilization needs people to bully. It's very emotional. The thrust is that civilization would break down if people like Dennis weren't around because they are "born to be hated."
In the beginning scene of "Office Hour," you see three teachers talking about a particular, troubled student. I feel like at the end of that, they might feel accomplished in just talking about the student, instead of doing something about it. I think there's a desire in people to address these things that concern us, but don't really have to deal with.
You had a role in the movie "A Leading Man," which was about some very serious issues like bigotry in the entertainment world. It's about an Asian-American actor trying to make it in Hollywood. How much of that story feels a bit too close to home?
A lot of it. [The writer/director] Steven [J. Kung] was very brave in wanting to attack this issue head-on. It didn't really hit me that I was feeling this way until the film presented itself to me.
Feeling which way?
A feeling that there's misrepresentation happening. A cultural misunderstanding. I've had to avoid accents and stereotypical roles actively, which takes me out of the running of a lot of things. It's this whole idea of fairness. We just want to be treated as equals.
You're talking about not wanting to play a role as a caricature. The other issue is that parts are not written blindly in terms of ethnicity. Is that a problem too, that you or other Asian-American actors are not considered for roles that don't have a reason for an ethnic identity?
Yeah. Here's how I'll choose to answer that because I think there are much more well-informed people who can speak on this better than I can. I will say that in big budget films, I feel we have very little control or power. In television, I feel like it's getting better. And I feel like in theater it's very "there."
What I love about doing theater is, these are high-quality people that have their hand on the pulse of American culture and the world. They're continuing to tell stories about the world and people are watching it and loving it and enjoying it. That's where I feel like it can be, in a macro scale, but I don't think it's being allowed to happen.
So the part of Dennis that exists in this play doesn't exist in film and television.
I don't think so. And even if it does, it'll exist on a small, independent scale.
What happens to the play after it closes? Will it be revived?
Oh, I hope so. I think it's a really meaningful play and I think it connects with a lot of people. Everybody is walking out of it feeling really great.
"Office Hour" runs at the South Coast Repertory through April 30th.