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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Rising playwright Julia Cho premiers 99 Histories with Theater Mu and Intermedia Arts

Young playwright Julia Cho's first full-length play, The Architecture of Loss had a successful run at the New York Theater Workshop. "Totally unpretentious - of the utmost simplicity and steadily close to the bone," raved one critic. Now a second play, 99 Histories, gets its premiere in a co-production between Theater Mu and Intermedia Arts and opens this week.

99 Histories centers around a spiky daughter/mother relationship that is cross-layered with the usual gaps of generation and, for Eunice and Sah-Jin, the fault lines of the immigrant experience.

"When I wrote this earlier in my 20s," said Cho, "I made Eunice much older than me, to distinguish her experience from mine. Ironically, it's getting produced when the main character is about my age, and people ask, 'Is Eunice you?' It's is not at all my own experience. I wanted to write a play about a woman coming to terms with her own identity and her own history, but it's fictional."

99 Histories opens with 29-year-old Eunice returning home to her estranged mother, pregnant and unmarried. She comes home to sort out her relationship with her mother, to ferret out her past and to make a decision about the baby.

Cho was born in Los Angeles to Korean parents. Although she looks Korean, she feels American. "I felt there was no authentic Koreanness in me," she said. "I went to Korea at age 13, and it was a completely foreign place to me. The play asks what it is to be American, or Korean. There's a rule of thumb in drama that the more specific you are, the more universal the drama becomes." She believes that 99 Histories speaks to everyone who has grown up with a mother.

Jeany Park, who plays Eunice, agreed. "Eunice's relationship with her mother is complicated and prickly. My relationship with my mother is the same." Park was born in Seoul and raised by her natural parents in Canada.

"Sah-Jin has made a break with the past," said Park. "She doesn't want to talk about where she comes from, and Eunice is digging for her past. Eunice's father died in a robbery, and Sah-Jin wants to avoid re-living that pain. There's secrecy around her father's death, and there's mental illness in the family and feelings of shame."

Park's character, Eunice was a child prodigy on the cello, and Sah-Jin, who loves music, pushed her adored daughter to succeed and lived vicariously through her; but things went terribly wrong, when Eunice became ill.

A playwright, herself, whose Falling Flowers was produced by Theater Mu two years ago, Park admires Cho's work. "Julia has a wonderful ear for dialogue," she said, "and she asks big questions like, what is necessary for someone to love and be loved? Can you love another and not love yourself?"

Chinese-born Maria Cheng plays Eunice's mother, Sah-Jin. "99 Histories is a classic mother/daughter conflict story," she said. "On the surface, there's the generation gap but, on a deeper level, the gaps between them has to do with internal aspirations and identity, thwarted dreams and ambition, and issues of love, forgiveness and acceptance of who one is."

Cheng describes Sah-Jin as an extraordinary woman, who has suffered immensely. "When Eunice left home, Sah-Jin didn't know where her daughter was, or what had happened to her. She built a tight little box of a life for herself. It's not joyful, but it's a workable life. She's a survivor."

Eunice's return breaks open the safety of Sah-Jin's rigid life.

Theater Mu's artistic director, Rick Shiomi, came across 99 Histories in a call for play submissions for Mu's New Eyes Festival. "Rick called me," said Cho, "and told me he wanted to produce the play. It's rare for a play to go this smoothly. Theater Mu has great resources and a wonderful pool of actors."

99 Histories April 9 - April 25. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. $12 - $14. (Pay-what-you-can preview April 8.) Theater Mu at Intermedia Arts, 2822, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-871-4444.

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area

Elizabeth Weir

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