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THEATER : June Kyoko Lu's Wait Is Over : For this veteran Asian American actress, her role as Forgiveness From Heaven in 'The Waiting Room' at the Mark Taper Forum is a heavenly blessing indeed.

August 28, 1994|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a Times staff writer

A lone fuchsia bougainvillea stem rises out of a tall vase at the center of a table covered with an off-white cloth, in a quietly elegant dining alcove. The dark wood-paneled walls are filled with tasteful prints and paintings.

Theater posters for "The Phantom of the Opera" and "King Lear" hang alongside Asian masks in the adjacent living room where June Kyoko Lu sits, surrounded by more artwork, much of it of her own making. It is a setting as rich with cultural resonance and full of warm welcome as the actress herself.

Lu, who's currently appearing in the Mark Taper Forum production of Lisa Loomer's "The Waiting Room," has long been familiar to Los Angeles audiences from her work at the late Los Angeles Theatre Center and on smaller local stages, including, most notably, East West Players.

But this role is a breakthrough. Lu plays Forgiveness From Heaven, a wealthy 18th-Century Chinese woman with bound feet. And though the actress is Korean-born, the role is strangely--and perhaps sadly--familiar.

"The inner life of Forgiveness I know well from watching my mother," says Lu. "She was a college graduate, but she had no life. She lived through my dad, who was the worst womanizer. I forgave him. I had to, for my own happiness. But I don't forget what kind of life she led. I said to myself never in my life, never would I be like her, even though I adored her."

The actress does indeed make Forgiveness From Heaven ring eerily true. "Everything she does has the weight of experience behind it and yet she is beautifully open and has this innocence as an actress that is so beguiling," says director David Schweizer. "She is also fiercely committed. She'll work and work, but she does it all in this spirit of complete openness and truth-telling."

It's a good example of how an actor can use her own background to bring a character to life. "It surprised me how easily I could step in (to such a role)," says Lu. "I know this so well in my bones. I know so many other women even in this day and age--even some of my contemporaries--who live totally for men with no lives of their own, no self-esteem, nothing. In Asian culture, it's like an insult to a man if a woman has a career. It's heartbreaking. (In the role of Forgiveness,) I can use all that I know."


"The Waiting Room," which is a comedy about three women from different centuries who come together in a contemporary doctor's office, attacks America's current health-care system. And for this reason too, it strikes a chord with Lu. "I have six medical doctors in my family and I'm doing this play!" she says, clearly savoring the irony.

In fact, Lu puts her faith in precisely the kind of alternative therapies that "The Waiting Room" suggests are anathema to the Western health-care system. "I believe in holistic natural medicine," she says.

"I had a locked jaw one time and couldn't eat or speak and the acupressure person cured me in five seconds," Lu continues. "I tell my sister who is a doctor (such) stories and she says, 'Don't tell me about it. You are crazy.' This play connected me to all these things."

Yet even if "The Waiting Room" didn't have such personal resonance for Lu, it would still be a rare opportunity. For even in the wake of 1990's "Miss Saigon" controversy--which centered on the casting of a white actor in the role of a Eurasian--multidimensional roles for Asian American actresses remain few and far between, especially on the main stages of such major regional theaters as the Taper.

"We (Asian American actresses) don't get this kind of stuff often," says Lu. "A 'Joy Luck Club' (comes along) maybe every 15 years and you cannot wait for it. I feel so blessed, I want to cry. I just feel like a lucky star shone on me. I just want more Asian American actors to experience this."

Lu herself knows many of L.A.'s Asian American theater artists from her days in the Asian American Theater Project at LATC. Lu also began working with the then LATC-based Women Artists Group during that period, as did playwright Loomer, and that is where "The Waiting Room" began.

It was just fortunate happenstance that both women were in attendance on the day that Loomer was ready to have a reading of what would eventually become a scene in her play. "I usually missed a lot of the Women Artists Group meetings because they were Saturday or Sunday mornings," says Lu. "That morning, I happened to be there. Talk about luck."

At that point, Loomer had only written one scene. "She was already writing something about cancer, because her mother (had) died of that," says Lu, referring to the disease that figures into the completed drama. "So she just kept writing, adding scenes."

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