Large pieces of Julia Cho's family past in Korea are missing, and she concedes they may never be found.
Her play, "99 Histories," is partly a reflection on that loss. It also is the product of Cho's conviction that in the absence of facts, the imagination must take over, and that it can suffice.
The play is one of five unproduced works-in-progress that will have public readings in the annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, Friday through Sunday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. At 26, Cho is the youngest writer in a lineup that also includes Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran Beth Henley and three emerging New York-based playwrights: Lynn Nottage, Steven Drukman and Julia Jordan.
The protagonist of "99 Histories" is Eunice Kim, a young woman whose promise as a cello-playing prodigy has been destroyed by the onset of mental illness. Medication allows her to function more or less normally, but she has landed back on her mother's doorstep in a Los Angeles suburb. She is pregnant and alone, haunted by memories of her father's murder during a robbery of the family's mom-and-pop convenience store.
None of these circumstances applies to Cho, who lives in Brooklyn and likes to siphon her material from everywhere. She was born in Los Angeles and lived in Whittier until she was 12, when her dad's job transfer took the family to Mesa, Ariz.
Unlike Eunice's blunted creative life, Cho's has moved ahead promisingly since she began writing plays as a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Although her works remain unproduced, she has received commissions for plays from the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory.
Meanwhile, she is working under the tutelage of Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang as a playwriting fellow at the Juilliard School, and David Henry Hwang, dean of Asian American playwrights, has been her mentor-consultant for a two-week workshop staging of "99 Histories" that began today as part of the Cherry Lane Alternative's emerging playwrights program in New York.
If the play's circumstances are not true to Cho's experience, the issues are. The play unfolds like a puzzle piecing itself together.
Eunice feels a need to know her family's past in Korea in order to get through the crisis in her present. As the audience watches, shards of events from her own childhood and that of her immigrant mother begin to fall into place. But which are real and which only imagined? At the play's climax, Eunice resorts to a fierce gambit to wrest buried secrets from her mom.
Cho wouldn't go that far, but she feels the same unfulfilled hunger for knowledge of her origins.
In her early teens, she read Amy Tan's novel "The Joy Luck Club" and wondered why her own mother wasn't bursting with illuminating lore about the old country, as the Chinese American women were in the book.
"I went to her very righteously and said, 'You never tell me stories. What was Korea like?'" Cho recalled over the phone recently. "She was very busy ironing or something, and said, 'We were hungry.' They were children during the Korean War, and if they don't talk about it, there's probably a reason for it. I've gotten a little more respectful of my parents' silences."
Lacking many facts, Cho says, imagined origins are better than none. "I need to make up something, because without having some sense of where I'm from, how can I go forward?"
What she can find, she uses. When her brother married a Korean woman a few years ago, Cho learned about chung, a hard-to-define Korean concept akin to love. Chung, says Cho, is what exists between people who are so closely bonded that, for better or worse, each is essential to the other's achieving full self-hood.
"I asked everyone I knew about it, and without exception, only Koreans from Korea knew what it was. None of my Korean American friends had heard about it before." In "99 Histories," chung is an important motif as mother and daughter try to sort through their anguished relationship.
Cho has no qualms about her play's ability to translate to a broad audience: "If you write an immigrant story, it's going to be a classic American story."
She is interested in writing about characters who are not Korean, but she also embraces what she sees as a responsibility to write plays that will provide career-nourishing roles for Asian actors.
Two other plays in progress are "Architecture of Loss," about a Korean family in Arizona whose child has disappeared, and an untitled comedy about a part-Asian family living in a trailer home in the desert. The Taper will offer a free public reading of "Architecture of Loss" on May 20.
Writer-director Chay Yew, head of the Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop, directed a previous reading of "99 Histories" under Taper auspices; he is directing the reading at South Coast as well.
"For a young playwright, [Cho offers] great emotional maturity and economy of words and a great passion for language," Yew said. "She's very good at drawing characters who have emotional complexity."
Cho had an emotionally complex moment of her own at the Taper's reading of "99 Histories" last June. Her parents attended; it was the first time they had seen a play other than a musical.
"I was terrified. They were supportive of me all those years on pure faith, and now they would see what they had been supporting."
All went well, without the shock or disapproval Cho had imagined.
"My father was saying, 'Do Americans like this play? It's so Korean.' What struck him the most was the audience's reaction to it: 'You made people cry.' That amazed him."
"99 Histories," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Friday, 1 p.m. $8. (714) 708-5555.