I don’t go to the theater for reality. No finely tuned kitchen sink dramas for me, no mirrors held up to nature, thanks. The theater ceded that territory to film and television a long time ago or should have, anyway. Even if the acting is really top shelf, sitting in the dark watching people pretend that they aren’t on a stage, but are instead just hanging around their apartments, rarely excites me. I mean, I can see people hanging around an apartment any time I want in my own apartment, where the admission is, incidentally, free. No, when I slap down my $25 (or $40, or $90) to see a play, I want to be transported in return. In our current state of media glut, I can have the gritty minutiae of contemporary life beamed back at me 24/7. Isn’t that why God invented blogs? I don’t need it in the theater, too.
There’s another, less lofty reason I don’t go in for theatrical portrayals of contemporary American life: I’m not usually in them. If you take a little stroll up to the top left-hand corner of this page, you can check out my author photo and learn, if that kind of thing interests you, that I’m Asian. (Chinese and East Indian, to be exact.) If Asian-Americans are poorly represented in film and television, then the situation isn’t much better in the theater. Whenever I see a show that features an Asian-American actor, I resignedly check their bio to see which of the following plays he or she’s appeared in: Miss Saigon, M. Butterfly, and Flower Drum Song. Sometimes I hit the jackpot and get all three, and then I look around, waiting to see if someone is going to bang a gong and bring me a big bag of fortune cookies for winning my own made-up contest.
In the past few years, though, I’ve seen two incredibly moving pieces with young Asian-American women at their center: Julia Cho’s BFE, about a young Korean girl living in a town terrorized by a sadistic blonde fetishist, and Rolin Jones’s The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, the story of a fast-talking agoraphobic genius who builds a robot and sends it to China in search of her birth mother. No kitchen sinks in either, but both hit on something so emotionally true not to mention culturally specific that each felt like a little gift meant just for me.
Because you know, I’m as narcissistic as the next person. I want to see myself up there, on the screen, on the stage, in the papers. Or if not me, then at least someone who looks like me. It’s a weird atavistic thing that probably has something to do with Lacan, but I’m not smart enough to unpack that for you.
Suffice it to say that when I heard about Diana Son’s new play Satellites (which opened at the Public Theater on June 15) I had the eerie feeling that someone had been listening to me all these years. Satellites is the story of a young, career-focused Asian-American woman (like me) who lives in Brooklyn (like me) where she and her non-Asian husband are raising their new baby (not like me at the moment, but more on that later). Oh, and the woman’s name is Nina.
In Satellites, Korean-American Nina (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Sandra Oh), an architect, and her African-American husband Miles (Kevin Carroll), a recently laid-off web producer, abandon their cramped Manhattan apartment for a fixer-upper brownstone in a quickly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. With their new baby, Hannah, Nina and Miles attractive, racially diverse, with a pair of Ivy League degrees between them seem like the poster family for the new wave of young New Yorkers who are increasingly attempting to redefine domesticity on their own terms.
Of course, if it were that easy there wouldn’t be much of a play. Nina, physically exhausted and torn between the demands of her work and her new daughter, is frustrated by Miles’s inability to support her during her period of crisis. Miles, on the other hand, feels subtly undermined by the fact that his wife has become the big breadwinner and though he wouldn’t admit it resentful of the way his new daughter has upended his life.
The race factor (maybe that should be capitalized: the Race Factor) only makes matters more complicated. Nina, long removed from her own ethnic heritage, decides to hire an older Korean nanny (Satya Lee) for Hannah, though it’s Nina herself who may be getting the most out of the bargain, the way Mrs. Chae dotes on her family and stuffs her full of kimchee and japchae. Meanwhile the well-educated and relatively wealthy Miles deals with the awkwardness of being what Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones), a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, sensitively calls “the new nigger” on the block. Oh and by the way, did I mention that Miles was adopted by a white family and raised in an all-white suburb?
Rounding out the play is Eric (Clarke Thorell), Miles’s adoptive brother, a charming ne’er-do-well struggling with the fact that his brother has grown up to become, well, a grown-up, and Kit (Johanna Day), Nina’s frustrated business partner. The play’s central action is set into motion when a rock comes flying through Nina and Miles’s expensive new window, but the crashing projectile is just an aftershock of the more traumatic event: the arrival of Hannah, the little sun around whom the six adults orbit helplessly. It sounds complicated but then, have you been to Brooklyn lately?
I have. I live in Brooklyn, not too far from Clinton Hill, the neighborhood where Nina and Miles live. Every weekend, when I sit in Prospect Park (think Central Park, but less complicated) with my Sunday edition of the New York Times and my big hangover-concealing sunglasses, I look at all the beautiful, hip, multicultural parents with their handcrafted baby slings walking about and I think, How do they do it? Four years out of college and I’m only now starting to realize the sacrifices and compromises that lie in store for me.
I want to have a family someday, but how am I supposed to do that? I work in publishing, a decidedly non-lucrative field. How am I supposed to ever afford cribs, diapers, warm coats and shoes not to mention a kindergarten-to-college education someday? Forget money. How am I supposed to find the time for a family? I’m like a lot of girls I know, raised to pursue careers as hotly as any boyfriend. I work fulltime and I freelance on the side, neither of which I’m about to give up. Between my job, my friends, and my faraway family I fall into bed exhausted at the end of every day. I can barely find time for a boyfriend, but I’m supposed to have time for a kid in five or six years? I love my life and I’ve worked hard to get here. Sometimes I feel myself resenting the baby I don’t even have yet.
Watching my namesake struggle with these same questions onstage, I was filled with a gnawing anxiety. Fuck, I thought. If Dr. Cristina Yang can’t hack it, what the hell am I supposed to do?
“Sandra says this play is like birth control,” Diana Son tells me one morning in the café at the Public. Son is currently pregnant with her second child, and as we talk she is carefully picking all the vegetables out of a takeout chicken soup the Public’s press rep has thoughtfully brought her. She’s telling me how nauseous she feels; she says it’s a little like constantly being on a turbulent flight. “Last night I’m lying down on the couch in the dressing room and the girls, Sandra and Johanna, are like, ‘Oh, how are you?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m fucking miserable.’ And you can just see that they went like, ‘I don’t think I could do it.’ And I thought, That’s right! That’s why I’m supposed to be stoic and silent. Because you scare women. Like, if women knew what it was like they wouldn’t have children.”
Son manages to remind me of all the Asian-American women I’ve ever loved or looked up to, all at once. She looks a bit like a softer, downtown version of Vera Wang, and she’s smart and kind of frosty, just like Maya Lin. Her speech has the lilting cadence of likes and you knows that I recognize from the Korean girls I grew up with in California (despite the fact that Son grew up in Delaware and has lived most of her adult life in New York). I find myself desperately wanting her to like me. I suddenly want Diana Son to tell me how I’m supposed to make it all work.
Satellites is, in part, Son’s response to that very question. The play came about three years ago when Son was having lunch with Sandra Oh, who had appeared in her 1998 play Stop Kiss, a big hit for the Public. Oh had since become a star (and a huge girl crush object for Asian women nationwide) with her feisty turns in Sideways and Grey’s Anatomy. Son had been working as a scriptwriter for Law and Order: Criminal Intent, but Oh wanted to know when she was going to get back to the theater. Oh pointed out that Son hadn’t written a play since her son was born a few years earlier. “She was surprised,” Son tells me, “at how easy it was for me to put my creative work on the back burner.” Oh thought that the devotion required from the theater as opposed to the punch-in, punch-out mentality of Son’s television work might feel like a threat to her now that she had become so focused on being a mother. “And I thought, oh my God, that sounds so right, and I hadn’t thought of it myself,” Son says. “And I felt kind of liberated by that, and I thought, well, the solution is to write a play about that.”
This is heartening, I think to myself. Isn’t this how women will change the American cultural landscape? By incorporating our family lives into our work lives, reconciling them with one another rather than forcing ourselves to compartmentalize them?
But then I ask her how her adult friendships have changed since she’s had her son. “I don’t have any,” she answers flatly. Uh-oh, I think.
Son brings up a crucial moment in the play, when Nina accuses her family of blaming her for the way Hannah has changed their lives. “Of course she’s changed our lives,” Nina sputters. “What was so fucking great about them anyway?”
“Like, what do I miss?” Son asks rhetorically about her pre-baby life. “Sleeping in?” she sneers faintly. “Taking the Sunday Times to Central Park and reading it with a glass of wine? I would so much rather be digging for worms with my son. Like, no question.”
“What else am I going to be doing?” she continues. “Walking down the street, talking real estate with my adult friends? All adults do is complain. All my satisfying adult conversations are those in which we complain. About people, about society, politics, you know what I mean. And with a kid it’s just all about discovery, and revelation, and delight.”
I’m beginning to see it coming down the tunnel: the moment when I look back on my single New Yorker years, so precious to me now, and laugh them off like a seventh-grade haircut. But maybe someday I too will experience the “instant conversion” Son tells me about, when everything about my previous life falls away and I’m too preoccupied to miss it.
“It’s so fucking otherworldly,” Son says about pregnancy, in a tone most New Yorkers I know reserve for discussing braised scallops. “It’s so profound. Four months of nausea is worth it for five months of just feeling the baby inside you, and knowing that you’re doing this extraordinary, inexplicably miraculous thing.” And then, just like that, our interview is over and Son is dialing up her doctor on her cell phone. I imagine that her thoughts are already back home, with her son, her husband, and her otherworldly life.
This is what I get for going to the theater and expecting to find an answer, I think. I walk out of the lobby and slowly make my way back to my office, one more baby-less morning behind me.
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