Jeany Park, a playwright and actress whose work has helped bring the Asian American experience before Twin Cities theatergoers – is leaving for Oregon this December, on what could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Park, an actress who has not only paved her own way, is also credited with smoothing the path for many others.
Park will join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a 72-year-old, Tony Award-winning professional non-profit theatre company. They produce an 11-play season with 770 performances before approximately 360,000 patrons. The acting experience alone can make the difference for many actors wanting to make a career in major theater productions. The festival also offers a theatre education program.
“The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an amazing theater company and an incredible opportunity for me,” said Park of the predominantly classical production company with a reputation for innovation and nontraditional casting. “I hope to work beyond this year and get a chance to play a variety of roles.”
“I am sad to leave all my wonderful friends here and to leave this amazing theater community,” she said. “I have been her nine-years and I love it and my family loves it.”
Oregon doesn’t present a large metropolitan area that supports a large theater and arts community, but it offers a very different experience, according to Park. This one, very established and famous company, is the only thing going in a small town, but draws thousands from up and down the west coast.
“Its going to be very different vibe,” she said. “I am looking forward to spending time on the mountains and the coast.”
Park is an acclaimed actress whose talents and range did much to bring about this great opportunity. Yet, it is her role as a playwright, and her two plays, “Falling Flowers” and “100 Men’s Wife,” that have endeared her to the broader community, bringing people who have never been to the theater to witness historical sagas.
“100 Men’s Wife,” a production of the Great American History Theater last February, celebrated the life of Liang May Seen, the first woman of Chinese ancestry to come to Minnesota in the 1880s. Her life began in tragedy, sold by her family in China to become the wife of a shoemaker, the person who brought her sold her to a brothel. She escaped to the Donna Cameron House Mission and was introduced to Woo Yee Sing, a successful Minneapolis businessman in 1892. They ran a laundry, a curio shop, and the Canton restaurant. They adopted a son together, Howard Woo.
Park recreates what must have been Liang May Seen’s personal turmoil in forgetting a past to build a future with her husband and becoming an accepted society woman who taught English to new Chinese immigrants at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Downtown Minneapolis.
To research the life of Liang May Seen, Park contacted Ming Tzhou, founding chair of the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Minnesota at The Minneapolis Foundation, and Pearl Lam Bergad, executive director. They put her in contact with the living relatives of Liang May Seen, her husband Woo Yee Sing, and his younger brother, Woo Du Sing. Some live in Minnesota and others on the west coast.
Barbara Bjernaas, the granddaughter of Liang May Seen, came all the way from Washington State with her five sons, their wives and one granddaughter to see the play. Her father was Howard Woo, who was adopted from San Francisco as an infant by Woo Yee Sing and Liang May Seen.
“It was wonderful to work with Jeany Park,” said Pearl Lam Bergad. “She did a great deal of research before she started writing 100 Men’s Wife. During our several meetings she asked Ming Tchou and me many questions about age-old Chinese customs and prevailing practices during the lifetime of the heroine, Liang May Seen.
“As a result, Jeany developed a great sensitivity to Chinese culture and customs and succeeded in portraying May Seen in an authentic environment,” she added. “Jeany showed deep empathy for May Seen’s plight. The scene of May Seen praying to and begging her grandmother for help broke the heart of every Asian immigrant in the audience. It resonated so deeply with the Asian tradition of ancestor worship.”
Lam Bergard reflected on the special performance, noting that Park’s sunny and easygoing nature put everyone at ease, including her director Suzy Masserole, the cast, History Theatre staff, and the descendents of Liang May Seen.
“Jeany was literally swallowed up by the waves of affection and good will that everyone felt for her,” she said. “Liang May Seen would have approved.”
“Our Foundation wishes Jeany the best of everything in her new position with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and we eagerly look forward to the creation of her next new play,” she added.
History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso described the story of Liang May Seen as one of “hope, triumph, faith and friendship.” He said the play resonated the true presence of Chinese history in Minnesota, and brought attention to the present day tragedy of the sex-trafficking industry.
Park’s first play, Falling Flowers (2003) tells the story of a group of Korean comfort women in he Second World War. Here, again, Park show how history on a personal level can pay attention to fact and dramatize in a way that honors their memory and translates effectively to theater.
The story centered on Sun Hee, a Korean comfort woman in the Second World Ward, performed as a teenager by Mirei Yumagata and Maria Cheng as the elder. The women were either abducted or tricked (believing they would be working in factories) from their families by the Imperial Japanese military to serve as sexual slaves for troops.
Park wrote the play at a time when the world’s attention was on the demands of surviving comfort women for Japan to acknowledge that the military government allowed and encouraged this to happen.
The play was produced by Theater Mu. Artistic Director Rick Shiomi said he was thrilled that Mu produced Park’s first play, to good reviews and helped launch the playwright.
Shiomi said Park is very important to the API actors in the Twin Cities – as an actress who has succeeded with both Mu and the mainstream theaters companies. Until actors like Park came along and won a lot of traditionally non-Asian roles, Shiomi said it was expected that an API actor would have a difficult time developing their craft because they were limited to the cultural performances or small ‘Asian-specific” roles.
Mu helped play a part in developing young actors and playwrights, who in turn brought about a great reputation for innovative theater and a core of skilled actors. Shiomi said Park’s leaving is a loss for Mu, but at the same time it is a reminder of how Mu has helped actors develop and a chance to pause and look at the depth of the acting pool they have now, that was not here ten years ago when Park came on board.
Park helped to form MAAG (Mu Associated Artists Group), and acted in many Mu productions, from Cowboy Versus Samurai, Happy Valley, and 99 Histories, to The Walleye Kid, Passage and Maui, Soul of the Sun, and her last show, Bahala Na, a play spanning the life of a Chinese woman from 1920’s China to 1990’s America.
Mu got rave reviews for their production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2006, where Park played dual roles as Titania, Queen of Fairies and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. “She was great in that,” Shiomi added.
“It has been exciting to have a highly professional actor within our company,” said Shiomi. “I am really excited for her to go to a prestigious, nationally recognized Shakespearean festival.
Park was born in Seoul, Korea, raised in Toronto and came to the Twin Cities after completing her MFA in Acting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Soon after arriving, Park and fellow playwright/actresses Sha Cage and Signe Harridy cofounded MaMa mOsAiC, an all women of color theatre collective that has expanded to include dancers and choreographers.
Pushing boundaries as an actress has worked and is also the motivation for her writing. Park says there is need for the Asian Pacific American stories to be heard in this country, along with an equal demand to hear them. She only hopes that as more APA actors get more mainstream roles that they understand the need to keep pushing along.
“I hope that the new generation keeps that same spirit,” she said. “We don’t want to be complacent and have to push those boundaries.”
In Minnesota those stories are of many generations of immigrant and refugee experiences and that of the Korean adoptee population that seeks to blend their two worlds and write about this experience for posterity.
Another concern of Park is that with so many more talented APA actors today, and each hungry for more and bigger roles, there will be a tendency for fierce competition with one another for the few available roles.
“That is good to raise the bar and create work, but it is also frustrating, and I hope we don’t lose more of them.”