A New Musical — And Its Audience — Grapple With Asian Identity, Through K-Pop

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 9:29 pm

It's my first interactive theater experience. I'm standing in a dark, large room with a stage in the middle. Other audience members are huddled around. We're not really sure what we've gotten ourselves into.

Here's the premise: We've been asked to be part of a focus group run by a K-pop label. Its leaders have invited us to tour a Korean pop "factory," where the stars hone their dancing and singing in Korean and English. We, the audience, are supposed to help figure out just why Korean megastars haven't been able to break into the American market.

It's a real question, and it's the driving force of KPOP, a new, interactive musical in New York City with a nearly all-Asian cast.

"These are questions that I've been wrestling with my whole life," says 32-year-old Jason Kim, KPOP's writer who also worked for HBO's Girls.

In 2014, while Kim was finishing up his MFA in playwriting at the New School For Drama, he partnered up with director Teddy Bergman and came up with the idea for KPOP. Working with theater groups including the Woodshed Collective, Ars Nova and Ma-Yi Theater Company, Kim set off to use K-pop to tell a story about the delicate, dotted lines between being Asian, American and Asian-American.

And in the process of bringing the show to life, Kim took on another complicated question: Why haven't there been more Asian-centered major theatrical productions?

I got a chance to see the show and talk with Kim about it. Here's a condensed version of our conversation:

So, why K-pop?

I grew up in Seoul and I grew up listening to very early incarnations of K-pop. And I think K-pop has exploded in the last 10 years like no other music genre that I've ever seen before. It's become so vibrant and avant-garde and subversive and quirky and ironic and earnest at the same time. And so I really wanted to use what K-pop meant to me as a way to talk about what I was feeling about myself and about the culture at large. About identity issues, about race politics, about everything that I was seeing as a person. It seemed like a perfect way to talk about these things as a metaphor.

What K-pop artists were you listening to?

I became super obsessed with Girls' Generation when they started getting popular. And lately I've been super, super obsessed with BTS and also sort of the older artists who are still around who try to break into the industry who didn't quite make it for various reasons, like Rain. And I've always sort of wondered why they haven't had this huge break that I think they deserve.

Why do you think they never got that break?

You know this is a question that we raise in the show. And one of the questions that Jerry — the character [played by actor James Seol] who puts together this whole evening — asks the audience directly: "Why has an Asian-American star never broken through in the U.S.?"...

Some audience members are saying out loud everything ranging from "because you guys are weird" or "because you guys are too 'stylized,' " whatever that means, to "because of systemic racism."

How does Jerry, as played by James Seol — react to that?

He is such a wonderful actor in that he knows the beats that he has to hit in the script and, when needed, he can improv his way into those beats. And I think what to me has been such a wonderful learning experience as a viewer is that his reactions are real.

So when people say, "You guys are too stylized," he — I think for the right reasons — scratches his head for a second and thinks, "What does that mean? What do you mean by too stylized? ... If you're Asian — does that mean you're too cute? Does that mean you're too sexy? Does it mean you don't sound like us?" ... And so I think he's been having honest reactions to these answers.

Why was it so important for you to have a show about identity?

I was born and raised in Seoul. I moved to the Midwest when I was 10 years old. And then I moved to New York where I've been for the last 10, 15 years. Throughout that time, I thought of myself as a Korean person, as a Korean-American person, as an American person. As a person who wants to be white, as a person who doesn't want to be white. As a person who wants to be the minority, as a person who doesn't want to be the minority.

The narrative of the show feels to me like a narrative that many people experience when they start to think about identity. And for me that narrative has been, "Oh, there's something different about me. What can I do to investigate that? And how do I 'fix' that to become something different, something — someone — else?" And ultimately come to the realization that actually, this is not going anywhere. And I got to accept it for what it is.

And that is really the narrative that I think the piece is trying to convey.

Can you talk about the casting process?

I think the casting process of KPOP could be its own musical.

To be honest with you, we searched for a span of a year and a half almost two years. We have a phenomenal casting director, Henry Russell Bergstein who helped find, cultivate and really wrangle up 18 phenomenal performers. And to be honest we found everyone from a range of various backgrounds.

Ashley Park is a Broadway star and has been in several musicals all over the country and is about to be in Mean Girls on Broadway. And you have someone like Jason Tam who has been in musicals since he was probably a fetus, and you have someone like Jiho Kang who has never been in a musical before, who we found on YouTube.

You found him on YouTube?

He had competed in a reality television program in Seoul. We called him in for an audition, and he is an applied math major, graduated from Harvard and is the smartest person that you've ever met in your entire life. And he was working for the government in Washington, D.C., and we said, "Can you please hop on a train and come audition for us?" And he came in and he sang and acted and dance and blew us away. We said, "Will you please pack up your entire life and move to New York and do this production?"

This was not, by the way, a unique case if you look at the story of our cast. Every single person has a story like this. ...

It has been such a joy to be able to find too much talent.

I hear all the time people saying there's not enough Asian-American talent, there's not enough people of color who could play this role who or who could be stars. But that's not true.

What was your biggest fear in this entire process? Not necessarily with the creative team. But overall, what kept you up at night?

I think that because the show both indirectly and directly deals with themes of identity and acceptance and race and and immigration, a lot of these scenes and songs and staging really hit very close to home.

And I was always up at night thinking about the performers and knowing that we were asking them to not only be pop stars but think about these very big, deeply rooted issues and ask them to perform night after night and really engage with a part of themselves that feels dangerous and scary and vulnerable.

What did you learn about your own identity throughout this process?

One thing that I learned is that I might never understand it in a neat way. I think I did learn that I can excavate feelings and memories and thoughts, and academic papers and think pieces and other stories — whatever is available in the world about identity — and I could write about it for as long as I live. But I may maybe never understand it. And I think that's OK. And I think that's actually a really great thing that I have something that I can wrestle with for so long.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Now we're going inside a new interactive musical production based on Korean pop music. The premise is that leaders of a Korean music label have asked the audience to be part of a focus group. You take a tour of a K-pop factory where the stars train. You listen to them sing. You watch them practice their dance moves, and you witness heated debates over things like whether it's better to sing in Korean or English. You're supposed to help the music label understand how to make K-pop big in the U.S. and why that hasn't happened already. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team reports from New York.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: This "KPOP" show - it's my first interactive theater experience. I'm standing in a dark, large room with a stage in the middle. Other audience members are huddled around. We're not really sure what we've gotten ourselves into.


JAMES SEOL: (As Jerry) Thank you all so much for agreeing to be a part of our little experiment.

CHOW: This is a guy named Jerry. He's the music label's marketing agent. He's played by the actor James Seol. He divides the audience - or, as he calls us, focus group - into smaller groups based on the color of our wristbands.


SEOL: (As Jerry) Orange wristbands, orange wristbands, raise your hands high.

CHOW: Different doors lead us to different rooms and different K-pop stars. And our first stop is the girl group Special K. We stand around them in a small room as their choreographer leads them through a tough dance routine in front of mirrors.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

CHOW: They're good. It's easy to forget that this is theater and that they're not real K-pop stars. A little later, Jerry pops back into the room and turns to us, the focus group.


SEOL: (As Jerry) Why do you think that Asian pop stars have had such a difficult time really breaking through and finding major, long-term success here in the States?

CHOW: For the most part, there is silence. People look around a little awkwardly. Then someone answers really softly, prejudice. Some people laugh a little. This type of audience reflection and interaction is exactly what the show "KPOP" is striving for.

JASON KIM: Audience members are saying out loud everything ranging from because you guys are weird or because you guys are "too stylized," quote, unquote - whatever that means.

CHOW: That's Jason Kim, a playwright who used to write for the TV show "Girls." He's also one of the creators of "KPOP." He was born in Korea and grew up in St. Louis where there weren't many other Asian-Americans.

KIM: Throughout that time, I thought of myself as a Korean person, as a Korean-American person, as a person who wants to be white, as a person who doesn't want to be white.

CHOW: It wasn't until Kim moved to New York when he started really grappling with his identity. And as he was finishing his MFA program in playwriting, he discovered he really, really loves K-pop, the genre. He loves its beats, how quirky and varied it is. So a few years ago, he set off to make a production that uses K-pop to ask questions about Asian and Asian-American identity.

In one scene, the focus group is brought into a surgeon's office, a nod to how big plastic surgery is in Korea. The doctor is consulting with a singer from the girl group. She's half Korean and half white. And she tells the surgeon she doesn't look Korean or, quote, unquote, "American."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm wondering if you can make me look more like 70-30 or even 90-10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) In which direction?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) That's a good question.

CHOW: But at the heart of the show is the music. At the end of the night, all the focus groups convene in that same big room where we started. The stars burst onto the stage. People in the crowd cheer. Some begin dancing along. It's like we're at an actual concert. And in this moment, at a theater in New York City, K-pop has made it. Kat Chow, NPR News, New York.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I'm finally free. And I have to run so hard 'cause I'm feeling... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.