Hiding behind a park playground filled with children is a small theatre that could easily be overlooked as a shed. But with closer inspection, one will find that the GTC Burbank Theatre, located in the George Izay Park, is home to ten years of Asian American theater. Inside the intimate, unassuming space, you'll most likely sit elbow to elbow with fellow audience members, a UC grad on one side and a couple on their first date on the other.
It's a Sunday afternoon during “tech week,” which Lodestone co-founder Phillip Chung explains is when the cast moves from the rehearsal space (in this case, director Jeff Liu's garage where they've been for the last five weeks) into the GTC, where they will stage the very last Lodestone production: Grace Kim & the Spiders From Mars.
I'm scooted into a haphazard space, filled with blocks and furniture. An hour later, the set is flawlessly transformed into a living room that could easily be found in any cozy home in the middle of December. Two hours later, I am comfortably wedged into a seat, watching the first rehearsal of Lodestone's final production. My original intention was to stay for only half of rehearsal, but five minutes into the play, I knew I would be staying much longer.
References to artists from Outkast to Janis Joplin (and let's not forget David Bowie). A sexually frustrated best friend who squeezes the lead actress's love interest's butt at every opportunity. A clan of women screaming, “just tell him you have cancer you dumb bitch” at a Korean drama while wringing their noses. A game of scramble concluding with an older brother on his knees yelling, "It's a picture of the earth doing lines of coke!" (The correct answer to the Scramble drawing: "global warming.") For full disclosure, this is my first Lodestone production, so I didn't know what to expect. But what Lodestone insists is true: this certainly isn't your grandfather's show.
The play was specifically written to be the very last show of the Lodestone theatre ensemble as it wraps up its tenth and final season. If East West Players is the pioneer in Asian American theatre, Lodestone is the UC alumnus who secretly desires to chuck their law degree and either go into guerilla filmmaking or break into the food truck industry.
Set in the suburbs of Newark during Christmas, Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars follows the Kim family, which include a set of siblings with an endearing set of idiosyncrasies. Grace Kim, the med-school drop out and current employee at the local record store, lives in the shadow of her younger sister who brings home her new fiancé Wayne, an M.D. with a successful practice in Beverly Hills. Her family worries that Grace's eccentric behavior (which includes buying a replica of Jimi Hendrix's penis) might scare away her sister's new beau. Not too far into the play, we realize the two not getting along is the least of their worries. Grace and Wayne get along –- too well -- and are even caught dancing to ABBA alone during the middle of the night while everyone else is sound asleep, except for well, the poor sister/fiance who discovers them. Can anyone say drama?
Elizabeth Ho's dry tone and quick wit is perfect for Grace, who struggles with being treated as the family outcast. Although her father urges her to return to med school after a 10 year hiatus, Grace contemplates moving to Seattle to teach music to autistic children. Ho's performance seemed to resonate with many of the Asian American members of the audience attending opening night. Prone to child-like moments, such as calling her sister a “rotten piece of kimchee chige” in a daydream, Grace is authentically depicted as an adult who is still mourning her mother after all these years.
As comic relief, Feodor Chin and Jully Lee are both extremely fun to watch, as Grace's brother and best friend, respectively. The rest of the cast -- including Elaine Kao, Rachel Morihiro, Hanson Tse and Kelvin Han Yee -- all come together to create a realistic, dysfunctional family.
Chung's writing is fresh and witty. Not surprisingly, he explains that the play is loosely based on the 1938 film Holiday, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Chung explains his fondness for the screwball comedy, ever since his days as a high school student. Chung says, “The family in Holiday feels very Asian American, and I wanted to try something with that genre with Asian Americans.” Indeed, Grace Kim includes slapstick, romance, and quick, witty verbal fencing between characters that is reminiscent of films of the genre, such as His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night.
Although it took only a few months to write the play, Chung has been building the characters in his mind over the years –- and it shows. Grace Kim's jokes about emotional repression in Korean American culture succeed at keeping the audience laughing. Between laughs, many of the issues Asian Americans experience rise to the surface -- the notorious emphasis on status, education and profession projected upon children by parents along with the very real consequences of loyalty, straying from the norm, and the death of a parent.
Many of Lodestone's founding members met through a Korean American theatre troupe, the Society of Heritage Performers, created by Soon-Tek Oh in the early 90s. Eventually, SHP evolved into Lodestone, in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience and to tackle issues other than Japanese internment and immigration (main themes often explored in the major Asian American theater productions at the time, such as East West Players). Communities change with each generation, and Lodestone wanted to reflect that. Through productions such as Laughter, Joy & Loneliness & Sex & Sex & Sex & Sex and the controversial Terminus Americana (which explored America and violence and ran right after 9/11), the theatre group has pushed boundaries and expanded what many people thought could be done in Asian American theatre.
“Every theatre group has a reason to be together. Here we share being apart of a minority group,” Liu says. Chung adds that “every artist wants to find a community [because] it's one less barrier.” Indeed, Lodestone grew out of a need for that same type of community, a then unoccupied space for emerging Asian American voices that were “younger” and “edgier” than the voices of the pioneers.
Chung explains that choosing a name for their theater group that didn't have a direct reference to anything Asian or Asian American was intentional. “We wanted a name that would reflect our identity," he explains, "that we are Asian and we can do whatever we want.”
The word "lodestone" has several different meanings in different cultures. As referenced in Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars, the lodestone is a “magnetic rock that helps you find your way when you feel lost.” Lodestone, the theater company, has been a touchstone for many artists and audience members who might have felt lost at any point in their lives. The name reminds us that no matter what path we are on, we are not alone.
Members of Lodestone seem to share bittersweet but positive feelings about the end of their ten-year run. Chung says that the play appropriately explores beginnings, endings, and taking chances –- something Lodestone has been doing for the last decade: “I thought it would be appropriate for our last play, to say goodbye.”
My only regret is that my first Lodestone production was their last.
Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars runs through December 20th. To get more information, go to Lodestone's official website here.