A Korean-American Girl’s Tale

Soomi Kim performs at Dixon Place November 3-18. | PETER YESLEY

Korean-born Soomi Kim is a firmly established actor and movement artist, whose past performance pieces have tackled some big subjects. “Dictee” was an adaptation of the seminal 1982 book about women throughout history struggling, at great personal cost, against long odds in their societies, written by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who herself was raped and strangled to death in New York around the time of its publication. “Chang(e)” dealt with Kathy Change, activist wife of playwright Frank Chin, who immolated herself in front of a peace sign sculpture on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. Kim also played Bruce Lee in “Lee/gendary,” written by Derek Nguyen.

Kim’s latest piece, “MLCG (My Little China Girl),” is autobiographical.

Over lunch at the Empire Diner, she explained, “I came to the realization that these were all Asian-American visionaries who died young. Maybe subliminally what I do comes from my mother, who died when I was young. I was 12 at the time. It was a car crash involving her and a group of Korean ladies she was lunching with, which devastated the entire small Korean-American community in Lebanon, Oregon. So this piece deals with her death and me being in an all-white environment.

Soomi Kim tells her coming of age story, with some inspiration from David Bowie

“When I was 14, we moved to a suburb of Portland, Beaverton, and it’s about that move, filled with identity issues, my relationship with my father, who remarried twice, and memories of my brothers and my mother. My younger brother was eight at the time, so recollections are very different. You’re 14 and also going through all these hormonal changes. I had a really hard time, being the new girl with a new mom, new half brother, new home. And no place to belong because everybody in school was really social and in cliques.

“So this is kind of like a Korean-American story. It was kind of triggered for me when David Bowie died, and I remember that song and video ‘My Little China Girl.’ I went back to my diaries when MTV was a big part of my life. I was really obsessed with that video and wrote about it, a time capsule of when I was grappling to become a woman, given my loss.

“After my mom passed away, my dad didn’t know what to do with himself so he got married by arrangement. So much drama, so Korean. I think my dad’s cousin was friends with this woman. There were some other women around — it was like the Mama Auditions. All of these things happened very quickly, and it was the worst period of my life, with everything suddenly being replaced. I’m a million times happier now.”

Kim disdains the usual, often starkly foreboding concept of the one-person show, where the subject is center stage, often narcissistically nattering, arrogantly confident of the audience's total fascination with what they choose to spout.

“I use movement and video as entry points to what’s happening on stage, where I start with spoken word,” Kim said. “I’m still exploring my process so this is a way of furthering that.

“When I made ‘Chang(e),’ that opened me up to performance and politics, community activism. The actors’ world is very small — all me me me, my headshots! — as you try to climb the ladder. But that show opened me up to a wider picture: how can you create something that will provoke change? It was transformational.”

I know from traditional Korean families, and trying to be an artist (rather than a doctor) can be a hard nut to crack for them, so I asked Kim about this.

“They’re past that point and are now, ‘Okay, as long as you’re happy,’” she said. “I’ve been doing it so long and living in New York, most of them are on the West Coast. I have a long-term partner [noted jazz guitarist Adam Rogers], who lives across the hall from me in the East Village, two separate studio apartments. We’re not married, but it’s a stable relationship, so I think from my family there’s a sort of acceptance, even admiration that I’ve pursued what I wanted to do. My dad was remarried twice, and I have two biological brothers, one half brother, and one step brother. And I am the only girl, so nobody is in a position to judge what I do.”

Kim also went through a different kind of scarring experience many readers might be familiar with: getting dressed for school in the 1980s.

“It was such an event, so stressful in that time of Flock of Seagulls and Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Bowie, Michael Jackson! So stressful. What am I going to wear? You needed all kinds of product because the bangs were teased, with the bad perm and the big earings. Then you needed your socks to match the belt which matched the earrings. I look around today, and kids have it so much easier. They dress however they want. Ohmigod, I remember so many bad hairdos!”

MLCG (MY LITTLE CHINA GIRL) | Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts. | Nov. 3-4, 10-11 & 17-18 at 7:30 p.m. | $21, $18 for students & seniors at dixonplace.org; $24 at the door