PRIVATE JOKES, PUBLIC PLACES by Oren Safdie, directed by Alisa Palmer, with Victor Ertmanis, David Jansen, M. J. Kang and Dan Lett, at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews from Tuesday (September 14), opens September 21 and runs to October 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm (except September 18). $27-$33, stu/srs $18-$27 (except Saturday night), previews $15-$17, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Is yellow the new black? From Jet Li's heroic exploits at the box office and Margaret Cho's domination of the stand-up comedy circuit to that bizarre cultural phenomenon known as William Hung, it's suddenly hipper than a kanji tattoo to be an Asian artist.
Even in the hardly mainstream world of local theatre, it's noticeable. Can you remember the last time that within 12 months there were three major plays - China Doll and the upcoming Banana Boys and Little Dragon - by Asian playwrights?
"It's such a relief," states M. J. Kang, who for the longest time was one of the few Asian-Canadian playwrights being produced regularly here. Her plays in the last decade include Blessings, Noran Bang and Dreams Of Blonde And Blue. She's also acted in such notable shows as The Yoko Ono Project and The Malaysia Hotel.
"I felt this odd responsibility," she continues. "I never wanted to be the voice of any culture or race. I just wanted to write my plays. At some point, I felt obligated to write things, if only to employ Asian actors. Maybe one day we can write about whatever we want. We're Asian, but we're other things as well."
Kang returns to Toronto after several years, not for one of her own scripts but for the Canadian premiere of Private Jokes, Public Places, Oren Safdie's satiric look at architecture. She plays Margaret, a Korean-American architecture student who's presenting her thesis project to an all-male, all-white jury of distinguished architects who seem more excited about grandstanding and careerism than they are about creating livable buildings.
The production, the season opener at the Tarragon, is sure to set some tongues wagging, not just because the city's in the midst of an architectural boom.
Safdie's the son of renowned architect Moshe Safdie; the title is a nod to the elder Safdie's controversial 1981 tell-all article about the industry called Private Jokes In Public Places. He's also married to Kang, who's played Margaret in all three previous productions of the play, including a five-month run off-Broadway that finished last February.
The two met through local playwright David Rubinoff in the late 90s when Kang was interning at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre Company in Manhattan. It was Kang who suggested that the character of Margaret be Asian.
"I don't think Oren realized what it's like to live in a country where you're always perceived as different or other," says Kang, munching on a post-rehearsal snack. "When we went to a reading in Montreal, a woman very sweetly came up to me after and said, 'You have freckles! You can't be Asian!'"
While acclaimed in the role (a highlight came when Oscar-winner Holly Hunter traipsed backstage off-Broadway to compliment her), Kang says it still terrifies her. All four characters are onstage the entire time. Margaret begins as meek and clumsy, unable to articulate what she feels about her thesis project, a swimming pool. But over the course of the play she gains the strength to meet the famous architects head-on.
"There's no faking, no room to hide," says Kang. "And Margaret runs the whole gamut of emotions. I get so exhausted over what she goes through. I feel everything she feels, and some of it's really painful - what she hears, what happens to her project."
For Kang, the biggest bonus about the script is that she, like Margaret, has learned to stand up for her beliefs. To hell with stereotypes about passive Asian women.
"Now, I would definitely fight for my words," she says when I bring up Blessings, her play from a decade ago that got trashed at the Tarragon.
"I think it's important as a playwright to fight for your vision. You're the one who's lived with your play for years. Regardless of a director or the actors' best intentions, they don't get a complete sense of it."
Currently, Kang's working on a play about the L.A. riots from a Korean perspective, a commission from an L.A. theatre company. But don't expect her to act in her next play.
"It does the actors a disservice," she says. "It's important for me to be the playwright. For a new play it's so important for the writer to be available and active. But when you're in the play you can't give your fellow actors notes."
And though she and Safdie shuttle between Manhattan and L.A., Kang's not even sure she wants to pursue film and TV acting.
"It's all about how much you want it," she says matter-of-factly. "I have to consider how much I want it. Sandra Oh is amazing. She wants it so much and she deserves everything she gets. I don't think I have that kind of drive."