Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory

Beautiful acting, brilliant direction, and an extraordinary, stirring script by Charlie Oh makes this debut full production a can't-miss

By: May. 10, 2023
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Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Jully Lee, Tess Lina, Ryun Yu, Jessica Ko, and Paul Juhn.
Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

About a third of the way into the World Premiere production of playwright Charlie Oh's stirring, extremely moving family drama COLEMAN '72---now on stage at OC's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through May 14 as part of their annual Pacific Playwrights Festival---the play takes a bit of an unexpected pivot from its initially lighthearted, seemingly normal portrait of a vacationing Korean-American family going on a cross-country road trip. Suddenly, it is something much darker and soul-shaking.

It is at this moment when we witness the strict father of this clan---upon learning of a hidden secret---launching into an angry, visceral screaming shout-down directed towards his understandably shaken teenage daughter.

The words he spouts come loudly and viciously and feels like a metaphorical dagger to the heart with each punctuated admonishment.

It's a scene that hit me like a 100-ton wallop, because, like many of us who are children of immigrants, we know, we remember, and we deeply understand such context-loaded dressing downs bellowing from an Asian parent towards their expectation-filled child that, sure, lack the visible bruises of a violent attack, but still, quite profoundly, hurt just as deeply if not more.

These are the demeaning lectures handed down with demands that are laced with generational and racial guilt. And, perhaps more specifically with Asian families, there's an inescapable expectation of always trying to strive to live life as a "model" citizen---which may involve outwardly demonstrating intelligence and hard work, visibly contributing to society in a very meaningful way, to "act" acceptable and unthreatening to Caucasians, and to eventually work towards a brighter future that almost always involve making a better-than-decent salary in order to improve on the wealth earned and sweated over by the generation that came before.

It's a lot of pressure to live up to, especially for a young kid who, more than anything, just wants to stay a kid for as long as his or her numerical age will allow. And not only is there a generational gap, there's also a gap created by a wide trench separating old world values and traditions from the new-fangled promise of a life steeped in American culture.

Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Tess Lina and Paul Juhn. Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

It was then that I began crying---not just tearing up, but actually bawling---and I pretty much couldn't stop my tears from cascading down for the remainder of the play, wiping them away during welcome moments of calm and humor, but then, surprisingly, the tears just kept coming as things continued to progress (I couldn't even stop welling up during the initial moments of the actor talk-back that followed after the performance I saw).

But in between wiping my eyes, what I witnessed was, by far, one of the most emotionally-impactful dramas I have seen in live theater this year, one that is chock-full with heart-wrenching scenes, nuanced acting choices, and plenty of funny, incredibly relatable moments that pierced through the tension. All at once, the play presents a very uniquely specific yet somehow universally familiar immigrant story that will stay with you long after you've walked out of the theater.

The power of 28-year-old wünderkind Charlie Oh's extraordinary, stirring script, combined with brilliant direction from Chay Yew, and beautiful, superb performances from its talented, acting-their-asses-off ensemble cast make COLEMAN '72 one of the most impressive debut plays this season.

What first feels like a comedy, COLEMAN '72 is, in actuality, a very searing melodrama of heightened emotions that zips back and forth instantaneously from the past to the present. As the audience dives deeper, the play lays out a stirring essay on how our past memories can sometimes betray us, but at the same time, the play also emphasizes the powerful hold that imbedded memories from our youth have on us---especially traumatic ones---that can shape the kind of adults we become later in life. But sometimes, with the passage of time and our mind's own defense mechanisms, our memories can be somewhat unreliable, too.

In the present day, we meet three grown, Korean-American adult siblings, Jenn (Tess Lina), Michelle (Jessica Ko), and Joey (Ryun Yu), all of whom were born and raised in America by two immigrant parents who left (well, fled) a then unstable Korea.

They have reunited and are reminiscing about the momentous, spur-of-the-moment cross-country road trip their family embarked on during their childhood. Humor is mined from the conflicting details each of them remembers differently about the events that happened that summer---a fateful summer where both laughs and tears were shared and one that will forever alter each of their lives.

Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Jully Lee and Paul Juhn. Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

It is the summer of 1972, and their father James (Paul Juhn), a genial yet at times curt man, suddenly announces that the family will be trekking from their home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin all the way down to Los Angeles for a "university-funded research trip." His mostly agreeable wife Annie (Jully Lee)---a bit taken aback at first by the spontaneity of the "vacation"---rallies the kids to pack up and hop into their Buick that now has a rickety rented Coleman camper attached to its rear, an accessory their father picked up to save on hotel stays.

Joey, the youngest, is, of course, the most excited. Middle child Michelle has her wishlist of must-see stops but is just happy to be there. Jenn, though, looks like she has the weight of the world on her fragile shoulders. A teen on the cusp of graduating high school, Jenn would rather spend her summer at cheer camp, but instead must go on this impromptu road trip and perhaps spend some of that time prepping for a pre-Med program her dad worked so hard to pull some strings to get her in.

With plenty of kimchee, kimbap, and lemon drops on hand, the family sets off on their "all-American" adventure, with everyone still a little unsure as to the true nature of James' purpose for the trip.

Of course, like most family road trips---and this applies to any family regardless of their ethnicity---unplanned occurrences tend to come up and threaten everyone's good time. In between stops at a drive-in, swims in a lake, and backseat squabbles, revelations are discovered and deep resentments and repressed feelings bubble to the surface. Some of the specific details are fuzzy---some out of sheer time and distance, others, out of a need to purposely forget bad feelings from returning---but, overall, they can agree that trip changed their lives forever.

Which revives a question that has long been stuck in my head that this play triggered back to the forefront: as adults of strict Asian parents, is their stern, unrelenting demands and authoritarian parenting style during their younger years ultimately beneficial or do they do nothing but ravage us with deep, traumatizing scars that will forever haunt our memories?

Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Jessica Ko, Jully Lee, and Ryun Yu. Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

First developed and workshopped at South Coast Repertory during their 2021 Pacific Playwright's Festival, this full-on world premiere production of Oh's brilliant play is an absolute stunner, filled with complex emotional stakes and relatable family dynamics, with moments of blissfully nostalgic humor. It truly deserves an extended run that's much longer than its current limited time engagement.

I was really intrigued by Daniel Ostling's minimalist scenic design, paired with Stephen Mazurek's projection designs that kept surroundings abstract---perhaps a not-so-subtle direct reflection of the fuzzy, obscured memories these traumatized adults are trying really hard to remember correctly. Pablo Santiago's lighting design help with the time jumps

And thanks mostly to Yew's precise direction and this superb, incredible cast (their skills allow us, the audience, to easily differentiate between their current and past selves and to truly empathize with these characters' lives), the debut of COLEMAN '72 is a can't miss.

As conflicted dad James, Paul Juhn turns in quite a powerful performance, running the gamut from fierce rage to calm and reflective. Juhn is a commanding presence that's both intimidating and lovable, as we recognize a man who has known suffering and pain and sacrifice. His undeniable rapport with Jully Lee's Annie, the mom/wife trying her best to bridge some understanding between her old-school husband and their American-born children. The portrait is both touching and endearing. Many times during the play, I found myself looking at her as she reacts to the conversations happening between other characters.

The trio who play the siblings in the play are all excellent in their own individual ways. Ryun Yu is remarkably skillful in channeling a 10-year-old, right down to his scowl and mannerisms, but his adult, grown-up Joey is also bathed in pain. We truly feel young Joey's fear and trepidation during a very rough game of catch with his dad. As a typical middle-child/teen Michelle, Ko gives her character plenty of palpable pathos disguised by an outward shield of protective joy.

Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Paul Juhn and Tess Lina. Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

But, for me, it is Tess Lina's moving performance as the eldest daughter Jenn that truly stirs. Even without uttering a word, Lina's face is replete with the heavy emotional baggage of a woman whose childhood was marked by obligation and family duty and unrewarded sacrifice. Her scenes with Juhn's James are stunning and bathed in gut-wrenching emotion that they instantly got me teary-eyed.

When I finally got back in my car after sitting through a much more jovial talkback with some of the COLEMAN '72 cast members after the show, part of me realized why I was so affected and tearful throughout the play.

Though the specific story (or, perhaps, stories) told in the play are not directly similar to my own lived experiences (I am Filipino while the characters in the play are Korean), they did manage to trigger similar memories of situations from having Asian parents who came to America as immigrants, searching for a way to provide better lives for their children. I myself was not born in the U.S., but immigrated with my parents as a very young boy, about Joey's age.

Now an adult, watching the play and absorbing its emotionally stirring narrative allowed me to see the immigrant experience from both sides at the same time, sharing the same space, and both demanding to be heard. I very much felt the trauma of trying to satisfy your parents' strict wants and demands, but I also saw, quite vividly in direct juxtaposition, the understandable motivations of immigrant parents to have such demands of their children, and why they were so important---harsh yelling be damned. The end goal---happiness and stability---is always top-of-mind.

Review: Emotionally Impactful World Premiere Play COLEMAN '72 Debuts at South Coast Repertory
Jessica Ko, Tess Lina, and Ryun Yu. Photo by Jenny Graham/SCR.

When you wake up day after day realizing you'll always be an "other" everywhere you go, it is challenging to escape such stories when they are presented to you in living, breathing fashion. COLEMAN '72 is a stunning, realistic, representative portrait of a relatable (maybe too relatable immigrant story) and made catharsis both moving and memorable.

DO NOT MISS THIS PLAY.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Jenny Graham for South Coast Repertory.

Performances of Charlie Oh's COLEMAN '72 directed by Chay Yew continue at South Coast Repertory through May 14, 2023. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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