The intriguing tale of a woman’s search for her Korean birth family

The intriguing tale of a woman’s search for her Korean birth family


In one scene in Sun Mee Chomet’s autobiographical one-woman play “How to Be a Korean Woman,” the actress, playing herself, is hauled to a jingjabang, or a bath house, in South Korea. As she watches her aunts begin their bathing rituals, she marvels at the layers of dead skin being sloughed off. “This is Korea: the home of exfoliating! Where the lifelong quest for smooth and flawless skin is more important than breathing,” she quips. A different kind of exfoliation — one less invested in vanity, more in verity — propels Chomet’s multilayered play, which recounts her journey to find her birth family, who gave her up for adoption when she was 6 months old.

End of carousel

At various points in her life, Sun Mee — who was raised in Detroit by a Jewish father and Protestant mother — has gone by different names. There’s her American name (Rachel Sun Mee Chomet), her Korean name (Ahn Sun Mee) and the name that appears on our programs (Sun Mee Chomet). The play’s own cheeky, self-help shingle of a name doesn’t really get at the gestalt of the show, which concludes a triptych of plays in Theater J’s “Here I Am” series. “How to Triangulate Your Identity as a Korean American Adoptee” is more accurate, if less aerodynamic.

Yet Sun Mee, who staged an earlier version of the play over a decade ago in Minneapolis, is not really interested in offering advice; the only “how tos” come halfway into the 80-minute play from her well-meaning, shopaholic imos, or aunts, both of whom she hilariously embodies. (Among the tidy, don’t-touch-the-hair tips: “You must dress well; you must wear scarves when it is 80 degrees; you must wear fashionable shoes, even if they hurt a lot.”)

Instead, Sun Mee mostly dishes out — and hares after — facts. The play begins on a womb-dark set. Photos of Sun Mee as a hubcap-eyed baby are projected against a backstage wall and we learn, via voice-over, that she was found in the city of Anyang, placed for adoption through Holt International Children’s Services, and now works as an actress in Minnesota. And later: that she was placed with a foster mother in Seoul before being sent to the United States and grew up with two stepbrothers.

There’s arguably too much front-loading of background information in this otherwise warm and wistful play. The early scenes, with their neatly jigsawed bio pieces, often make the show seem like a lollingly plangent “This American Life” episode. (Nephelie Andonyadis’s spartan subcellar of a set even looks a bit like a recording studio.)

Bits of biographical information get recycled in a later scene and to greater effect when our star appears before us in a pink, flowery dress and matching lipstick. She’s nervously perched on a stool for her appearance on the Korean reality TV show “I Miss That Person!” — a populist confection “about Koreans searching for lost relatives.” When she repeats her opening lines, the context makes clear that they’re a Hail Mary plea to her biological mother, whom she hopes will see her on the show.

Chomet, an impressively protean actor, has fun serving up a Whitman’s sampler of characters, including a just-this-side-of-treacly TV show translator, an overly earnest social worker and Chomet’s frail but fiery grandmother. That is, her Korean grandmother, or halmoni. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that, after a positive match on a DNA test and some snipping of red tape, Sun Mee is additionally reunited with her birth mother and aunts.

The joyousness of the occasion, however, is tempered by a number of surprises. For one, her mother reveals that she is now married to an archconservative, “very mean” man who knows nothing about Sun Mee’s existence; mother and daughter must conduct their meetings in private, and director Zaraawar Mistry choreographs their conversation (that is, Sun Mee’s conversation with herself) beautifully.

There’s also a complication to Sun Mee’s Korean name that I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say that of all her names, her Korean one is the third and shortest leg of a stool that keeps the play winningly off-balance.

How to Be a Korean Woman, by Sun Mee Chomet. Directed by Zaraawar Mistry. Set, Nephelie Andonyadis; lighting, Jesse W. Belsky; About 80 minutes. Through Sunday at Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.


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