Families come in all shapes and sizes, and this month, ACT Theatre explores the challenges and barriers faced by individuals seeking to create their own sense of belonging. Wolf Play by Hansol Jung focuses on a Korean boy whose first adoption goes awry and who is shunted from house to house, which pushes him to develop a sense of himself as a lone wolf seeking his own pack.
Like Jung’s other plays, including Cardboard Piano, Among the Dead, and No More Sad Things, this production includes troubled characters who are lost and traumatized, and who pursue their journeys throughout each respective play seeking a path forward to a future of their own choosing.
Jung herself lived the experience of being uprooted, after being born in Jeonju, South Korea, and then moving at age six to South Africa so that her father could attend university. While living under apartheid in South Africa, her family was considered “honorary white,” but their tenure there lasted only seven years, before they relocated back to South Korea. This left Jung with an accent, which morphed again ten years later, when she immigrated to the United States.
Although Jung’s home is still in the U.S., she has worked as a theatre director and lyricist in South Korea, and has translated over thirty English-language musicals into Korean. This work has led her to become an expert code switcher, and yet, she is shy of giving interviews and has reported that she often feels like a perpetual foreigner regardless of her location.
Wolf Play, Jung’s most recent play, premiered in March, 2019, at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon, and is now being directed by long-time Shakespearean director Rosa Joshi. “I learned about Wolf Play when John Langs, Artistic Director of ACT Theatre, approached me with the play,” Joshi recounted. “I fell in love with it right away.”
Joshi found the script to be both moving and very funny. “The story of the play is steeped in a traumatic event for a young child, but Hansol Jung handles the subject with such care and also a lightness that is almost magical,” Joshi described. “The play for me is about family and belonging and as someone who’s grown up straddling two cultures, it’s a notion that I can really relate to.”
Jung’s play approaches the audience with a contract with the audience to suspend their disbelief and engage in make-believe. “I love plays that invite us to engage our imaginations to tell a story,” Joshi said. “I think that, actually, I always use that approach as an entry point, whenever I direct a play.”
Experience with Shakespeare has provided Joshi with a good foundation for approaching this contemporary work. “I always start with the text,” she said. “The language in Wolf Play is contemporary but it is also heightened, poetic and brilliantly crafted. You have to pay attention to rhythm and imagery in much the same way as you do when you work on Shakespeare.”
Form is just as important as dialogue. “The play is also very episodic in structure and cinematic in style, much like a Shakespeare play,” Joshi observed. “Having worked on the epic scale of a Shakespeare play helps me navigate a script like Wolf Play.”
Joshi’s experience with Shakespeare goes back decades, and in 2006, she co-founded upstart crow collective to produce “classical plays with racially diverse casts of women and non-binary people, re-imagining these works for a contemporary audience,” with the collective continuing to create work. “upstart crow has had a profound effect on the work I make, how I make it, and who I make it for,” Joshi relayed. “It transformed my process and redirected my focus as a director-producer.”
Upstart’s next project, Coriolanus, with a modern translation by Sean San José adapted for a cast of seven, is the kind of project for which Joshi originally started the collective. “It gave me a new approach to classical work, made me rethinking my relationship with it, and helped me realize my own agency as a director and producer as someone who could make space for those who have felt marginalized or disenfranchised from classical work,” she elaborated. “One thing I’m really interested in exploring is how a real grievance of the people is coopted and manipulated by cynical, power-hungry politicians.”
Now that Joshi has retired after teaching for 22 years at Seattle University, she is reshaping her career as a freelance director. “After grad school, I quickly fell into academia and then I was raising a family and didn’t have the space in my life to aggressively pursue a professional directing career,” she remembered. “My kids are grown now, and I wanted a new adventure.”
She has found this new path liberating. “I know that it may seem a little reckless to give up the kind of stability that a tenured position at a university provides at this stage in my life!” she admitted. “But oddly, I had that same feeling I did when I was 20 years old and decided to take a chance and pursue theatre, the strong compulsion that if I didn’t take the risk now, I would always wonder, what if?”
Having more latitude in her schedule now allows Joshi to serve as guest faculty at The Old Globe University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program. “I love teaching and working with students and being part of the faculty at USD has been very meaningful to me,” she said. “I think the vision that Jesse Perez, the director of USD’s program, has to train a new generation of diverse actors in classical work is a significant contribution to the field.”
Joshi’s new direction isn’t without its challenges. “Financially, yes, it’s scary, but it has allowed me to focus on upstart crow and propel the work forward into collaborations such as the one we have with Portland Center Stage,” she shared. “What I see happening is that my community is actually expanding across the nation.”
As a director, Joshi also values when a playwright, such as Jung, blends the universal and the particular. “What excites me about new and contemporary work now is that we’re expanding what the specific experience on stage looks like,” she said. “It makes me so happy that a universal story about family and belonging can come from the specific story of a BIPOC queer couple adopting a BIPOC child of a different ethnicity.”
ACT Theatre is producing Wolf Play largely independently of the playwright, while fulfilling her vision of young Wolf being portrayed by a puppet onstage. “My Assistant Director, Dylan Tomas Nieves, and I have been researching the issues in the play,” Joshi said, “everything from adoption, boxing, and the life and habits of wolves, to key plot shifts in the Power Rangers saga.”
The production team also includes boxing coach Laura Wright, fight director Helen Roundshill, and a puppet coach, Annette Mateo. “It takes a village to raise a child and also to tell this story!” Joshi said. “It’s amazing watching these experts work together do fluidly to make the puppet come to life.”
Wolf Play runs May 5 to 21 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, Seattle.