Theater artists find depth in search for families

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2012 - 4:14 PM

Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo, both adoptees, talk about their search for their relatives in Korea.

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Sun Mee Chomet, left, and Katie Hae Leo will perform one-woman shows at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul about their experiences as Korean adoptees.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Twin Cities actor Sun Mee Chomet was playing Lady Macduff in "Macbeth" at the Guthrie in 2010 when she got a call from Korea saying that her birth mother wanted to meet her. This fulfillment of her years-long process to know more about her biological family hit Chomet hard. She cried that day in her dressing room.

Not long before the phone call, Chomet, a Korean-American adoptee, had appeared via webcam on "I Miss That Person," a Korean reality TV show for adoptees. The show is a hit in a country from which an estimated 200,000 children were adopted by Western families over the past 50 years. Many are seeking to reconnect with their birth families, hoping to fill out everything from health histories to emotional voids.

"There are 10,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota alone," she said.

Chomet's reunion with her birth mother was a complicated dance of Western expectations and Korean tradition. Her mother is now married to a man who is not Chomet's father. The daughter will not be able to spend a night in her mother's home until after he dies. Still, Chomet learned many things about herself during her reunion with her mother in Korea. For one thing, her mother wanted to become an actor -- a dream cut short when she had Chomet.

The actor, writer and director said that she felt a familial ease being around her mother and aunts, and got a deep sense of belonging. (Her birth mother's husband was kept at bay during their meetings.)

"Going into the search, I envisioned, as many adoptees feel, that meeting my birth mother would make me feel more whole," she said. "If anything, I felt some deep emotions starting to surface that I wasn't aware were there, including shock."

Chomet grew up in Michigan and earned a master of fine arts degree at New York University. She has become an integral part of the theater scene since moving to the Twin Cities five years ago. She deals with her search in "How to Be a Korean Woman," a self-penned one-woman show that premieres Thursday at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. It shares a bill with Katie Hae Leo's related story, also a premiere.

Chomet has essayed some meaty characters onstage, including Antigone in "Burial at Thebes" at the Guthrie last year. The stage is not just where she works, she said. It is also a place where she hopes to explore publicly the deeply personal, heart-wrenching issues around her search for her mother.

"As an actor, I often use my own history to strengthen or inform my characters," she said. "Now, I'm doing this daunting thing of giving my whole life over. It's daunting but rewarding to be so bare."

Chomet insisted that her reunion has not been all heaviness and tears.

"There were moments that were filled with sorrow, when you see the distance between us," she said. "But some moments were beautiful and hilarious, too. My mother and aunts are like the Three Stooges sometimes. The whole experience has been filled with all different kinds of light."

A search unfulfilled

Writer and performer Leo, 40, was not as successful as Chomet in her search for her Korean birth parents.

Leo, who grew up in Indianapolis in a white family with three other adopted children, made two attempts, one hopeful, the other halfhearted. In 1998, Leo visited Bucheon, the former agricultural village where she was born and where, the story goes, she was left on the doorstep of a police station. She placed ads and searched records. She got no results. She returned to Korea in 2007 as part of a large gathering of international adoptees, again unable to find her biological mom.

"The search is fraught with a lot of emotional baggage," she said. "I feel self-conscious about not speaking the language, although I look like I should. I'm fearful about how I would be received. It's all so daunting and a little scary."

All she has is stories, some of which she has made up.

"The story that I was told when I was growing up was that my mother was a teenage prostitute," Leo said. "To me, that sounded Dickensian. She did the best she could for me by giving me up."

In her 20s, Leo wanted to find out more about her ancestry for identity reasons.

"Now," she said, "I need that genetic knowledge for my health. I have a neurological disorder that the doctors say is genetic. I need to know more about it."

Onstage, she conducts her search in essays, in speculative pieces that "nod toward the fact that because there is so much information missing. I have to guess at certain points about who I am, about what happened to my birth family. Sometimes, telling a story, a non-truth, can be instructive and informative. Sometimes, it can lead you where you need to go."

The title of her piece, "N/A," comes from filling out so many medical forms. So much was "not applicable," she said. But what she did not have answers for in the doctor's office, she hopes to guess at onstage.

  • THE ORIGIN(S) PROJECT

    What: Sun Mee Chomet's "How to Be a Korean Woman" and Katie Hae Leo's "N/A." Both directed by Zaraawar Mistry.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat. Ends June 9.

    Where: Dreamland Arts, 677 N. Hamline Av., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $15. 651-645-5506 or dreamlandarts.com.

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