In 2013, the Children's Theatre premiered "The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra, Go!" That far-out fantasy introduced the talents of playwright Lloyd Suh to audiences in the Twin Cities and the nation (the play continues to be produced across the country).
Now Suh is back with a new work, one that's just as imaginative if less fantastical. "Bina's Six Apples" orbits a girl who makes a 70-mile journey by foot carrying precious cargo in a time of war and scarcity.
It premieres Friday at Children's Theatre Company, which commissioned it, before transferring to Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. "Bina's" is drawn from Suh's family history. His father was a child in Korea during the war before immigrating to the United States, where Suh was born.
"Lloyd has done something I love, which is to take something that's deeply personal and highly specific from his family and have it resonate as a human story," said artistic director Peter Brosius. "He brings this beautifully crafted writing to these moments of complexity and is able to find the joy and humor in these encounters."
Suh lives in South Orange, N.J., with his wife, Jeanie Suh, and their children — Matilda, 10, Elliot, 8, and Lewis, 6. We caught up with him recently at Children's Theatre before a rehearsal.
Q: "Bina's Six Apples" is a catchy title.
A: Bina, a 10-year-old, is the youngest of a family that lives on an apple orchard [during the Korean War]. At the peak of the fighting, her family packs up to travel to Pusan, which is ostensibly safer. Along the way, they get separated. Bina is all alone, carrying this backpack with six apples and she has to find her way back to her family. The only way to do that is to go to Pusan, knowing that they are headed there, too. Along the way, she encounters a variety of people. And the journey is about her trying to get those apples to her family.
Q: How did the story come about?
A: It's inspired by a piece of family lore. My father was 5 or 6 at the onset of the Korean War. He doesn't have a lot of memories from that time but one of them was that he was living in an apple orchard, the youngest of 11 children. When the family packed up to travel to Pusan during the worst of the fighting, they gave him this backpack filled with apples, probably to keep him occupied. He had to carry this backpack, but he remembers feeling very important. It's a happy memory for him and that always stuck with me.
Q: Did you always know that you would turn this piece of family lore into art?
A: That's a funny story. When I was doing 'The Wong Kids' some years ago, [former Children's Theatre literary manager] Elissa Adams heard about this story and said, 'Hey, that's a play for young audiences.' It hadn't even occurred to me. I said, 'Yeah, I should give that a try.' Once I did, it felt kind of amazing to think of something intergenerational that used a story from my father's life as a jumping-off point. The idea that audiences of my father's generation could watch it with audiences of my daughter's generation and they could enjoy the same times in the same way.
Q: That presents its own challenges, and rewards, right?
A: One thing I learned from 'The Wong Kids' process that was valuable was the ways in which you divide the audience. There are some jokes that are just for the kids but there are stuff for adults that are gonna go over the heads of the kids. You have this scattered reaction time. I started to get excited by the idea of multiple generations feeling the same things at the same time. That was a really emotional process.
Q: Sounds very deep and personal.
A: It is. When I started, I had to think about it in terms of what it means to have my parents, immigrants to this country, and me being a child of immigrants. Now I'm raising young people who have a different relationship with what it means to be a citizen with ancestry from a different country. One has to reconcile all of that as a family together.
Q: The apples seem to carry a lot of metaphors.
A: Her journey begins with these apples. And the people she encounters are navigating the terrain and the war in varied and interesting ways. Not only do each of the people she encounters have a different relationship with the war, but also a different relationship with her apples. The apples become a representation of not just what we carry but what we have. They represent value and heritage and hope. They're things you want to bring to someone else that has value in a landscape of scarcity — they offer nourishment and sustenance, life itself.
Q: A child in a landscape of war doesn't sound like a happy play. How did you center the positive things?
A: The history of humankind is a history of violence and shame and trauma and misery — it does us no good to pretend that's not true. On the other hand, this a story of hope. There's something about the process of writing for young audiences that allows you to be hopeful and sunny. This particular piece of family lore has been a part of my understanding of the world and my family history since I was very, very young. For me, the image not only contains an acknowledgment of the conditions under which it happened, but also a sense of utility and usefulness and the perspective of the child. There are no villains in this play. I think of it not as binary — good/bad, healthy/unhealthy — but as a story that acknowledges the complexity of all of it.
Q: As you told this story and honored family, was there any fear about reawakening trauma?
A: Again, the backpack of apples was a pleasant memory for my father. And the play acknowledges the trauma of that time just by acknowledging the world. But the journey itself, the spirit of the play, is rooted in finding joy and connectivity. It's about usefulness and finding love and humanity. All of that is especially relevant in the middle of the hard parts of life.
Q: It's interesting that you changed the gender of your protagonist.
A: This might sound weird because it seems so obvious. I didn't realize until late in the writing process, that by putting a 10-year-old girl instead of a boy my dad's age, that I was putting my daughter, Matilda, in my father's situation. I was imagining her in that situation the whole time but weirdly didn't realize that until much later. It was always the goal to find that connection, where they intersect and can engage in a story like this together. That was just huge in terms of feeling I knew who I was writing for and what I wanted the feeling to be — the idea of multiple generations sitting together and sharing the experience.
'Bina's Six Apples'
Who: By Lloyd Suh. Directed by Eric Ting.
When: 7 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 11 a.m. & 3 p.m. Sat., 1 & 5 p.m. & Sun. Ends Feb. 13.
Where: Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required for ages 2 and up. Vaccination cards or proof of negative COVID-19 test for ages 12 and up.
Tickets: $15-$68. 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org.