“Where are you from?”
Though often satirized in (the few existing) media made by Asian Americans, it remains a question many Asian Americans may find all too familiar, along with its follow-up, “No, but where are you from?”
In the U.S. premiere of Amy Mihyang Ginther’s autobiographical “Homeful: A New Solo Play About Roots and Restlessness,” the question is projected on the wall each time she enters a new country, near-instantaneously occurring with her arrival. As her constant answers of “America. New York,” fail to live up to the asker’s demands, the viewer understands that no matter where Amy goes as a Korean American adoptee, she’ll never be home.
The intimate theater room of EXIT Stage Left seats less than 50, and writer-solo performer Ginther takes her small audience around the world as she travels to the U.K, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Argentina and South Korea to learn, perform and teach. All the while, “Homeful” utilizes a brilliantly minimalist set, with only a few props other than the mainstays of a plastic, collapsible table, a laptop, a chair and a flip phone. With the stagnation of these five props in each country, Ginther emphasizes both the minimal comforts of travel and how so little of the material world is needed to effectively tell her story.
Even more importantly, the play’s score and multimedia components are astoundingly effective in their scarcity, balancing beautiful theatrics and grounded realism. The occasional crescendos in score, played in tandem with the rising of Amy’s own confidence in her storytelling, give full-body goosebumps. The intermittent music swells as Amy’s voice deepens, becoming clearer, more sure of itself. Every notification noise from an email or a text is played as an interruption in Amy’s monologue. These dings from her inbox or phone immerse the audience members, tricking them into believing they’re in the real world, with her, in real time. The projection of her mom’s emails or friend’s texts behind Amy let us pry into her life’s online details, an intimate touch in the digital age.
The prose of “Homeful” is melodic and comforting. At times, Ginther speaks to her viewer as if they’re her best friend. At other points, she waxes poetic, gifting them with a beautiful description of her first experience in San Francisco, or with a reflection on object permanence while intermittently in South Korea, living with her birth mother (“omma” in Korean, she explains) and family.
In the play’s most powerful montage, the audience is thrust into a whirlwind of phone conversations between Amy, her father, her mother and her mother’s doctor as her mother’s health rapidly declines post-cancer diagnosis. An older gentleman in the audience grabbed his wife’s hand tightly after the diagnosis; he wiped his nose throughout. Another woman dug through her purse, desperately searching for a tissue. The intimacy and closeness of the theater felt tangible as it amplified the scene’s emotional momentum.
And yet, in her transition from this montage, Ginther proved herself a true master of her craft. She danced and laughed to blaring music, brushing off her own trauma, laughing at her audience for crying at her pain, leaving it in shock as it tries to catch up to Amy’s new energy.
In her director’s note, Lisa Marie Rollins examined the difficulties of directing an autobiographical solo performance. “Sometimes all each of us need is a mirror where we can see a character wrestle with identity, or with love,” she writes, a wise summation of the play’s strengths.
“Homeful” is poignant, resilient and timely, an autobiography utilized to illuminate narratives often overlooked or untold: the stories of women of color, Asian American women, South Korean women, adopted women and women adopted from South Korea. With just herself, a projector and a handful of props, Ginther teaches us what it truly means to be “homeful.”
“Homeful: A New Solo Play About Roots and Restlessness” is part of the 2017 San Francisco Fringe Festival, which will run through Sept. 23. The final performance of “Homeful” was on Wednesday, Sept. 20 after a four-show run.