The setup of Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s new comedy is so all-American: Two women get together on Thanksgiving to cook a turkey and schmooze their way through a bottle of wine.
In Lloyd Suh’s “The Heart Sellers,” those women are young Filipina and Korean immigrants. Grokking what being American means, and how they fit into that picture, is very much on the menu.
Milwaukee Rep begins performances of this world premiere production Feb. 7.
Lloyd Suh returns to Milwaukee Repertory Theater
In part, “The Heart Sellers” is a gift of the COVID-19 pandemic. After Milwaukee Rep enjoyed the experience of producing Suh’s drama “The Chinese Lady” in 2019, it commissioned this new work. The theater world’s shutdown during the pandemic’s onset gave Suh concentrated time to write it.
“The Heart Sellers” title is a homophone for Hart-Celler, the informal name of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Sen. Philip A. Hart and Rep. Emanuel Celler, which opened up immigration here to people beyond the narrow list of western European countries that had been favored.
As a consequence of that act, Suh’s parents emigrated here from Korea; Suh grew up in suburban Indianapolis. Like the unseen husbands in “The Heart Sellers,” Suh’s father came here for medical training. Suh said he also draws on stories from his peers whose parents came over “as a direct result of the Hart-Celler (Act).”
In “The Heart Sellers” the voluble Luna has impulsively invited close-mouthed Jane over for Thanksgiving dinner after running into her in the grocery store. They know of each other: Their husbands are both medical residents working long hours. Their contrasting temperaments make for good buddy comedy, as do their attempts to create a Thanksgiving dinner on the fly. (It’s 1973, so no Googling for recipes.) Jane has watched Julia Child on TV, so she becomes the de factor poultry curator:
“OK now. Preheat oven.”
“I dunno. 400 something.”
Beginning of a beautiful friendship
But “The Heart Sellers” is also about feeling a specific kind of loneliness, betwixt two worlds, then discovering another person you could truly share that with. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Suh described Luna and Jane’s emotional situation as “the difficulty and excitement of being in a new place, but also even more profoundly … a sense of what you’re leaving behind.”
As they gradually open up to each other, Luna and Jane share memories, including sense memories, of their homelands and home cultures.
“The experience of somebody coming from South Korea is very different from the experience of somebody coming from the Philippines,” Suh said.
What does it mean to be Asian American?
That leads to a subject that Suh has pondered for a long time: What does it mean to be Asian American, given how vast and disparate the people of Earth’s largest continent are?
Suh acknowledges that “Asian American” is “a socially constructed concept” which comes partly from how people see him and people like him when they walk into a room.
“I’m very interested in looking at the ways in which we can find solidarity, even when there are extreme differences in perspective, and background,” he said.
“That’s our job as Americans, right, or as citizens of the world, as human beings, to try and find solidarity across geography and language and, and all the different ways in which we present ourselves,” he said.
Suh’s new work takes the stage during a bountiful period of plays by Asian American playwrights on Midwestern stages, including Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” and “The Great Leap,” Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!,” Vichet Chum’s “The Bald Sisters” and Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” (performed by the Milwaukee Rep in 2018). Suh supported the creation of some of those plays through his long involvement with the Ma-Yi Writers Lab.
“I feel like my role in the theater is not just as a writer, it’s also as an advocate for other writers in the community of Asian American writers,” he said with enthusiasm.
Many of Suh’s plays, including “The Heart Sellers” and “The Chinese Lady,” have specific, detailed historical settings. “I have aging parents, I have growing children,” Suh said. He sees one of his jobs as describing his parents’ history to his children. “How do you bridge that gap? Right? And that’s like, how do I make my kids understand where they exist on that continuum?”
If you go
Milwaukee Repertory Theater performs “The Heart Sellers” Feb. 7-March 19 at the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, visit milwaukeerep.com or call (414) 224-9490.