Working Confusion – a Personal Reflection on TALA by Kyoung Park
I had jetlag. Serious, serious jetlag. As we settled into our seats at the University Settlement, I engaged in some heavy-duty mental self-flagellation for not anticipating that jetlag when making plans, weeks earlier, to see the show. Of course I was a zombie a few days after returning from Korea. Of course getting over a fourteen-hour time difference is not the ideal condition in which to experience the blood-sweat-tears-crafted work of your talented and hardworking friend, who you admire and respect. “Fuck,” I thought. “Fuck fuck fuuuuuuuck.”
TALA has made three appearances in New York, starting with Kyoung’s Columbia thesis production, which I caught two years ago. It’s a challenging piece, collaged from elements of personal trauma, surrealism, and facets of Chilean history that I previously knew nothing about. In this version at the University Settlement, a clothesline hung across the back wall, with cards pinned across it on which audience members had filled out brief sentences about their own versions of the American dream and their family’s immigration histories. My friend Maren and I dutifully filled out our cards and hung them on the wall, fumbling a little with the tiny clothespin fastenings.
The play starts. Two characters, Pepe and Lupe (Rafael Benoit and Flor de Liz Perez, committed and playful), are on a date. Or a mission. The character of “Kyoung,” played with mischievous charm by Daniel Kim (also a friend…there aren’t that many Koreans in theater), watches from the edges but keeps intruding on the Pepe-and-Lupe story.
I swum in and out of the surreal narrative in a hallucinatory swirl. I wasn’t sure what was jet lag and what was native to the piece. I was confused. And more than a little embarrassed and guilty at that confusion. Here, clearly, were specific references that I didn’t know (or did I know them? Had I simply missed them because of my altered state?).
The second half of the play—with more concrete references to both the author’s personal story (fascinating) and Chilean history (a short documentary clip provides some context)— was easier to hold onto. I wondered if that might be due to its tracing of Kyoung’s status as a Korean-Chilean immigrant, and the overlap of that story with my own arrival in this country from Seoul at the age of three. I also wondered if it might be because I was stupid and these straightforward narrative pegs slipped more easily into the square-shaped holes of my brain. But Maren, a blond Kansan whose family had arrived in the US over a century ago, responded similarly. The author’s real-life immigration story, which I won’t reveal here, is an astonishing one.
5 a.m. the next morning, I woke up terrified at the prospect of trying to write something halfway articulate about the show, and ashamed that I hadn’t absorbed more in my altered state. I called Kyoung at noon to discuss the piece. We talked about a lot of things that I considered writing about—the integration of his work with that of the settlement’s Immigrant Arts Project, the play’s visual inspiration from the worlds of Dali and Mondrian, the collaborative nature of the show’s creation and the vital contributions of the performers, designers, and technical team. All of these seemed like potentially sound essay-territory, stable narrative ground from which to reflect on the work of your friend. But I couldn’t shake this feeling of confusion. I asked him, because I felt like I had missed so much in the first half, if there were three things that might help audiences cross the threshold into the world of the show, historical references or artistic ones. “Do you have three questions you want to ask?” he replied. Good point. I asked if I could get back to him later that day and hung up, in a quiet panic about what the hell I was going to write about.
Still confused, I sat on the 7 train to Times Square and remembered Kyoung talking about trauma. Or rather, the shame of trauma. The show has changed a lot since I saw it two years ago, becoming clearer and more hopeful. It’s also incorporated more details of his personal journey, the details that—of all the things in the show—made me sit up and pay attention the most. “Why weren’t those there before?” I had asked him. “Because I was ashamed,” he had said. Trauma is confusing. Disorienting. Colored deeply with shame. Navigating memories of trauma, whether you are a nation or a person, is a messy thing, and honoring that messiness, witnessing it without falsely tucking the edges into tight little hospital corners, is part of the play’s ambition. The process of writing from trauma is the process of staring at a vast clusterfuck mess, wading in, and trying to put it in order one memory piece at a time. TALA has that—the feeling of raw struggle as its characters try to make sense of their shifting worlds, as well as a palpable tension between that desire for order and the shame that tries to hold things under the surface.
As Maren and I stood up after the show, we took another look at the clothesline hanging on the back. “It’s a timeline” someone told us. We looked at each other—oops. We had hung our cards at random points, not paying attention to the order which was present but of which we had been unaware. Before we left, we unclipped our cards and rehung them at their proper places in history. The year I arrived—1983—had a long string of cards already, an outlier. “Huh,” I said.
“PS I never got back to Kyoung with those questions, but he emailed me anyway with some things that might be helpful to clarifying an experience of the show. If you’re planning to see the show and are curious, email me and I’ll forward them on on (but only if you want)”