Artist Profile: Christine Lee
“When I see a casting director, and they say, ‘what’s your type?’ there’s only four people I can name,” Christine Lee, a Korean-Canadian actress tells me. She corrects herself, “Maybe two: Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh. I usually say, I could definitely play Sandra Oh’s little sister.”
“What would you want to say?” I ask.
“I would just like to be first Christine Lee,” she responds.
Though she lacks career role models who look like her in mainstream American media, Lee is optimistic— through her work as a songwriter and actress, she hopes to create leading roles for Asian-American women.
Since moving to New York in 2011, Lee has been embraced by the Korean and Korean-American music scene. There’s an instant bond—”I can speak whatever I want, act however I want, speak whichever language comes out of my mouth, because they understand both,” Lee says.
This Monday, Lee performs music composed by Korean and Korean American artists in The Seoul of Broadway, a benefit concert at Joe’s Pub for EnoB, an “edutainment” organization which aims to “spread happiness” by bringing musical performances to underserved communities. Since EnoB’s inception in 2006, they’ve held more than 100 outreach concerts at spaces such as hospitals, homes for the elderly, centers for people with special needs and Korean cultural institutions.
Lee will sing a piece composed by EnoB Music Director Haesun Suh about a teenage Korean adoptee living in the Midwest whose average life is upended when she gets pregnant. The musical explores the girl’s return to Korea to find her birth mother and asks questions about which factors make the greatest impression on one’s self-identity and what it means occupy multiple cultural spaces.
Lee spent her childhood moving back and forth between Canada and Korea. As a teen, she attended international school in Korea, a disorienting experience where she spent her school days speaking English and observed an American holiday schedule—quite the opposite of the academic schedule that her Korean school-attending peers followed.
“If you have two cultures that you have to embody as you grow up, you must be the bridge between the two. By becoming the bridge, you must moment by moment adjust your cultural identity,” Lee says.
Since moving to New York to pursue acting, Lee has performed in shows with organizations such as The Flea Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, ArsNova, New Georges, The Riot Group and Ma-Yi Theater Company. She particularly loves working in new play development because of its collaborative potential, something she identifies as lacking in Korean theater.
“Producers fly between Manhattan and Korea to find imports to make into national tours,” Lee says. Broadway musicals are translated to Korean and cast with local talent. The costumes and choreography are copied exactly.
If Lee returns to work in Korea, she’ll strive to import the collaborative processes of listening and creating collectively. “I think Korean is beautiful and that Koreans should really make their own original work. The language and onomatopoeia is rich and alive. It animates the performer and the listener,” Lee says.
To give an example, she tells me that in Korean, there are dozens of different words to describe the shades of sadness. To Lee, English feels very logical and linear, whereas Korean feels like a “big mushy cloud.”
“There’s beauty in both,” she says.
When I ask her about why she sings, her response transcends citizenship.
“With a certain kind of melody and rhythm, there is a non-verbal connection that’s happening with the content and the audience. In any language.”
To catch Christine Lee in The Seoul of Broadway on Monday, Feb 2 at 7:30pm, check out the Joe’s Pub website here.