On October 22, 1996, Kathy Change (formerly known as Kathy Chang) set herself on fire in front of a prominent peace sculpture on the University of Pennsylvania campus. It was a final act of protest meant to draw attention to social, global, and environmental concerns that the artist/activist had created numerous performances to address, but which often fell upon deaf ears.
“Kathy was a fringe artist who was on the outside of society,” says Soomi Kim, who has created Chang(e), a HERE Resident Artist production that she co-devised with director Suzi Takahashi. Kim stars as Kathy Change and delivers a moving performance that unpacks some of the complexities surrounding this fascinating woman and her dramatic death.
I was lucky enough to see a workshop production of the piece last October, where Kim performed it as part of the National Asian American Theatre Festival, held in Philadelphia. It now receives a full production at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue in New York City), November 4-22.
DAN BACALZO: Was there anything really surprising to you that you discovered through your research?
SOOMI KIM: There were a lot of little things that were surprising along the way. Remember when you saw that very first iteration of my Bruce Lee show in 2000?
DB: I do! It was among the first plays I ever reviewed.
SK: I know. That was when I did it very bare-bones. I went on to do a full production in 2007, 2008. So the reason why I’m relating that is, when I transcribed the interview between Pierre Berton and Bruce Lee back then, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just thought it was a fascinating piece of material. But once you start researching, then you place in a line the events with the time of that interview in 1971. It was around the same time Lee was being rejected for Kung Fu; they were telling him that David Carradine, a white man, was going to take his role. And he was in this interview with Pierre Berton, knowing that but not actually saying it because he couldn’t let the cat out of the bag at that time. So, I’m really interested in this inner life that’s happening, what’s going on in that time period for this person.
DB: So, a similar thing happened in your research on Kathy Change?
SK: One of the biggest finds for me was the Brendan McGeever interview. Brendan was a sophomore at U Penn, who had Kathy on a campus radio show. I found him through social media, and he had that interview on cassette tape and I transcribed it. That became partially the template for our show, and Brendan has become a pivotal character in the production, as someone who kind of brings a human quality to Kathy’s relationships to people who were not in her own community. When I heard that interview—and also once again, coming from the same place, where I transcribed it and was reading it, and doing research and talking to people about Kathy during that time period—one of the surprising things was that interview with Brendan took place almost exactly one year prior to her self-immolation. So, I became fascinated with what happened in that year between the interview and her decision to make that final act.
DB: I really enjoyed seeing the version of the show presented in Philadelphia. What did you learn from that experience?
SK: Suzi and I had to make a workshop version of what the final production would be. And, up to that point, we only had 20-minute excerpts of this and that, exploring ideas. You know how sometimes you work a lot better with a deadline? It forces you to put all your ideas out there. That’s what happened; we put everything together in some kind of form we wanted to play with or see potentially on stage. But it was such a good learning experience. It really helped us evaluate and regroup and talk about the specific space that we’re living in, that Kathy is living in. When is it her fantasy? When is it reality? And how do we portray that? How far can we go with the psychological parts of Kathy’s mind, what’s happening in her inner world? And how does it accelerate into her final act? So, now we’re really playing with some of the elements that we touched on in that version, but going more full out with them visually, viscerally, musically, sonically, physically.
DB: The Philadelphia location of the festival show also had a very specific resonance with Kathy Change. On the night I saw it, some of the actors announced they were going to visit the University of Pennsylvania campus to pay tribute to her in front of the peace sign where she self-immolated.
SK: That was amazing. That was Kathy’s birthday: October 10. And a lot of her friends were in the audience that day. We went to the peace sculpture, and I brought some champagne and we were toasting happy birthday. The cast was with me, five or six of Kathy’s friends were there, and we just listened to their stories. It was very moving and really meaningful and I felt like these are the kind of life-changing experiences that happen when you are making art, or being an artist. All the struggles and the trials and challenges make those kind of moments really special. And it was great to be part of the Asian American Theatre Festival, where there were people involved that were connected with the Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco in the 70s when Kathy was there, married to Frank Chin. It was really overwhelming.
DB: Can you talk more about that connection?
SK: One thing that I found interesting through my research was the real separation in her life between East and West Coast. Those worlds are very separate.
DB: When seeing the videotaped interviews in your Philadelphia show, I half expected Frank Chin to suddenly appear in one of your video segments, and he did not.
SK: There are a few factors involved with that. One is that we were really trying to touch on the last year of her life, and he had not been involved with her since the late 70s. Most of our story goes from the 80s to the 90s. We have added a few elements contextualizing Frank in this next iteration, about her days with the Asian American Theatre Workshop, but it’s very, very small. I just wanted to touch upon the fact that she was a part of that movement, but I didn’t want to go into it because there’s just no time to tell all the stories. Frank, I think, is someone who I’ve been told would not really be happy with this, so I haven’t approached him. I’m sure he’s probably heard about it, but we don’t really need any research from him. There are a few people who I have kind of stayed away from in this process, and another was Kathy’s ex-partner who also was not pleased by this.
DB: It can be very touchy when some of the people around the story are still alive and probably have some opinions!
SK: The characters in the show are all kind of fictionalized and an amalgam of interviews and conversations I’ve had with people. They’re not literal representations.
DB: That’s actually a very interesting comment, because there is a documentary aspect to the performance. In Philadelphia, you had scholars and some people who knew Kathy talking on video. And then you also, as you say, imagine an inner life for Kathy Change. So, can you talk a little more about how you negotiate this, keeping true to the woman the performance is based upon while allowing yourself flexibility as a playwright and performer?
SK: First of all, Suzi and I work very collaboratively. I’ve done most of the research, but then she and I meet and we talk a lot about what we want to see and how we want to format it and in what order. And so we tried that idea. I felt that there are so many interesting stories and points of view on the periphery of Kathy’s story. For example, Joseph Shahadi, who is a performance studies guy who used to live in Philly. He knew Kathy a little bit and wrote a paper about her. Quiara Alegría Hudes, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, also grew up in Philadelphia and had seen her perform. There’s a play [of Hudes’] that is going up at the Signature Center in the spring called Daphne’s Dive, and one of the characters is based on Kathy. So, there are all these interesting stories that I wanted to include. Like I said, we were trying to put all our ideas on stage in Philadelphia to see what happened. And that’s one element we decided to take out. Those videos are no longer part of the show. We wanted to stick to Kathy’s literal existence and what is happening in her psychological world. We’re steering away from calling it a docudrama, and are making the story more expressionistic, a blend of her fantasy and reality.
DB: What is the hardest part for you in performing the role of Kathy Change?
SK: One thing as an actor that I’m always thinking inside my head is that I’m not doing her justice, because she was so completely her own person; she was so out there in her convictions. She spent so many years doing her work and writing. And her ideas and philosophies and her politics and her visions were all so embedded in her body, in her mind, in her writing, in her performance, in her plays. Because my background and my life have been pretty different from hers, one of my fears is that I come across too normal. But I think that putting myself out there in that way, I’m just trying to project and have the intention of what Kathy’s vision and mission and purpose is all the time, keeping that in my mind and my body.
DB: One of the things I really admire about your performance is that you are not afraid to show Kathy Change in an unflattering light. She was artistically dismissed by the established theatrical community, and her relationships were something of a co-dependent mess. And yet, she was also highly intelligent, politically engaged, and even prescient about some of the things that were still to come. There were a lot of factors that went into her suicide, which included mental illness, political activism, as well as personal stuff going on in her life.
SK: Yeah. One thing that for me is very, very specific and personal and part of what I’ve latched onto is that Kathy’s mother committed suicide when she was 14 to 16. She kind of just abandoned her. Kathy even said that she never got over that; she always felt guilty, like she had killed her. And then her father was very estranged, and so she was kind of left alone as a young troubled girl who had also tried to commit suicide at the age of 12 or 13, which is super young. So one of my big “a-ha” moments with her is she was always railing for environmental issues. She has this whole bit about Mother Earth and she’s talked a lot about our mother—our mother and how we’re committing matricide. And I thought that was a really interesting connection between how she’s always felt she killed her own mother and then trying to save Mother Earth. That for me has been very real and tangible to cling onto. At the heart of it, she’s still a little girl who wants to be reunited with her mother.
Chang(e), devised by Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi, performs at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, in New York City), November 4-22. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30, Sundays at 4. There is an additional preview performance, Wednesday, November 4 at 8:30pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or at www.here.org.