East meets west

Playwright Julia Cho keeps it in the family in the drama Durango.

BEING JULIA Cho navigates between cultures.

BEING JULIA Cho navigates between cultures. Photograph: Thomas McDonald

Families stick together, but they're rarely whole in Julia Cho's world, a landscape of southwestern America seen through the eyes of Korean Americans. Someone's usually missing, whether it's the son who vanished in The Architecture of Loss, the father who abandoned his family in BFE, or the mother who died of cancer in Durango, leaving her husband and sons adrift.

But ask the 31-year-old playwright—who looks like she could still be in college—to describe her upbringing in distinctly unethnic Arizona, and she deems it rather ordinary, save for the scenery. "It gave me a sense of Americanness," reflects Cho, who was born in Los Angeles and now lives in Santa Monica with her husband. "I'm glad I grew up both in a very average place—I went to a normal public school, lived in a middle-class town—that was also very surreal. The desert is such a weird environment, I'm sure it's left its mark in ways I'm not fully aware of."

The same could be said about the three central characters in Durango, the final play in a trilogy about the Southwest. Widowed father Boo-Seng has just been dismissed from a job to which he had devoted his life. He announces to his sons, middling student Isaac, 21, and multitalented artist and swimmer Jimmy, 13, that they're embarking on a road trip to Durango, Colorado, to ride its historic railroad. Both boys struggle with and against parental expectations, while Boo-Seng longs for a cherished male boyhood friend with whom he once planned to visit the town. Before you say Brokeback Mountain, though, Cho hesitates to label the father's relationship. "I've purposely left it unarticulated because I feel like Boo-Seng has secrets even from me," Cho says. "Did he love his friend? Yes. What form did that love take? I'm not quite sure."

Ambiguity may feature prominently in her work, but there's also an authenticity that won over Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. "[Durango] has an unmistakable stink of truth about it," Eustis enthuses in typically vivid language. "In a very sophisticated way,Julia plays with genres and our expectations of the road movie, the American family play, the American Western and the family-secret play. It's difficult for a writer to do that and create real characters."

And it's unusual for a female playwright to script a drama whose five roles (including the Red Angel, an all-American superhero imagined by Jimmy) are male. Cho doesn't see her work primarily as a vehicle for equal-opportunity representation, but she seems to embrace that spirit, especially where her three Asian characters are concerned. "My previous plays were female-heavy, and I'd always felt sad that I hadn't written for Asian-American men." (Most of the male characters in Cho's previous works are Caucasian, although James Saito, the father in Durango, appeared in BFE.) And she may espouse a certain responsibility to young Asian actors such as James Yaegashi and Jon Norman Schneider, who play the sons, but Cho is keenly aware that she needs them too. "If they don't have the roles, they're not going to pursue [theater], and I can't write the plays I write without them."

Theater might have eluded Cho herself had it not been for a summer school expedition that brought her to New York and to the Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation when she was 16. She went on to write plays at Amherst College, studying with Constance Congdon (Tales of the Lost Formicans); Cho then earned a Master's in English at UC Berkeley but absconded before getting her Ph.D. "It felt like a war," she explains. "My analytic side would start pummeling my creative side, and I could feel the desire to write shriveling up."

Cho took her creative juices to NYU and Juilliard, and her professional entre came thanks to Durango director Chay Yew, who spearheaded the reading of her first play, 99 Histories, when he was running the recently defunct Asian Theatre Workshop at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

But some of Cho's biggest influences can be traced back to Arizona and her mother. "She told me that a lot of the people she works with didn't really interact with that many Asian Americans, and the fact that she's competent and in a position of authority is radical for some people. There's a quiet way to be political, and that's the kind of politicalness that I probably inhabit as well."

Durango is playing at the Public Theater.