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THEATER FEATURE 'Pillowtalk' a love story for post-marriage equality world
by Catey Sullivan
2018-08-08

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The audience won't hear the Toni Morrison quote that serves as an intro to playwright Kyoung H. Park's Pillowtalk, running Aug. 17-18 at the Victory Gardens.

Morrison's words are a punch to the heart, the gut and the brain—and while they go unsaid, they inform Park's intense two-hander about a gay interracial married couple. Here's the quote:

"There is nothing in nature like [love]. Not in robins or bison or in the banging tails of your hunting dogs and not in blossoms or suckling foal. Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God."

When love isn't the entire answer

The divine difficulty of maintaining love—arduous, maddening, frustrating and punctuated by as much despair as joy—is at the heart of Pillowtalk. Set over the course of a single night, the plot follows an interracial gay couple's struggle to define their marriage, their careers and their obligations to fight for social justice in President 45's America. The 90-minute drama is one of six different productions running Aug. 13-18 as part of the Sixth National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival.

"Marriage has always been a heteronormative, mainstream structure. How do historically marginalized people deal with that? What does marriage mean for queers in terms of race and class and power, especially for queers of color?" Park ( he/him/his ) said.

Pillowtalk doesn't provide answers. But it does offer an unflinching exploration of how the all-encompassing macro issues plaguing society at large play out on a micro-level between two queer men of color.

Saving the world, losing yourself

There are two characters in Pillowtalk. Buck, an Asian-American, and Sam, an African-American. For both, love is at once the the answer to many of their thorny problems and the source of them. Their relationship is also deeply complicated by issues of class and race.

Like many other millennials, Buck and Sam are burdened by debt and living barely a paycheck away from insolvency. Much of heir turmoil comes from idealistic dreams clipped by financial realities.

"Idealism is wonderful, " said Park. "But how can you devote yourself to saving the world when your most immediate, personal cause—caring for yourself, paying the rent, putting food on the table —takes almost all of your time and energy and money?"

Like a wrecking ball

Buck and Sam's conflicts also spill into the workplace. Since his marriage to Sam, Buck's journalism career has stalled. His inability to tell his husband Sam that he's been laid off—an event that could be directly tied to his matrimonial status—complicates the couple's every interaction. So does Buck's long-ago dream of being a dancer.

"Unemployment is a wrecking ball looming throughout their conversation," Park said. "Its presence is part of the structure of the whole play." Alongside that wrecking ball, however, is the fluid beauty of bodies in motion. Throughout the 90-minute play, dream-like choreographed sequences express in movement ideas that words stumble to capture.

"We can't always give a verbal answer about dealing with systemic racism and oppression. But we can find hope in art, in Buck's case, dance," Park said. "I've heard people say they are saddened by the words in the play, but for me, the words are not the end. Dance is, and the expression of joy and hope through our bodies."

Not-so happily-ever-after marriage equality

Park grew up in Santiago, Chile, after his parents moved from South Korea to Chile. He came to the United States inn 2000 to study writing at New York University. He lived in South Korea during 2005-09, and earned a master's in peace studies from Columbia University in 2012. The year before he graduated from Columbia, he founded Kyoung Pacific Beat, a Brooklyn-based theater company dedicated to promoting a "culture of peace" by staging his plays. Married to Daniel Lim for five years, Park was an early activist in the Marriage Equality movement. The euphoria of attaining the movement's goal dimmed in the ensuing years, he said.

"After we finally got marriage equality, I felt like we were on a high and we all felt like we were moving forward," Park said. "Now it feels like we've living with constant backlash and regression. We have a president who won't recognize Pride Month, who won't recognize LGBTQ rights, who won't even recognize us as people."

A month before the 2016 presidential election, Park was at conference when he realized the marriage equality movement was lacking when it came to addressing many issues. Organized by the Center for LGBTQ Studies, the "After Marriage Conference: The Future of LGBTQ Politics and Scholarship" left Park with questions.

"I realized that a lot of people who were part of the marriage-equality movement left that movement once marriage equality was passed," he said. "For me, I saw a lot of issues impacting people of color that still needed to be resolved." Among those issues: racism, marginalization, alienation and violence impacting LGBTQ people of color. Through Buck and Sam, Park addresses all of these in Pillowtalk.

"I am a queer artist of color. I am now married. Our struggle to find societal acceptance is ongoing," Park said "I wanted to ask the questions that I ask myself every day: How does race and racism impact being in love? How do conventional notions of beauty impact desire?"

The importance of date nights—and more

Park's research for Pillowtalk uncovered some ugly history. "There was a time when it was white women marring Asian men was criminalized in the United States, when American women could lose their citizenship for marring an Asian," Park said.

Park and Lim work to keep their five-year-old marriage remains strong. "We do regular date nights. Last week we saw 'Ant Man,' which was great. There's also a lot of self care. And Pose. We love watching Pose," Park said. "One of my goals with Pillowtalk is to humanize love between queer men It's been shocking to me how much everyone—straight and queer—have been able to relate to this story.

"It's a really specific story, but so many people can relate."

Pillowtalk runs Aug. 17-18 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. For more information and a detailed schedule of the Sixth National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, visit CAATA.net .


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