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Congratulations to all of the Elliot Norton nominees! 


America is in the Heart: A Note from Dramaturg Christine Mok & A Conversation with Junghyun Georgia Lee

“America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering…”


The epigraph is taken from Filipino American writer Carlos Sampayan Bulosan’s classic novel America is in the Heart, first published in 1946 and reprinted in 1973. Bulosan imagines an America in the hearts of men, in their eyes as they build new worlds, and as a prophecy “that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering.” What possibilities or prophecies are there in America for women? What of their sorrow, strife, and suffering? Their laughter, dreams, and promises?


Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers offers a way into these questions by inviting us to consider what we don’t know about a generation of Asian women who came to the US – what resides in their hearts. The generation who immigrated in the aftermath of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, transformed this country. Enacted a few months after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Hart-Celler Act, named for its sponsors, Senator Philip A. Hart (Michigan) and Representative Emanuel Celler (New York), was a landmark piece of legislation. It repealed national-origins quotas, enacted in the 1920s, which had protected racial restrictions by reserving immigration to Europeans.


The Hart-Celler Act opened the doors to immigrants from around the world by prioritizing “highly skilled” labor, family relations with citizens or U.S. residents, and refugees, creating a merit-based system with national caps. Though President Lyndon B. Johnson declared, “it will not reshape the structure of our daily lives,” the law had a sweeping impact, giving rise to large-scale immigration, both legal and unauthorized. More than 50 years later, Hart-Celler established the principles for today’s immigration system


I am a child of the Hart-Celler Act. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea, and found themselves in a midwestern college town in 1974. Looking at photos of her, Lloyd’s mother, and May’s mother, I am filled with awe at their courage. The audacity behind their smiles. I also know that I will only ever know of a sliver of their pain and sacrifice. Like Jane and Luna, the characters of The Heart Sellers, they each left a home in the Philippines and South Korea, at a time of intense political crisis. They then traveled across the world to an America in the midst of its own crucible.


Jane, like the Lloyd’s mother, left a South Korea that had endured occupation and colonization by Japan, a partition dividing the country along the 38th parallel, the subsequent occupation of South Korea by the U.S., and a civil war, beginning in 1950, with an armistice in 1953. No formal peace treaty was ever established, and so the two Koreas technically remain at war today. Jane, like my own mother, was born during the Korean War. She grew up during a time punctuated by coups and US intervention. After seizing power in a military coup in 1961, Park Chung Hee was elected as the 3rd President of South Korea in 1963. His rapid economic reforms catapulted one of the poorest countries in the world, at the end of the war, to one with a GDP comparable to European nations. The “Miracle on the Han River” was built on a repressive regime. On October 17, 1972, Park installed himself as dictator, declaring martial law, and introducing an authoritarian Yushin Constitution. Park’s eldest daughter, Park Geun-hye was elected in 2013 to be impeached and convicted on corruption charges in 2017, after a wave of public protests.


Luna, like May’s mother, left a Philippines that endured an equally tumultuous 20th century, as both nations were pawns in US imperialism and the Cold War. The Philippines experienced a succession of colonizations and annexations by the Spanish, the British, the Japanese, and the U.S. In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos won the presidential election and became the 10th president of the Philippines. Though Marcos initially sought economic reform, he ultimately looted his nation. In the lead up to the 1973 elections, on September 23, 1972, Marcos instituted martial law. His twenty-year presidency saw the Philippines transformed from a democracy to a conjugal dictatorship, with his wife, Imelda, marked by corruption, violence, plunder, and economic devastation. Marcos’ son, Bongbong Marcos is the current president of the Philippines.


The America that Jane and Luna arrive in in 1973 is going through its own political upheaval. In 1972, Richard Nixon was reelected president in a landslide victory, carrying 49 states. Within two years, he would resign from office. The Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War radically altered the American people’s trust, confidence, and idealism in government – legacies that persist to this day.


In these ways, The Heart Sellers is a play about inherited collective memory of a generation.  So, I hope for each of them – and all women who find themselves on a different shore – one impulsive evening, just like the one Lloyd has imagined for us here. Such an evening is a gift, one that begins in an empty supermarket on Thanksgiving Day and unspools into a lifetime of tomorrows.



President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 (LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto).


“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives …. This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. … Those who can contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit—will be the first that are admitted to this land. The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system. Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants. It has been un-American in the highest sense … Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. … Those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung.”


The First Generation: A Conversation with Junghyun Georgia Lee

Christine Mok: What drew you to Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers? How do you connect with this play?

Junghyun Georgia Lee
: This is Lloyd’s play, so whether I get to design it or not, I get to read it. And this one has some of my experience in it. I’m not a second-generation generation Korean American, I’m the first generation. I went through this period of moving to a new place and being stuck in an apartment. I was 19 or 20 years-old, and I moved to Canada to go to a different college. In Korea, you start the semester in March, but in Canada, you start in September. There was this six-month gap.

I finished in Korea in November, and then I moved to Canada, in the middle of winter! Just like [Luna & Jane], experiencing wintertime for the first time in a foreign country. We have winter in Korea, but it’s not Canadian winter. I remember looking out the window. It was just endless snow for weeks, and it got dark so early in the day. I didn’t have a driver’s license yet. I had to rely on public transportation. I was stuck in the apartment for a long time, and it really does a number on you. Now I look back on that as just one portion of my life. But, at that time, I didn’t know how long it was going to be. If I would end up going back [to Korea], or not. Everything was so indecisive.

My parents were first generation in each of their families to go to college. They were responsible for taking care of younger siblings and, later, aging parents. Because both of them were the first child of each family, they were not involved in anything political at all. They were focused on getting to the next level on their economic status, paying off everything. They were going to be debt free. To have a home of their own. A bank account that grows, and a child who doesn’t have to choose an occupation solely for income. They could study what they wanted to study. That was their goal. Even when they met for the first time.

To this day, I am amazed, because they shielded me completely from any political turmoil that was going on in South Korea. The only time I noticed something massively changing was the democratic revolution that happened in 1987. I was in junior high school, and you couldn’t deny it. It was such a big, big wave. But until then, it was dictatorship or the residue of dictatorship. People would disappear all the time.

So many people died in the Gwangju [Uprising] when I was five years old, including my nanny, who was studying to be a nurse. She got a nursing nurse job there. I only remember my parents saying, “Oh my God, like, I don’t know what happened to her.” We never talked about it. My parents did such an amazing job shielding their kids from anything that was happening, even within the country that I grew up in. I was a very happy kid until I went to high school, college. Then, I realized what was going on.

Sometimes I run into other expats who left Korea and that becomes the conversation. Later, I met expats from China from the Tiananmen Square [Protests and Massacre], because there were lots of artists moving around at that time, refugee status, back in the 1990s and 2000s, and they became prominent in the art world and opera in New York City and Europe. That’s how I learned what was happening in other countries. I learned so much. I learned a lot more than when I was a teenager, what was going on in the Philippines. Even though both [South Korea and Philippines] had dictators, all they talked about was Imelda and her 2000 pairs of shoes!

[Luna and Jane’s] was my personal experience. I relocated to another place. And it’s obviously an intermediate, in-between space, the staging space for your next adventure, right? Both of them know they’re there temporarily because as soon as their spouses finish residency and get fellowships, then you have to go to wherever the next hospital is. Luna and Jane are in a unique place where they can’t really make the apartment an American Home because they’re going to leave, but they want to make it as easy as possible for themselves and their spouses who work late. And there is the question of what they might want to do, but they can’t have a career, because it is either a missed opportunity or the wrong time, wrong place.

I have run into others who feel this too, as immigrants, but before they have settled. They have this void, like, what can I do? With couples, if one has a specific profession, the other must adjust. And unfortunately, in a lot of Asian families, the one who adjusts is the woman. But women have their own education, they have their own ambition. But once they settle into a different country, they settle into becoming home-maker.

These characters, they don’t have children yet. But if you have children, you’re done. Like there’s no way you’re going to get a job. I know it so well. How it’s going to pan out. That kind of familiarity and sentiment is one I’m already aware of.

With a play like this, when I read it, I think I get to immediately read not the surface, but to another level. That’s always what draws me to Lloyd’s work.

Given these personal experiences, what inspired the design?

The first thing May and I both voiced was the feeling of isolation. Even though the play is only happening in the interior of this apartment, we wanted to show the contrast of this little box and looking out and it’s just endless. Yet you feel so isolated because you don’t ever get to go anywhere. It feels unapproachable, the loneliness. Like a small pod floating in the universe. And two people who feel the same in one room.

The original idea became the design that we have now. The box itself is a little skewed. It never looks straight. We have the one gesture of landscape, wrap around everything. All the surfaces are reflective in black gloss treatment. So, it’s a mixed feeling. It looks very cold like sitting on top of ice. The finish’s feeling is very cold. But in a way, it’s also kind of warm, like an oven. I thought it would be interesting to have a world-within-a-world.

I am interested in this contrast, the coldness of the gloss and the warmth of an oven. Because I also see warmth in the 1970s interior design and clothing, which are full of texture and pattern.

They didn’t have anything white at all, which is, nowadays, how we talk about mid-century modern. It is not heightened or high fashion that is 1970s style. It’s only ‘73, so there’s still lots of ‘60s stuff there. When I did the period research, I also identified with a lot of it. People often joke about the 70s, bell bottoms and shag, but a lot of these elements call me. It’s because I was born in 1973 [when this play is set]. So it all came from the time when I was growing up.

Three years ago, after the pandemic, I finally went home to my parents’ place [in Korea] to see them.There were photo albums just stacked in a room in their apartment. So I scanned them, from their dating-days, in the late 60s all the way into the 1980s. A good portion of it was the 70s, when we were babies so [the period] is very familiar to me. We often caricature the 1970s: Studio 54 & heightened glitz. But my feeling of Seventies is actually very homey, warm, and cozy. It’s ironic [in The Heart Sellers], where everything is covered with fuzzy carpet and wallpaper and avocado colored appliances, but you just don’t feel at home because it’s not yours.

This is the fifth play of Lloyd’s that you have designed. Tell us what it’s like to have such a sustained playwright designer collaboration.

What is up with that? [Laughter] It is really, really amazing. I haven’t had a collaboration like this ever. I first designed costumes for American Hwangap. I always had a feeling about when the Asian American immigration success story actually fails, but we never talk about it. Asians don’t talk about failing at anything, so I really was moved by his story. That was my first time working on his plays.

It’s a continuous story that he is telling. And I have a better understanding of where the characters stand and where the world is. I have a special feeling for his plays. That helps me tell the story better and clearer. Especially in his plays, if I can heighten one aspect of the world, then that helps tell the story and explain character.

When the character is telling their story, it really helps, rather than me trying to illustrate everything. That’s what I really like about Lloyd’s plays. I don’t have the burden of the historic background having to be in the set. I try to make it just one thing and then have the character talk. This was true for the first production of The Chinese Lady. Far Country. Bina’s Six Apples, too. I have the opportunity to support his plays in that way, that has been a great experience. It makes this work actually very easy. I don’t have to do a “big showdown.” I don’t have to do a “big reveal.” It’s the person telling the story and going through a journey, and, I think, people are very moved by that. The unfolding of events.

It’s always an honor to do a play like this; and I am so lucky that I get to do this this season. For me, working with Asian American playwrights has given me a great sense of purpose. I get to do so many other things, but I always get to do this. This is a project just for me.

Tell me about your Thanksgivings. Chuseok, the fall harvest festival, in Korea while you were growing up and how do you celebrate American Thanksgiving today?

With my family, Chuseok is a big deal. It’s an ancestral, family-centered gathering. We spend it 70% of the time with my father’s family and 30% of time with my mother’s family. Both houses have food galore. Big family gathering. But because its family, fighting all the time. With my mom’s family, it’s a really funny tradition. Her youngest brother is a medical doctor, so he would bring flu shots! After dinner, everybody gets shot. Like, everybody say, “Oh, how are you doing?” Then you get shot. That’s my memory.

Now I have an annual Thanksgiving dinner with one of my best friends from Yale, Glynis Rigsby. She teaches at the New School. She and her family, they have me and my daughter over. We’ve been having Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together for at least 6 or 7 years. It has become tradition. This Thanksgiving, after we finish tech on Tuesday, I’m going to get on the train to go to New York on Wednesday morning, to Brooklyn to spend Thanksgiving with them, and come back to Boston.

It can be easy for people who don’t have family in the United States to feel intimidated or excluded. But I learned that it doesn’t have to be blood-related. The people you love and cherish and make your own traditions in your own generation. Ever since I had my child, everything I do, she’s going to remember and that becomes tradition for her. I can’t flip everything and say, oh, this Christmas, we’re going to Hawaii. I can’t do that anymore. Because she expects a Christmas tree, she expects the present opening, and she expects dinner at this house.

I don’t feel like a nomad anymore, which is an amazing feeling. As long as I can, I get to see the people I love. And we remember having good food and good conversation. We have a Thanksgiving poem that we read together! And, the funny thing is that my daughter, she wrote an essay about Glynis’ husband’s food on Thanksgiving because that’s the meal that she thinks of when she thinks of traditions.