It was an honor for me to get to talk to Chaesong Kim ’18 about her senior thesis performance, 엄마, (“Dear Mom,”). I could already tell that her show would be surprising, and I could not wait to peek behind the curtains of Gannett Theater last Thursday, March 22. I got the chance to talk with Kim a few hours before the performance premiered, and both she and I were thrilled. I have always admired Kim’s ability to patiently explain the most complex ideas and concepts in the simplest ways; in talking about 엄마, (“Dear Mom,”) with me, Kim went above and beyond. The show, which is a letter to Kim’s mother, explored Kim’s personal story and trajectory at Bates with a particular emphasis on her identity politics and South Korean identity. Kim, who wrote and directed the show, crafted a method and process to communicate with her mother and gain agency over her personal story.
The performance was complex. Stories about Bates, identity, violence, Kim’s mother, and social activism, all mixed together in a dazzling combo of narratives. I was particularly interested in Kim’s representation of the daily micro-aggressions that international students suffer every day at Bates, from misconceptions to exoticization. While Kim represented her own experiences, the violence of the performance was very close to home for me as a Brazilian student who had just had the displeasure of hearing that “Latin America is a weird, cool place.” In the performance, Kim asks “What is that supposed to mean?” and I asked the same question countless times over and over again. While Kim’s performance is deeply her own, the personal quickly becomes political. Kim told me in interview that she took her performance as a research process to delve into questions such as “Who gets to be canon? And who gets to own what rhetoric?” Kim tackled stories that need to be heard, from a representation of a mother-daughter relationship to the history of late 1980s social activism in South Korea. Even though Kim’s performance portrays fragments of her personal experience as a South Korean woman studying at a liberal arts college, there was a collective dimension to it for me.
The performance was selectively bilingual; sometimes Kim would speak in English and sometimes in Korean. Subtitles appeared on and off and gave a poetic atmosphere to what seemed to be a very literal script. The videos, animations, lighting, and sound also added another dimension to the otherwise raw stories. I felt like both an insider and an outsider simultaneously in an interesting way; the performance was both too close and too far away from home for me. A few things were hard for me to grasp, such as what the relationship between Kim and her mother is, the details of the June Democracy Movement in South Korea, and the symbolism of 당산나무 (Dang-san Tree). Other times, the performance was relatable and shocking to me.
Kim is aware that her senior thesis is a one-of-a-kind, and there haven’t been many other works like that at Bates before, if any at all. “It is amazing the amount of support that I got . . . but it was definitely something new that some people had trepidation about,” Kim told me in explaining how the multimedia and multidisciplinary piece came together through empathy and good hearts. Innovation comes with challenges. Kim told me that there were times in which she questioned herself in creating this: “Would people be interested in this? . . . People are not interested in this. They want to hear Shakespeare. Who would want to hear a woman of color, super young, doesn’t speak all that fluently, not hugely talented technician in any field?”
Kim is particularly brave in undertaking the heavy performance as a letter to her mother. In the interview, Kim told me that at her last dress rehearsal, her mother was present virtually via Skype. “It was a surreal experience. . . She was bawling her eyes out; I was bawling my eyes out,” Kim described, after telling me that the performance was a surprise to her mother.
Kim combined many complicated issues in this piece. Discussing empathy, violence, and personal relationships is no easy task. Arranging that in two languages, different artistic mediums, and academic vocabulary is more than challenging. Transforming that into a collaborative endeavor and into a letter seems unimaginable. I look forward to seeing this piece go forward – as Kim tells me, “this is not an end-point.”