Just A Nice Korean Girl From Delaware
Profile of Playwright, Producer and Screenwriter Diana Son by Julie Young
On a recent slightly blustery and rather gray Sunday, I sat in the middle of a small art gallery in Brooklyn. The sounds of Miles Davis and an espresso maker periodically competing with one another in the background. With my overpriced latte in hand, I looked forward to conversing with Diana Son. Had she not been taking the time to sit down with me for an interview, you may have found her running after her four year old twins at the playground in her brownstone lined neighborhood of Boerum Hill.
Or perhaps you would find her with her nine year old son going over some homework or maybe just cooking a meal for her family where she is completely outnumbered. Three boys and a husband make Diana the only female in her household. The demographic of her household stands in stark contrast to the way her mother grew up as one of five daughters. Her grandparents, in the male biased country known as Korea, were so desperate for a boy that they adopted one of their nephews.
Being a mom of twins has enormous rewards and enormous challenges. I know because my son and daughter are at the rambunctious age of three and a half. Having just one child is both physically and mentally demanding, let alone having three! Add to Diana’s busy family life a highly successful full-time career as a playwright and television writer/producer and movie screenwriter and what you get is the whole package. Diana exudes the quintessential New York City Mom-with-a-career. She is super woman extraordinaire with a beautiful family and a career to be envied. Yeah, she’s the kind of woman you want to hate but, you know what, you just can’t.
It hasn’t always been easy for Diana juggling her career and her family. The summer of 1999 she and her husband moved out to Los Angeles so that she could work on “The West Wing.” She didn’t like living in L.A. and took it as a clear sign that she was meant to be in New York when she promptly got pregnant upon her return to the Big Apple. In a self-mocking dramatic voice, Diana explained, “It’s obvious that I’m supposed to be here!” She and her husband had been trying to get pregnant the whole time they were in L.A. but to no avail. Then when her younger children, the twins, were just two years old during the summer of 2008 she uprooted her entire clan out to the West Coast so that she could work on the show “Southland”.
When fall came, her family moved back to Brooklyn and she started an exhaustion inducing weekly coast-to-coast commute. (The thought alone is enough to make a girl want to cry! I will never complain about my commute again!) “Although I was very proud to be a part of “Southland” because I think it is one of the most innovative shows out there,” Diana remembers, “I was somewhat relieved when it was canceled after commuting to L.A. from Brooklyn for so many months.”
Diana much prefers the East coast. She was born and grew up in the racially-mixed town of Dover, Delaware in the house where her father still lives. She grew up in a family of four with her mother and “Golden Child” older brother. Unlike many Korean immigrant stories, Diana’s parents were not married when they came to America in the very early 1960s. Her mother came on a nurses exchange program and her father to attend The Philadelphia College of Pharmacy School. Apparently, Diana has a Gran Turino with a white racing stripe to thank for her parents getting together. Her parents met through a Korean carpool. Fortunately, Diana’s mom had a thing for guys with cool cars. Otherwise the world of theater would never have been graced with Diana’s award winning plays such as “Stop Kiss” and “Satellites.”
My interest in Diana was piqued immediately upon hearing that she was a successful Korean-American playwright and writer/producer for television and movie screenwriter. (Let’s be honest, you probably can’t name another one.) I read “Stop Kiss” and “Satellites” on my commute via the B train over a couple of days. Reading the plays took me back to my teenage years when I had lofty dreams of being an academy award winning actress. (Seriously, how did I become a lawyer?!) It had been that long since I held a play in my hands and read it through.
“Stop Kiss” is the hit play that, in her words, “blew the doors wide open” for Diana in 1998. The story which centers around two straight women who become attracted to each other, is provocative and powerful. Diana’s interest in writing about identity, but not yet wanting to be race specific, inspired her to use sexuality as the identity issue in “Stop Kiss.” “It gave me flexibility without having to be race specific,” noted Diana. After reading or seeing “Stop Kiss” many assumed that Diana was gay. She was often asked to speak on panels or at different events to which she would respond positively but with the needed clarification that she was not gay.
After “Stop Kiss” and as a new Mom, Diana experienced a temporary bout of the dreaded writer’s block. She was completely focused on taking care of her first born son. It was her good friend, actress Sandra Oh who played leads in both “Stop Kiss” and “Satellites” who gave her the tough love she needed to get writing again. Miss Oh let Diana know that the writer in her was being morphed by the new mom in her. (Can I get an amen from anyone who can relate to that one!) She told her to get over it and to get writing again. This was the jump start that helped Diana to create “Satellites.”
After the success of “Stop Kiss” one of the stark lessons Diana learned, “was that when writing, sometimes it is necessary to be race specific. Even though the direction in “Stop Kiss” says to cast the play to reflect the diversity of New York City,” Diana found, “that more often than not the lead roles were cast with someone who was white.” With “Satellites” Diana decided to tackle identity in a race specific way.
Nina, the lead female character and Miles, the lead male character are a Korean and Black couple. Neither one having any real connection to their cultural roots. Nina, as the child of first generation immigrants and Miles as a Black man who was adopted and raised by a white family. In the play, they are new parents and have just moved into a brownstone in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. While reading the play, there were times when I felt like Diana had written about my life. I can relate to both Nina and Miles. Nina wanted to hire a Korean nanny so that their child could learn to speak Korean – check. Nina does not speak Korean – check. Miles was adopted by a white family – check. Being a new parent, living in Brooklyn, and, oh yeah, being a Korean woman married to a Black man – check, check and check! The similarities between the play and my life are profound. Diana pictured Nina and Miles as “satellites” unto themselves, having no real connections to any cultural roots. For people of color, this is a common and integral struggle that we go through. The play is poignant, modern and realistic. With all of the parts that I could personally relate to, though it is not a comedy, I found myself chuckling more than a few times on the B train while reading the play.
As a young girl, I started keeping a journal and writing short stories in about fifth grade. I loved writing in my journal, and still do when I can find a rare moment to sit quietly. My love for writing continued to grow throughout my life but unlike Diana, I had no idea when I was young, that one could grow up and actually have “Writer” as a profession. Diana knew she wanted to be a writer from the time that she was nine years old. Growing up beneath the wings of her aforementioned “Golden” brother was not easy. At the beginning of each new school year, she would hear the same thing from her teacher, “Oh Diana Son, you must be Grant’s little sister. I hope you are as good as he is.” This was understandably demoralizing to Diana.
Then one fateful day in fourth grade around the holidays, her teacher gave the class an assignment to write a meaningful essay about something for which they were truly thankful. Despite her brother’s “Golden child” status, Diana wrote her essay about her love and gratitude for her family. After handing in the essays, her teacher was extremely disappointed. Diana’s classmates had written about their bike or their toys or their clothes. The teacher reprimanded the class for not following her instruction to write about something that was meaningful. However, after her reprimanding, the teacher told the class, “The only person who wrote something meaningful was Diana Son and I am going to hang her essay up… right… here.” “That was the moment I knew I would be a writer,” Diana explained. She added, “It doesn’t take much, does it?”
If you are a 1.5 or second generation child of immigrants, it may come as no surprise to you that Diana’s parents were not thrilled about her wanting to be a writer. When she was younger, Diana’s parents were amused by the idea but they would tell her the usual admonition of conservative parents who just want the best for their child – that she would starve, or from her mother – that she would have to marry rich (which is ironic since Diana is now the primary breadwinner in her family.) When Diana started NYU in the fall of 1983 her parents made her minor in journalism. “They believed that I could, at least, make a living that way,” says Diana. Unlike some parents though (whether immigrants or not), Diana’s parents were also supportive. “My parents did not completely destroy my dream either. I was always ambitious and even while in high school, I wrote for legitimate newspapers and rock magazines, my parents liked that and were impressed and so they supported me in it.”
Originally, Diana thought she was going to be a novelist. It was not until her senior year of high school when she went on a field trip to New York City to see Hamlet at the Public Theater that she decided to be a playwright. “The experience was transformative for me.” Afterward she knew she had to be in New York. “Despite feeling somewhat out of my league,” what with all of the hipness that exists and is created in New York, at the same time Diana felt “there was something so leveling and egalitarian about the theater.” She was drawn to the sense of community that can be created amongst the audience through the theater. In her junior year at NYU Diana changed her major to dramatic literature. Initially, as a playwright, Diana wanted to write more avant garde, audience challenging material but she came to realize that her strength was in domestic situations and naturalistic dialogue. With “Stop Kiss” and “Satellites” though, her ability to challenge the audience is clear.
Diana’s transition to the very different world of television was relatively easy. Currently, she is a Consulting Producer for the new CBS series “Blue Bloods.” (That is when she’s not going over the pilot she just wrote for A&E or touching up the play that she is re-writing, as well.) She is able to work well in television because she has the ability to be collaborative. In the world of theater the playwright is the Queen Bee. Diana explains that, “In television one must have a flexible ego because it is not all about you – you are just one of the crew.” In speaking with Diana, I immediately sensed that she is down to earth, someone I’d actually want to hang out with. Not something that can be said for all television industry types.
Being a Korean-American woman makes her a rarity in the world of television. Diana insists that this fact has neither hindered nor helped her career. However, she has definitely experienced being on the receiving end of stereotyping. Recently, she was working on a television show that was shooting an episode with a story line based in Chinatown. She was constantly being asked how to say something in Cantonese or similar questions. Her natural response to such questions was, “I don’t know! I’m just a nice Korean girl from Delaware!” Diana’s bottom line is that no one should have to categorize themselves. “I believe that no artist should feel an obligation to represent their community; the choice should be theirs. Like with me, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.”
As a fledgling writer myself, I asked Diana for any advice she might have for us wanna-be writers. Although she has had somewhat of an admittedly charmed career, Diana told me of the times when she was writing and producing her first plays, how she would be running from (and missing part of) rehearsal to the printer to pick up fliers. How she organized her own fundraisers; in other words, she did it all herself back in the beginning. She encourages us writers, who can have a tendency to be passive, to be assertive and to put ourselves out there, to bounce back from any rejection, to be creative.
“Ultimately, you want to be a writer, not necessarily a Korean-American writer. People are attracted to me (in the industry) purely because I am a good writer. Just write, don’t ask for permission, just keep writing. Give voice to your own experiences, do what speaks to you.” Sound advice from a remarkable woman.
DIANA SON is an award-winning playwright, a writer and producer for television, and a screenwriter. Her plays Stop Kiss and Satellites premiered at The Public Theater. Stop Kiss won the GLAAD Media Award for Best New York Production and was on the Top 10 Plays lists of the New York Times, New York Newsday, the New York Daily News, and other major publications. Son also won the Berilla Kerr Award for playwriting. Stop Kiss, published as a trade paperback by Overlook Press, has been produced at hundreds of theatres nationally and abroad. Her play BOY premiered at La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of her frequent collaborator Michael Grief, and Fishes was produced by New Georges in New York City. Her short play R.A.W.(‘Cause I’m a Woman) premiered at the Ohio Theatre in SoHo and has been anthologized in a number of collections. Among the many theatres that have produced Son’s plays are the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Delaware Theatre Company, Brava Theater Center, Geva Theatre Center, and People’s Light and Theatre Company. Son has been the recipient of an NEA/TCG Residency grant at the Mark Taper Forum and a Brooks Atkinson Fellowship at the Royal National Theatre in London. She has taught playwriting at Yale University and New York University and organized a playwriting workshop for caregivers of the disabled in Los Angeles, California. Son was co-executive producer of the TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and is currently the Consulting Producer of the CBS series “Blue Bloods.” She has also written a number of TV pilots for CBS, a television movie for Showtime, and feature films for Fine Line and Robert Greenwald Productions. Son is a member of the Writers Guild of America, East; the Dramatists Guild of America; and Women in Theatre; and is an alumnus of New Dramatists. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and 3 children.