'Seoul to Soul': Art as a Force for Social Change : Stage: The cast of Mari Sunaida's play gets together to talk about the issues that have divided the African-American and Korean communities.


Next to the videotape of the Rodney King beating, the murkily recorded scuffle between Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du and 15-year-old Latasha Harlins has been the most recurrent sight on TV's evening news ever since they struggled over a bottle of orange juice in Koreatown in March, 1991. Harlins was fatally wounded in the incident, which once again brought to a flashpoint the tensions that for years have been simmering between the Korean and African-American communities in Los Angeles.

There have been boycotts, mayoral strategies, City Council discussions and Korean Chamber of Commerce and Grocers Assn. policy meetings, all of whose efforts to defuse the problem have drawn in groups as disparate as the Los Angeles County Human Relations Committee, the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the NAACP.

But the arts community has been virtually silent on the subject.

Until now.

"Seoul to Soul," which plays tonight at the Philosophical Research Society Auditorium in Los Feliz, is the brainchild of producer and performance artist Mari Sunaida, and for the first time brings together poets, performance artists and one comedian (in actor-emcee Steve Park) from both the Korean and African-American communities.

"I just got tired of waiting for other people to do things," Sunaida said. "My mother is Japanese and my father's a WASP, which makes me a JASP. Having grown up in two cultures has given me deep insight into how difficult it is to operate within a single set of cultural expectations pitted against a larger world. There's a globalization of experience now as different corporations become one corporation, as Europe becomes united. At the same time we have these ethnic and racial strifes that lead to massacres in Armenia and South Africa, and pressures here too that lead to the rise of a David Duke or Patrick Buchanan.

"The new world order should be that everyone recognizes everyone else as human beings with equal rights. Everybody's going: 'Mine is more important.' From the darkest color spectrum to the lightest, we're not different animals. I'm worried that if these tensions keep up, we'll have a war."

The roster of performers includes Arjuna (whose father is English and mother is Korean), Park, Houston Blue, Wanda Coleman, Nat Jones, Chungmi Kim, Sae Lee, Lynn Manning, Nefertiti Shackelford and Ko Won, all of whom (except Ko) met on a recent sunny afternoon to talk about the issues that have brought them together.

The meeting among the performers began on a lighthearted note. Poet Coleman introduced herself as a "cultural terrorist," and everyone laughed. "Mental patient," is how Park introduced himself. "Just call me M. C. Park, yo yo yo!" Others picked up the chant. But quickly the tone darkened as the agitation they all felt rose to the surface. Even among this acutely well-intended group, unresolved cross purposes emerged.

"The faces have changed but the game is the same," Coleman said. "Seventy-thousand blacks have been pushed out of their neighborhoods since Watts. The community is becoming literally erased. The nationality of who comes in doesn't matter. I've seen stores go from Jewish-owned to Mexican-owned to Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Iranian-owned. But never black-owned."

As a statistical backdrop to Coleman's remarks, according to the city's Human Relations Commission, the Korean population of Los Angeles has grown from 9,000 to 250,000 in the past 20 years, with more than half of that population owning and operating businesses with four employees or less. Correspondingly, the percentage of African-Americans in the South-Central region has declined from 90% to 50%. Since the turnover of the Korean businesses is 30% as their owners become upscale and move out, the cycle becomes one of new faces unfamiliar with old problems, and unequipped to deal with them.

"I live on 6th and Manhattan Place," said poet-playwright Lynn Manning. "I resent the fact that my neighborhood is now dubbed Koreatown. I'm not Korean. Lots of people there aren't Korean. I don't even think the store owners came up with the name. Who did?"

"The city," Coleman said.

"I'm speaking as a Korean American," poet Chungmi Kim said. "The problem between Koreans and African-Americans is that Koreans didn't know people of color before coming here. The first generation is uneducated about this."

"I'd say that we're trying to clarify what has not been done by the news media, which has treated the question with a superficial touch," said Sae, who is a poet. "What we want to do as individuals is touch each other's hearts and understand each other's minds, rather than try and solve problems that were here before us."

"There's an awful lot of pain here," said poet Nat Jones. "As artists, we try to articulate that."

"Latasha Harlins, that was me bein' shot," Coleman said. "As a black person, you don't touch me. That's a violation. You don't call me out of my name. That is something that comes out of a ghetto existence."

"Yet in Korea, stealing is a taboo," Chungmi said.

"It wasn't stealing," said writer-director Shackelford. "Who's to say it was, if you lay your money on a counter and walk out?"

"There has to be a dialogue," Coleman said. "You have to start somewhere."

"God put all people on the planet," poet Houston Blue said. "Every culture has some gift to the world community. I find this society screwed-up."

"Give it a specific," Coleman answered. "It's OK if my life is equal to yours. It's different when other people's lives are more valued than black lives."

After Shackelford observed that prejudice was a reflection of a dominant society's attitude toward newcomers, Sae replied: "The problem here has been that government is more abundant in some areas of society and not in others. But I feel fortunate to live in a country like this. If a clash happens elsewhere in the world, there's no dialogue like this. We don't need a socialist or communist system for an answer. If we saw more artistic expression, like we do on KCET, maybe our life story would be changed."

A murmur of agreement ran through the group.

Steve Park cautioned that racism has its reverse angles. "I played the Korean grocery clerk in Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing,' " he said. "Whenever it was time for us to shoot a scene, you'd hear 'Let's get the Koreans.' I asked Spike to call us by our names. These people were supposed to be enlightened. I like to be referred to by my name."

The question came up about whether, as art, "Seoul to Soul" could be expected to have any kind of therapeutic effect.

"Art has a therapeutic effect if it moves you," Manning said. "If it doesn't move, it isn't art."

"It is pure water," Sae said.

"Aristotle's 'Poetics' calls it cathartic," said Nat Jones.

"It's a reflection of who you are," Arjuna said. "All art has politics. My intention is for it to have a healing effect."

"There have been so many Korean-American market owners killed," said Chungmi, thinking of an earlier part of the discussion. "What about them? I feel this rage."

"We can't just talk among ourselves," Sae said.

"But we have to start somewhere," Chungmi said.

The Philosophical Research Society is at 3910 Los Feliz Blvd. at Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 660-8587. Admission: $10. Performance begins at 8 p.m.

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