THEATER : June Kyoko Lu’s Wait Is Over : For this veteran Asian American actress, her role as Forgiveness From Heaven in ‘The Waiting Room’ at the Mark Taper Forum is a heavenly blessing indeed.
A lone fuchsia bougainvillea stem rises out of a tall vase at the center of a table covered with an off-white cloth, in a quietly elegant dining alcove. The dark wood-paneled walls are filled with tasteful prints and paintings.
Theater posters for “The Phantom of the Opera” and “King Lear” hang alongside Asian masks in the adjacent living room where June Kyoko Lu sits, surrounded by more artwork, much of it of her own making. It is a setting as rich with cultural resonance and full of warm welcome as the actress herself.
Lu, who’s currently appearing in the Mark Taper Forum production of Lisa Loomer’s “The Waiting Room,” has long been familiar to Los Angeles audiences from her work at the late Los Angeles Theatre Center and on smaller local stages, including, most notably, East West Players.
But this role is a breakthrough. Lu plays Forgiveness From Heaven, a wealthy 18th-Century Chinese woman with bound feet. And though the actress is Korean-born, the role is strangely--and perhaps sadly--familiar.
“The inner life of Forgiveness I know well from watching my mother,” says Lu. “She was a college graduate, but she had no life. She lived through my dad, who was the worst womanizer. I forgave him. I had to, for my own happiness. But I don’t forget what kind of life she led. I said to myself never in my life, never would I be like her, even though I adored her.”
The actress does indeed make Forgiveness From Heaven ring eerily true. “Everything she does has the weight of experience behind it and yet she is beautifully open and has this innocence as an actress that is so beguiling,” says director David Schweizer. “She is also fiercely committed. She’ll work and work, but she does it all in this spirit of complete openness and truth-telling.”
It’s a good example of how an actor can use her own background to bring a character to life. “It surprised me how easily I could step in (to such a role),” says Lu. “I know this so well in my bones. I know so many other women even in this day and age--even some of my contemporaries--who live totally for men with no lives of their own, no self-esteem, nothing. In Asian culture, it’s like an insult to a man if a woman has a career. It’s heartbreaking. (In the role of Forgiveness,) I can use all that I know.”
“The Waiting Room,” which is a comedy about three women from different centuries who come together in a contemporary doctor’s office, attacks America’s current health-care system. And for this reason too, it strikes a chord with Lu. “I have six medical doctors in my family and I’m doing this play!” she says, clearly savoring the irony.
In fact, Lu puts her faith in precisely the kind of alternative therapies that “The Waiting Room” suggests are anathema to the Western health-care system. “I believe in holistic natural medicine,” she says.
“I had a locked jaw one time and couldn’t eat or speak and the acupressure person cured me in five seconds,” Lu continues. “I tell my sister who is a doctor (such) stories and she says, ‘Don’t tell me about it. You are crazy.’ This play connected me to all these things.”
Yet even if “The Waiting Room” didn’t have such personal resonance for Lu, it would still be a rare opportunity. For even in the wake of 1990’s “Miss Saigon” controversy--which centered on the casting of a white actor in the role of a Eurasian--multidimensional roles for Asian American actresses remain few and far between, especially on the main stages of such major regional theaters as the Taper.
“We (Asian American actresses) don’t get this kind of stuff often,” says Lu. “A ‘Joy Luck Club’ (comes along) maybe every 15 years and you cannot wait for it. I feel so blessed, I want to cry. I just feel like a lucky star shone on me. I just want more Asian American actors to experience this.”
Lu herself knows many of L.A.'s Asian American theater artists from her days in the Asian American Theater Project at LATC. Lu also began working with the then LATC-based Women Artists Group during that period, as did playwright Loomer, and that is where “The Waiting Room” began.
It was just fortunate happenstance that both women were in attendance on the day that Loomer was ready to have a reading of what would eventually become a scene in her play. “I usually missed a lot of the Women Artists Group meetings because they were Saturday or Sunday mornings,” says Lu. “That morning, I happened to be there. Talk about luck.”
At that point, Loomer had only written one scene. “She was already writing something about cancer, because her mother (had) died of that,” says Lu, referring to the disease that figures into the completed drama. “So she just kept writing, adding scenes.”
Lu and Loomer hit it off so well that after that initial reading, the actress found herself becoming involved in the playwriting process. “I went to the Chinese library and checked out books for Lisa because she was writing for TV then and she was very busy,” says Lu, who also availed herself of the same research materials in order to more fully understand her character. “If I saw any article about foot binding, I saved it so that she could read through it. I was more than happy to do it.”
And the actress has stayed with the play from these initial phases up to its present full production. “She has done every workshop and every production of the piece so far,” says director Schweizer, referring not only to Lu’s Women Artists Group work, but also to the play’s Taper New Work Festival and the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival workshops. Lu also will be the only member of the cast to go with the show in the fall to Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.
“We’ll be rehearsing something for the umpteenth time and she’ll find a way to speak it as though she’s never spoken it before,” Schweizer continues. “Audiences respond to the sense of immediacy around what she’s feeling.”
Of course, the changes of venue along the way have required that Lu make some alterations in her work. “It was an adjustment actually,” she says of making the leap to the Taper. “I was doing small theater for a long time and it’s all of a sudden 10 times as big. In the preview somebody said, ‘June, we can’t hear you,’ and so I was able to make a quick adjustment before the press preview. Training helps.”
There are other differences now as well. “Career-wise, I’m happy that I’m getting paid,” says Lu. “But even if I didn’t get paid, I would do it anyway.”
The artistic satisfaction of working on a character with a detailed emotional history is enough. “This character has a full life, coming from a different time,” says Lu. “She comes from being a gracious and a kind person and being homeless and kicked out all of a sudden and losing her mind.”
Lu--who says that she’d be “committing suicide” if she revealed her age, but that her agent sends her out for parts for someone “between 45 and 55"--has led a pretty full life so far herself. Born in Korea, she spent part of her childhood in Japan and speaks Korean and Japanese.
Her mother died when Lu was only 12 and she was profoundly affected by the loss. “In (an) Asian family, the mother is a kind of bridge between yourself and the father,” she says. “I was quite vulnerable.”
It was a trauma from which the actress has never fully recovered. “I still mourn her death,” she says. “It changed my life. I gained 30 pounds in eight months. I would scream at night with nightmares. It was horrendous.”
Lu finished high school in Korea and came to the United States with her older sister, who had received a scholarship to study medicine in this country. The actress then began her own studies at Cal State L.A. But it wasn’t smooth sailing.
“I was so shy that my speech teacher said, ‘June, you go take some acting classes and get over this shyness.’ I used to, if I was late for class, especially if the door was in front and I’d have to walk in, I’d shake, I was so shy. And that’s when I started to take acting classes.”
Her father, who was still in Korea, wasn’t thrilled with Lu’s course of study. “When I was taking acting classes, he literally freaked out,” she says. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to be a doctor, at least marry one.’ ”
Even Lu, though, was hedging her bets against the stage. “I was actually majoring in education because you have to have a career,” she says. “And I did teach (elementary school in the L.A. Unified School District) for about three years, but I was the most unhappy person.”
Lu sought fulfillment by acting on the side. “I was doing theater at night and that didn’t help,” she says. “Both my acting career and my teaching career suffered.”
After about three years of this regimen, Lu decided to break away. Calling upon the vocal training she’d had in college, Lu signed on as the featured singer with a group of local Asian Americans who billed themselves as Keiko and the Japanese Imperial Dancers. They embarked on a tour of Hiltons and other venues throughout the United States and Canada.
That stint lasted a few years, at which point Lu returned to L.A. to pursue a master’s degree in fine art, also at Cal State L.A. She ended up quitting--"I got sidetracked again,” she says--just seven units shy of completing the program.
Lu didn’t abandon art, though. “I was doing some business with my art,” she says. “I had a display at the Craft and Folk Art Museum and I was actually making some money.”
She translated her knack for design--and another side interest in political campaigns--into a job designing clothes for Kathleen Brown (then Brown-Rice), when she ran for the L.A. Board of Education in 1975 and 1979.
Eventually, though, Lu tired of going from job to job, avoiding what she had come to see as her true calling as an actress. “I was a late bloomer,” she says. “My God, I was over 40 and here I was. I finally realized that what I wanted in life wasn’t fame and money--I just wanted to make a little dent before I left--and it was OK if I ate cottage cheese and hamburger for the rest of my life. It didn’t make any difference to me because I knew clearly that this is what I wanted to do.”
Armed with that clarity, Lu sought further schooling for her chosen vocation. She studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute and with famed director Jose Quintero. “I had to come back to get proper training,” she says. “I spent seven years in grueling training. And I saved every penny, and it was just fine.”
Since the late ‘80s, she’s worked fairly consistently, including such LATC productions as Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” (1991)and a 1993 play by Michael Ahn called “Sidework,” which the actress produced herself, and “The Wedding” at the Taper Too. Lu has also been seen in New York in David Henry Hwang’s “Family Devotions” at the Public Theater.
Much of her work has been in smaller theaters throughout Los Angeles--at East West, she’s been in “Rashomon,” “Asaga Kimashita” and “The Threepenny Opera"--and she’s also appeared on TV in “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” “Shannon’s Deal,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “MASH.” Her most recent film credit is “Menace II Society.”
Lu would naturally like to have more roles as fulfilling as Forgiveness From Heaven. So, partly in order to make that wish a reality, she coordinates the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Center Theatre Group’s play-reading series.
Getting the 3-year-old series going was no mean feat. “It took years for it to materialize,” says Lu, who brought the idea to Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson along with her fiance, Yet Lock, who serves on the Center Theatre Group board of directors. “It’s volunteer work and I’m just thrilled and honored to do it.”
The mission is to help emerging Asian American playwrights develop their work. “I wanted to be in a position where I can at least make a change for people starting out,” says Lu. “We need to nurture Asian playwrights. Otherwise, we have to wait until somebody else writes something for us, and sometimes the voice is different. Sometimes we look at it and it’s not right.”
So far, a number of scripts that have been read in the series --such as Elizabeth Wong’s “Kimchee and Chitlins,” currently playing at the West Coast Ensemble --have gone on to productions at other theaters. And that makes Lu optimistic.
“It is getting better, because we are pressuring,” she says. “We can’t just be complacent and not do anything. Ethnic groups have so much violence and friction, but we’re basically all so much the same. And theater is a place where we can really learn about each other and solve some of the problems.”
* “The Waiting Room,” Mark Taper Forum, L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. $35-$28. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m., (213) 365-3500.