Soon Tek Oh, a pioneering Asian American actor, founding member of East West Players, and the first Korean actor to perform on Broadway (PACIFIC OVERTURES) passed away on April 4 at the age of 85. In addition to theater, his long list of film and TV credits include the James Bond entry THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, Disney’s MULAN, M*A*S*H, and Chris Chan Lee’s Asian American indie YELLOW. During his career, Mr. Oh had a profound influence on a number of younger artists and two of them share their thoughts, here…
FROM CHIL KONG:
My hero passed away quietly in his sleep on April 4th, 2018. Alzheimer’s and time had taken its toll. Along with Tim Lounibos and Philip Chung, two of my fellow co-founders of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble aka the Asian American theater company we founded in 1999 with Mr. Oh’s guidance, I visited him when we could this past year at various convalescent homes in Los Angeles. We spent that time sharing the same space as he mostly slept, sometimes unaware of our presence, unaware of what he did for us, unaware of what he inspired in us…
He did many things for many people. And others have already succinctly written what he meant to Asian Americans, to Koreans, to Korean Americans, to actors of color, to his Korean church, etc… So I’ll leave it to the greater minds than myself to properly place him in the pantheon of Asian American pioneers.
Mine is a more personal tale.
I first met Mr. Oh as an understudy in the Huntington Theatre Company production of THE WOMAN WARRIOR. At the time, I was in my first year of the Masters of Music program at the Boston Conservatory. Head full of dreams of winning awards as an actor/director, yet filled with all the pangs of potential failure with little support from my Korean family, I was thrust into a cadre of Asian American artists I had never met before nor even knew existed. At the head of this new family was Mr. Oh.
In the short life of a play’s run at Huntington Theatre Company, Mr. Oh took me under his wing and gave me two very important gifts. The first was a simple one. He nurtured a curiosity in the history of Asian American theatre. Before then, I had little interest or need to read the long list of plays that rose out of East West Players and the multiple Asian American theatre companies and writers that followed. Under Mr. Oh’s insistence, I began reading works from playwrights like David Henry Hwang, Velina Hasu Houston, Philip Kan Gotanda, Wakako Yamauchi, Sung Rno among many others. And through these plays, I began to understand that my story was a small strand in a rich tapestry of Asians in America. And I began to understand that my struggles as an artist of color was a small trail off of a well-traveled highway forged on the shoulders of passionate people before me, people like Mr. Oh.
The second gift was a much simpler one, but profound for a young Korean American artist struggling with fulfilling my parents’ dreams against my own. In spending those moments with me, he gave me implicit approval to continue my path as an artist. He was the first Korean to do so. And, though he was not the last, his approval was timely and opened the floodgates of creativity that I had not allowed before. It quickly lead to the founding of Asian on Stage in Boston, which lead me to the San Diego Rep, then to The Northwest Asian American Theatre, and finally to Lodestone Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles.
What I did not know, at the time, was that Mr. Oh saw enough in me from our first meeting in Boston to follow my career. So when I lost my way in Seattle, Mr. Oh reached out.
Seattle was a difficult time. I had what I thought was my dream job as an Artistic Director of a regional theatre company. I thought I had found my artistic home. But, between hubris and a community that I did not understand, I had lost my way. I had forgotten how to learn and, most importantly, how to listen as a community leader. But worst of all, I had lost my passion as an artist.
In this tumultuous time, Mr. Oh kept up with my career and somehow found out I had lost my way. And during a period when I did not know where I was going for the first time, Mr. Oh was a guiding light. Out of the blue, he asked if I’d move down to Los Angeles and take over the Korean American theatre ensemble, then known as the Society of Heritage Performers, that he had founded. At a time when I was being run out of town, Mr. Oh still believed in me. He believed that I could do “wonderful things” in Los Angeles. So I packed my bags and headed to LA.
For those of you who do not know this part of my story, Mr. Oh’s initial plea to take over his company quickly evolved into Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. You can get more info about the company here. Those early years of Lodestone were the most inspired, passionate and loving times of my life.
So, actually, throughout my artistic life, Mr. Oh gave me three gifts: a thirst and understanding of my place in the history of Asian artists in America, approval to stay “true to myself” as an artist, and the family that grew from Lodestone.
I will never be able to re-pay him for what he did for me. How he shaped me as an artist, as a community leader, and as a parent. All I can do is promise to stay true to my artistic self just as Mr. Oh strived to do all his life.
Thank you, Mr. Soon Tek Oh. You were the magnetic rock that pointed true north in stormy seas. You were my lodestone.
FROM TIM LOUNIBOS:
He was a friend, a mentor, and in many ways my Korean father.
The first time I met Soon Tek Oh was during auditions for his Asian American theatrical troupe Society of Heritage Performers – a new multicultural ensemble formed in response to the LA riots, countering the stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans in mainstream media as immigrants and victims of violence – which would explore Korean and Korean American stories presented in the Madong Nori theatre tradition, including Korean classical music and dance. At the time, I had absolutely zero experience in any of this but was Asian and could act.
At the start, I saw Mr. Oh sitting behind a long table, flanked by others, and recognized him immediately (for his was the type of career where anyone would recognize him on sight)…and I was extremely excited to be auditioning for him.
The audition was group-based with a number of would-be members organized in several lines and instructed to follow the leader’s dance moves. Well, my part quickly turned comical (certainly not intentionally), because I absolutely sucked and couldn’t help but laugh at myself while stumbling through the moves; at one point, I hazarded a laugh-filled glance at Mr. Oh and was met with a lazer-glare of disgust followed instantly by a dismissive look away. The laughter stopped immediately but, thankfully, the audition ended with scene work which saved my ass; because I soon found myself embarking on an amazing long-term theatrical and musical experience—with Soon Tek leading the way in those formative years.
He awakened within me a life-changing cultural and community awareness; and while we continually performed and interacted with Korean American partner organizations over the next five years or so, Mr. Oh constantly coached and mentored me (sometimes severely)…and taught me life-lessons through his personal experiences and stories (and his wife Esther, who was wonderfully nurturing in a no-nonsense somewhat-gruff kind of style, became like a second mother to me).
There are so many memories of my time with him, but the most special one was of the two of us driving to No Cal to collaborate with the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco on a reading of Silas Jones’ play CANNED GOODS. He opened up with me about so many personal things on that trip: his early life, his marriage, theatre training at UCLA, the early days as one of the original founders of East West Players (which I would help run years later), a car accident he had been in, acting career, desire to teach in Korea (which he did for the last decade-plus of his life), the differences between eating Korean and Japanese food, and many other things. It was, indeed, a special trip.
There is another memory which counters that one. After several years of performing non-stop with the Society of Heritage Performers (culminating in a trip to Seoul, Korea where we were one of only two US theatrical companies among 300+ performance groups from around the world to perform at the I.T.I. Congress & Theatre of Nations Festival), Soon Tek Oh invited Philip Chung (the group’s main writer) and me (the group’s main actor) to lunch and shared his vision of our group’s future. He wanted to hand the leadership reigns over to the two of us…and I turned him down. Pulled the rug right out from under his plans, because I wanted to focus on my film and television career. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on his face, but he understood and supported the decision.
The silver lining to that memory, though, is that it opened the door for the eventual formation of Lodestone and meeting Chil Kong, who has become a lifelong friend, colleague, and collaborator (here’s another account of our Lodestone collaboration).
Recently, as Mr. Oh battled Alzheimer’s, it was tough to see him diminished in body and mind. He had always carried himself with so much positive pride and a keen awareness of others and his immediate surroundings…but after having moved to Korea for so long, where I’m sure he inspired and guided a whole new generation of theatre artists, it was absolutely wonderful to be around him, once again.
I’m going to miss you, Appa, but now you are free to guide, direct, and perform on an entirely new stage…
For more information regarding upcoming services for Soon Tek Oh taking place April 14 in Los Angeles, please email me at: [email protected]