When Veralynn Jackson (Julanne Chidi Hill) first meets Mr. Kim (Ryun Yu) at his beauty shop, she sees an opportunity to take care of her daughter while at work. The only condition? For Mr. Kim Veralynn to call Julie.
The opening scene of Inda Craig-Galván’s new play with East West Players, The Great Jheri Curl Debate, reflects a similar moment in her mother’s life. Craig-Galván says the name stuck with her mother, Vernell; Even family members ended up calling her Julie.
Now, Craig-Galván investigates why her now-deceased mother might have accepted the name by examining the relationship between the two characters. “What allows a grown woman to accept that?” asks Craig-Galván. “To say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure. This person – who is my boss – will give me a different name and I will be okay with that. That forced me to look at why she would do that.”
Developed by East West Players Playwrights Group, The Great Jheri Curl Debate follows Veralynn as she begins working at the Korean Black Beauty Supplies Store and grapples with the invention of the Jheri Curl and a new business partnership. As the two characters get along, a friendship develops.
Craig-Galván focuses much of her work—her work includes the play Black Super Hero Magic Mama and television shows like The Rookie and How to Get Away With Murder—on the experiences of black women. The Great Jheri Curl Debate presented a new challenge: writing a main character outside of her own race. This required collaboration, empathy and dedication to develop the characters’ relationship.
The East West Players Playwrights Group requires contestants to have at least one prominent Asian character in their plays. “She wasn’t sure if the group was for her,” says artistic director Snehal Desai. “She had never written an Asian character before, and that’s what we wanted from her.”
Craig-Galván eventually accepted the challenge, and when she brought in the first few pages of her draft – the opening scene where Mr. Kim Veralynn calls Julie because he can’t pronounce her name – the response was immediate. Dramaturg and Playwrights Group lecturer Alice Tuan says, “All the playwrights and I immediately thought, ‘Wow, that’s something.'”
What particularly struck Tuan was the focus on the relationship between a Korean man and a black woman, something not often seen on stage.
The Playwrights Group was formed in 2019, not long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing Black Lives Matter movement and a surge in anti-Asian hatred and rhetoric across the US. Desai says the piece carries a new weight of mutual support among communities following the events of the past two years.
Tuan recalls that Craig-Galván wrote Mr. Kim so carefully in the beginning that his character seemed secretive. “She didn’t want to offend, take advantage of, appropriate — none of that,” she says. “That’s the scary thing about writing outside of your own race, and that’s why not a lot of people do it.”
Craig-Galván discovered that the path to Mr. Kim’s character was through his artistic side. His mop became a reminder of his passion for painting. As he mops around the shop alone, the world around him comes to life with colorful lighting. It splashes and develops as the mop grows into a giant brush. His love of art helps him bond with Veralynn and her love of wig making. After all, he supports her passion in the shop.
“My concern in writing was to make sure that Mr. Kim is a fully realized, multi-faceted human being, that I understand his grief, and that hopefully the audience will understand,” says Craig-Galván.
She researched Korean immigrants who own cosmetics stores to better understand Mr. Kim. She also worked with director Scarlett Kim and assistant director Jungmok Yi to ensure the way the two leads spoke to each other felt real.
“It was super important to find the right language and understand all the nuances and idioms for certain words being used versus other words. That was so helpful,” says Craig-Galván.
During the workshop of the play with East West Players, Ryun Yu – who plays Mr. Kim – immediately felt the empathy and respect Craig-Galván had poured into his character.
“From the moment I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really special,'” says Yu. “I really loved the character and was amazed that Inda, who isn’t Korean, could create something that just felt so right.”
Craig-Galván paid attention to detail and was keen from the start to bring every part of The Great Jheri Curl Debate to life on stage, says Kim. Kim worked with Craig-Galván to create a space that allowed the actors to respond to and listen to the text, allowing them to follow their impulses.
During rehearsals, Yu says he felt something wasn’t quite right between his character and what was in the script, and Craig-Galván felt it too. “She’s very intuitive,” says Yu.
So they chatted and she shared more sensitive details about Mr. Kim’s backstory, and “it just shook my world,” says Yu. “It totally changed my perspective on it [the play].”
Veralynn and Mr. Kim both have preconceived notions about what the other might be like, says Craig-Galván. Mr. Kim immigrated to the United States and only found out about the black community through the media. Veralynn lives in Chicago, which is segregated at the time of the play, and has only interacted with Asian residents at beauty shops.
“I really wanted these two characters to explore, question, and get a better understanding of that, like you would if you were in a closed room with someone eight hours a day,” says Craig-Galván.
As the characters break away from the miscommunication, they find common ground. Kim recalls a scene where Mr. Kim tells Veralynn to be “meaner” with customers. He explains that business cannot go well, otherwise the white landlords would raise the rent.
“They realized, ‘Oh, we both have a relationship with a white-dominated culture, and that kind of frames our suffering and our existence,'” says Kim.
Kim adds, “I keep calling it a love story because they start to see each other with love.”
During the play, the two characters begin to open up to each other. “It’s like an iceberg where there’s a little bit floating above the surface, but underneath this whole well-designed three-dimensional world,” says Yu.
Craig-Galván says The Great Jheri Curl Debate brings real interactions to the stage without the white stare. “We interact with each other every day, we worked together,” she says. “I’m really interested in the stories that have nothing to do with conflict over misunderstanding or hate.”
She adds: “I want to see how we build things, how we react to each other and learn from each other.”
“The Great Jheri Curl Debate”
Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St.
When: Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. Ends October 9th
Costs: $25 to $65
The information: eastwestplayers.org or (213) 625-7000
Duration: 90 minutes, no break
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-10-03/inda-craig-galvan-great-jheri-curl-debate-play-east-west-players A new L.A. play showcases a relationship rarely seen onstage