When playwright Anna Moench’s friend told her about a disturbing incident that happened in Los Angeles’ Korean American community — a pastor had placed a camera in a young women’s hotel room on a college ministry mission trip — it caught her attention.
Moench, who is originally from Baltimore and identifies as mixed-race Asian American, was interested in exploring the impact of the male gaze at the moment when teenage girls become aware of it.
“Women are very aware of how men see them in the world, that we are in a world where we are being watched,” Moench said. “Something that I’ve always thought about is that moment in every girl’s life where you become aware of this reality. It’s a very sobering and strange experience.”
Moench ended up writing Man of God, a dark comedy loosely based on the incident, about four Korean American Christian teenage girls — Mimi, Jen, Samantha, and Kyung-Hwa — who travel to Bangkok for a mission trip, only to find a camera in their bathroom.
The play is making its Philadelphia premiere in an InterAct Theatre Company production that opens Wednesday at the Drake (through Feb. 16) after preview performances this weekend and on Tuesday. Actors Annie Fang, Kimie Muroya, Claris Park, and Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters play the young women. Justin Jain is the pastor.
For many years, plays and musicals centering Asian American characters either failed to make it in the mainstream theater world, or were written by white playwrights and composers. But Asian American theater is gaining more attention as a new generation of writers, actors, and producers has begun creating roles that defy historical stereotypes.
Asian American playwrights such as Lauren Yee (The Great Leap) and Julia Cho (Aubergine) have made their way to prominent regional stages, and in 2017, Young Jean Lee became the first Asian American woman to see her play, Straight White Men, open on Broadway.
But for Moench, making her characters Korean American was not an issue of representation — it just felt right for the story she was trying to tell.
“Korean American Christians are a unique subgroup of Americans,” Moench said. “There’s a specificity to that experience that’s important to paint — it’s simultaneously important and not important that they’re Korean American. Basically, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened in this community.”
She said that in the Korean American community, many people who go to churches similar to the one in the play are immigrants because it’s a place where they can meet people and feel less alone. In a way, Moench said, to risk losing that community is a huge cost — a dynamic she addresses in Man of God.
“In this particular community, as parents of these kids, it costs a lot more to believe what the kid is saying,” Moench said. “The church has helped you out with things. It’s more than a place where you go once a week.”
But Man of God isn’t meant to be a heavy play, even though it addresses tough issues like eating disorders, sexual harassment, and assault. When director Maura Krause read Moench’s play for the first time, she was actually drawn to its more fantastical elements, despite being “mostly realism.” She said that it’s “darkly comic” nature also caught her attention.
“Plays that make you laugh your head off one moment and catch your breath in the next are really interesting to me,” Krause said.
Krause said that in her staging of the play, she tries to capture the quickness and hilarity of teenage girls, which helps drive the suspense. The young characters’ lack of self-awareness helps them come across as genuine and funny while something difficult and disturbing is happening.
“So often in our culture, the things that teenage girls love are made fun of, belittled, or dismissed,” Krause said. “But those are the things that they draw strength from. I really hope that when people come to the show, they think about and honor the experience of being a teenage girl. Ultimately it’s a hopeful one, despite being a clear-eyed depiction of this really threatening moment.”
Moench said the comedic elements of the play remind the audience that survivors are still whole people who can be funny and have a good time, while dealing with difficult things. She said that in a way, the narrative of the “broken woman” is a damaging one.
“It’s not that the experience doesn’t carry lifelong scars, or doesn’t affect people, but sometimes the people who seem the most together and most funny deal with the hardest stuff on the inside,” she said. “That’s why to me, the best way to write about really hard things is to laugh. To me, you need both.”
Man of God
InterAct Theatre Co. production through Feb. 16 at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St.
Information: 215-568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.