[THEATER] Diana Son's "Stop Kiss" and Sandra Oh
- Candor as a Cure for Writer's Block
By JASON ZINOMAN
IT was during a trip to Los Angeles in 2003 that Diana Son was
feeling particularly down about the crippling writer's block she'd
been suffering. It had been more than three years since the runaway
success of "Stop Kiss," the breakthrough play that catapulted Ms.
Son from a struggling writer who composed trivia questions
about "Star Trek" for the Sci-Fi Channel to one of the country's
"Stop Kiss," a 1998 drama about two straight women who fall in love,
starred Sandra Oh, who is now on the hit television series "Grey's
Anatomy." It received mostly positive reviews and was extended three
times, making it one of the longest-running nonmusicals in the
history of the Public Theater.
But after it closed, Ms. Son seemed to disappear from public view.
She and her husband moved to Brooklyn and had a child, Wilder; Ms.
Son only occasionally resurfaced to do interviews for regional
productions of "Stop Kiss." She did some work for television to pay
the bills but couldn't bring herself to finish another play. So
while she was in Los Angeles producing an episode of the NBC
series "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," Ms. Son confided to Ms. Oh
that she had no motivation to put her ideas to paper.
Ms. Oh was, well, blunt. "Sandra said, 'You used to be focused and
ambitious, and then you had Wilder,' " Ms. Son recalled. At first,
she said, the candor hurt. But then Ms. Son did what any good
playwright would do: "I thought, 'Why not write a play about that?' "
Several months later she started writing "Satellites," which starts
previews Sunday at the Public Theater and stars who else? Sandra
Oh. Much has changed in the lives of these old friends since they
last worked together. Ms. Son spends most of her time with Wilder,
now 5. And Ms. Oh has become something of a name, due to her work
in "Grey's Anatomy" (for which she won a Golden Globe this year) as
well as major roles in films like "Sideways," directed by her ex-
husband, Alexander Payne.
In "Satellites," Ms. Oh plays Nina, a Korean-American architect
divorced from her heritage. Yet after having a new baby and moving
with her African-American husband to a gentrifying neighborhood in
Brooklyn, she decides she wants to hire a Korean nanny.
It's a play that young couples who are debating whether to have
children might find terrifying. Nina and her husband, Miles, who is
played by Kevin Carroll, suffer through just about every nightmare
new parents could dream up: money and free time become tight; their
sex life goes on hiatus; and the cultural differences between them,
which once seemed insignificant, threaten to divide them.
Ms. Son, 40, sitting at table with Ms. Oh, 34, in a small second
floor office at the Public, insisted that this is not a cautionary
tale. And, she added strenuously, it is not autobiographical,
despite the many superficial similarities. Like Nina, she is a child
of South Korean immigrants; her mother has died; her husband,
Michael Cosaboom, works in computers (though, unlike Miles, he
wasn't laid off); and of course she has moved to Brooklyn.
"I resent the assumption because people assume that women could not
write about experiences that they didn't have themselves," she
said. "Do people ask Neil LaBute if he dates a fat woman?"
Soft-spoken and reserved, Ms. Son weighed her words carefully before
speaking. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Ms. Oh holding
back about anything. Feisty and often sarcastic, she said she
patterned Nina on her sister, Grace, who is a mother. "I don't have
children, but this play has been a boot camp for that," said Ms. Oh,
looking petite and downtown chic in a short skirt, black T-shirt and
cap. "It's right to have second, third and fourth thoughts about
kids, because you have to know what you're up against. It's really
hard. It's not just the not sleeping. It blows your identity out of
As two of the few prominent women of Korean descent working in
theater, Ms. Son and Ms. Oh have strong opinions about identity, and
both could tell stories of discrimination in show business. But they
approach the question of the relevance of their race in strikingly
"I had to answer that when I first came on the scene," said Ms. Oh,
born and raised in an Ottawa suburb. "I'm not interested anymore. If
you can't get keep up, well, I'm sorry."
By contrast, Ms. Son, who grew up in Dover, Del., said she has
become more interested in her roots since her pregnancy. "My husband
is Caucasian, and when you're pregnant, you start wondering what
your kid is going to look like," she said. "I found myself hoping
that my child would have slanty eyes. That really surprised me."
Ms. Son has explored issues of identity and racial stereotypes in
plays like "Fishes" and "R.A.W. ('Cause I'm a Woman),"
but "Satellites" looks at those issues from a new perspective.
"I have Korean parents, but they didn't teach me to speak Korean,
and they didn't expose me to Korean culture," Ms. Son said. "So I
wondered what I'm passing on to my kid. Do I have anything to offer
him? That became something to explore in Nina and Miles, who are
disconnected from their cultures."
Ms. Oh has participated in readings of every play by Ms. Son since
they met in 1995 in Los Angeles while involved in the New Works
Festival, and Ms. Son said she wrote the part of Nina with Ms. Oh in
mind. That resemblance becomes clear after just a few minutes with
the two women. For one thing, Nina and Ms. Oh both like to curse.
And then there's that certain brassy confidence which, at least in
the play, is shaken.
"She's always been so comfortable with herself and so deeply
rooted," Ms. Son said of Ms. Oh. Recalling their first meeting, Ms.
Son said, her first impression of Ms. Oh was "Who is this
terrifyingly uninhibited person?"
Ms. Oh, who said she had merely been thrilled to meet a Korean-
American playwright, laughed. "You thought, 'Who is this
terrifyingly uninhibited person?' " she asked. "I was like, 'She's a
good cook.' That says a lot."