The Great Jheri Curl Debate at East West Players explores the relationship between Veralynn Jackson (Julianne Chidi Hill) and Mr. Kim (Ryun Yu), and many different forms of racial bias.
Award winning playwright Inda Craig-Galván created a heartfelt, whitty and incredibly written play that East West Players performed beautifully. Directed by Scarlett Kim, this piece is a meditation on racial bias, overcoming certain preconceived notions, and creating a beautiful relationship.
The play begins with hair expert Veralynn taking a job at Mr. Kim’s beauty supply store. Mr. Kim refuses to try saying her name, only calling her “Julie.” However, Veralynn doesn’t let that slow her in quickly improving the store’s presentation. Everything seems to be going well until the posters on the wall of the store start speaking to her, making her question her true path, and whether Mr. Kim will hold her back or help her soar.
As I took my seat, it did not take long for me to feel transported into the world of the beauty supply store, even before the actors entered the stage. The set design by Carlo Maghiriang didn’t romanticize the setting as some productions would. The floors were not spotless and the store didn’t look brand new. The windows were dirty and the shelves looked rickety. This was a great example of an environment used to set the scene and assist in telling the story. At first, the set felt bare and admittedly, it was underwhelming. However, as the story progressed, the play added more and more props to the stage, and we got to experience the fullness of a well dressed set gradually, which was a great choice.
The lighting design by Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew stood out to me as not only very impressive, but almost having a separate narrative. I enjoyed how Chew drew a bare outline of the set with light, and spun it to show the passing of time. It took me a while to figure out, but when I did, I felt like I was along for the ride. The effect of the posters on the walls suddenly and almost seamlessly becoming animated was also something I certainly didn’t expect and was pleasantly surprised to see done so well.
This production had a beautiful taste for simplicity. The subtlety in staging and storytelling was truly beautiful. For example: our first glimpse of life happens when the landline rings and Mr. Kim runs on stage as if about to answer, but pauses right before the phone and waits there, hand outstretched until he misses the call. INCREDIBLE! Right off the bat, we got a simultaneously clear and ambiguous idea of who this character is. Even after this short little scene with absolutely no dialogue, I could tell that Yu’s performance would be one to remember.
Mr. Kim spends the play constantly awaiting a phone call from his lawyer which we later find out is regarding his son. As we learn more about the situation, we get to experience a softer, more raw side of the seemingly grumpy persona, and ultimately, at the end of the show we learn the heartbreaking truth of his situation; the call regarding his son that had been referenced throughout the show was actually regarding his late son’s ashes. He had been waiting for them to be shipped from Korea. It was wonderful writing and beautifully executed. Revealing his tragic past after the audience grew attached and began rooting for him was a wonderful choice and made for a shattering end to the story.
Yu did an incredible job that reminded me what acting and theater is all about. He was thoughtful, intentional, and respectful towards the character he portrayed; his character work and ability to be charming and lovable, even when not being particularly nice, was definitely a highlight. There was a powerhouse present in that theater, and his name is Ryun Yu.
Of course, to even begin to cover the beauty of this show we must talk about the wonderful character that was Veralynn. When Veralynn showed up, the air in the room changed. Hill’s overall performance was fantastic; she took charge of the stage within her first moments existing on it. Her aura was charming and powerful; with every moment she spent on stage, I wanted to be her friend more and more. Her wittiness and charm made her character so fun to watch go about life. I appreciated how much energy and thought she put into every line she delivered. As an empathetic (and sometimes even nosy) person, I related to Veralyn on a deep and personal level. Her raw emotion and empathy for Mr. Kim made for a heartfelt story about a complicated relationship.
On the same line, I believe the relationship between Veralynn and Mr. Kim was the true star of the show. Yu’s and Hill’s portrayal of this real-feeling relationship with arguments and laughter, highs and lows, and genuine care for each other was lovely and meaningful. I loved how they didn’t shy away from showing the biases that each of them had and how they overcame them. For example, there were several scenes in the show where Mr. Kim referenced a meeting where business owners are taught how to “deal with” members of the Black community that go to their stores. Veralyn quickly schools Mr. Kim and says: “That wasn’t a training course. It was a warning.” Mr. Kim then reveals that he stormed out of said meeting, right when he saw through the racist motives. This is just one of many examples of learning from each other and becoming better people together. Hill and Yu’s chemistry made for an incredible performance.
Overall, I truly enjoyed East West Players’ production of The Great Jheri Curl Debate. Scarlett Kim’s directing was masterful and the rest of the crew built off of her vision to make something truly special. Well done to the cast and crew of The Great Jheri Curl Debate, and I look forward to seeing many more brilliant shows at East West Players.
The Great Jheri Curl Debate took place at East West Players on September 15 — October 9, 2022. For more information see here.