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THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY: Preston Choi’s Comic Critique of Fictional Asian Women as Tragic Heroines

By Robert St. Martin

Reena Dutt, director of _This Is Not a True Story_

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/18/23 – Saturday September 16 was the beginning of a new season of plays at the Latino Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street in Downtown L.A. Featured was the opening night of a new play “This Is Not a True Story,” written by Preston Choi and directed by Reena Dutt. Set for a five-week run, “This Is Not a True Story” upends the tired racist tropes as the fictional worlds of three Asian women from opera, Broadway, and film collide with the real world. Julia ChoZandi De Jesus and Rosie Narasaki star as three Asian “tragic heroines”: “Cio-Cio” from Madame Butterfly, “Kim” from Miss Saigon, and “Kumiko/Takako” from the 2015 film, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. Each is trapped in a loop she can’t control – until they work together to claim agency over their lives and forever break the cycle. 

Preston Choi, playwright

This nuanced comedy takes on the cultural stereotypes of Asian women who are often portrayed as tragic heroines who give up everything to uncaring and hypocritical white American men. As director Dutt explains: “Through the comedy that ensues from Cio-Cio and Kim’s self-revelations, it’s a surprise to find out Kumiko’s truths considering she’s based on a real person, Takako Konishi, who was unfortunately misrepresented in film. Who knows, maybe Cio-Cio and Kim were based on real people who were twisted as well?” 

Kumiko imagines that there is a way out & off this endless play
Cho-Cho-San (Julia Cho) & Kim (Zandi de Jesus)

Madama Butterfly, the renowned opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, is the story of Cio-Cio-San (Julia Cho), a Japanese geisha who gives up everything to marry American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton – a heartless cad who ultimately abandons her and their young son with devastating results. When asked, Cio-Cio says that her last name is “Pinkerton” as she cannot remember her own last name. She is asked about her age which we assume she is older, but she is only 15. As we know from the opera Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio’s marriage to Pinkerton was arranged, as she her father is dead and her mother sold her to a geisha house. We are introduced first to Cio-Cio on stage alone and she attempted to talk about herself but is force constantly forced to repeat memorized lines from the opera (here in English) and condemned to re-enact her tragic suicide with a dagger endlessly. 

Julia Cho as Cho-Cho-San or Madama Butterfly re-enacting her death scene
Kim (Zandi de Jesus), the Vietnamese bar girl from _Miss Saigon_

In Miss Saigon, the epic musical based on Puccini’s opera, Kim (Zandi de Jesus) is a Vietnamese bar girl in love with an American G.I. named Chris who abandons her during the fall of Saigon, as he is evacuated out of Saigon by military helicopter from the American Embassy. Kim’s story begins in April 1975 at “Dreamland,” a Saigon bar and brothel, and it was Kim’s first day as a bargirl. The seventeen-year-old peasant girl is hauled in by the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese hustler who owns the joint. Backstage, the girls ready themselves for the night’s show in bikinis, jeering at Kim’s inexperience. The U.S. Marines, aware that they will soon be leaving Vietnam, party with the Vietnamese sex workers Chris Scott, a sergeant disenchanted by the club scene, is encouraged by his friend John Thomas to go with a girl. He ends up having sex with Kim and they have a hasty marriage. She will soon discover that she is pregnant and has baby, after Chris leaves for America. Kim keeps trying to figure out what is going on but constantly reverts to singing snatches of songs from Miss Saigon and holding the pistol that Chris had given her 

Both Cho-Cho and Kim have babies and are condemned to go through the pangs of childbirth over and over in the play, as they are trapped in repeating the script of their fictional lives. Cho-Cho has wised up to the pattern after several thousand performances of her role in Madama Butterfly and feels no attachment to the child because it always survives to be born again and again on stage. She counsels Kim that she will have to go through the same thing with her new-born infant, so not to get too attached to the idea of mothering. Both have to go through endless performances of their death scenes on stage as well. 

Kumiko (Rosie Narasaki) from _Kumiko, The Treasurer Hunter_

Eventually a third character arrives on the stage, a 28-year-old Japanese woman named Kimiko (Rosie Narasaki), holding a VCR tape of the film “Fargo.” The title character in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is based on an urban legend about a real-life person, Takako Konishi, who was found dead after traveling from Japan to North Dakota. According to the myth, Konishi believed that the Coen Brothers film, Fargo, was a true story and went looking for buried cash. The real story was much grimmer: Takako went to Fargo – a place she had previously visited with her former married American lover – to commit suicide after losing her job at a travel agency following 9/11. 

Cho-Cho, Kumiko & Kim – re-enacting their tragic death scenes

Cho-Cho and Kim are confused by this newly arrived Asian woman who has a “real” story behind her and is not just the fictional creation of an opera or musical. When Cho-Cho reveals that she is only 15 and Kim that she is only 17, Komiko is appalled that older men who were to her mind pedophiles took advantage of this young women who could neither read nor write. Cho-Cho and Kim have a difficult time understanding why Komiko who is 28 is not married. However, Komiko’s understanding of the “real world” is greater and she tries to explain to the other two that they are fictional characters and have no lives beyond their roles in performances. Komiko tells them that they are “stereotypes” of tragic Asian women. All this is deadly serious but also very funny, as we harken back to Theater of the Absurd play with the theatricality of the entire conversation. The three ponder how they might escape the space in which they are trapped with endless performances of their own deaths and move into the “real world.”   

Kim & Cho-Cho change the ending – to create non-tragic lives
Cho-Cho & Kim, each with their babies from husbands who abandoned them

“I wanted to search for the more well-rounded people underneath these stereotypical, suicidal Asian women, all written by White men,” explains playwright Choi. “Critiquing racist tropes in a fun, dark way weakens their power so that they can’t haunt us as before.” Choi has written a play that is vibrant in its depiction of the predicament of these Asian female characters and at the same time brilliantly ironic in dismantling the very stereotypes it presents. This Is Not a True Story is a certainly a fresh look at how the cultural stereotypes of passive Asian women can be critiqued and transformed into a different story in the future.  

The creative team for This Is Not a True Story includes scenic designer Yuki Izumihara; lighting designer Henry Tran; sound designer M. Glenn Schuster; projections designer Vanessa D. Fernandez; costume designer Jojo Siu; props designer Naomi Kasahara; and dialect coach Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa. Katherine Chou serves as both associate director and dramaturg. The stage manager is Yaesol Jeong. 

This Is Not a True Story opened on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. Performances thereafter will take place on Thursdays, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through October 15. Tickets range from $22 – $48. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013. Parking is available for $8 with box office validation at Joe’s Parking Structure, 530 S. Spring St. (immediately south of the theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213489-0994 or go to www.latinotheaterco.org.