In 2018 Charlie Oh ’16 booked his biggest acting role yet — a lead as Prince Chulalongkorn in the national tour of Bartlett Sher’s The King and I. He had moved to New York City just two years prior, after graduating from Northwestern’s theater program, and was thrilled at the opportunity. But soon he felt an itch to be part of something that better reflected the contemporary Asian American experience.
“Being in such an iconic show and touring with performers I’d looked up to since childhood was amazing,” Oh says. “But I saw that they had to build careers within the narrow window of Asian American theater. It spurred me to create stories for myself — and for them.”
He’s right. In the past, “productions that explored Asian themes and settings … were created solely by white composers and playwrights,” according to American Theatre magazine. And the Asian American Performers Action Coalition reported that in the 2018–19 season in New York City, Asian American actors were cast in just 6.3% of all available roles.
So, Oh began writing plays in his hotel room at night. Surprisingly he found it more creatively satisfying than being onstage — the job he’d always dreamed of.
When the pandemic started in 2020, Oh drove 13 hours to his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs, thinking he would be there a few weeks at most. He stayed a year.
There, he started writing a play loosely inspired by a trip his father took in the 1970s. Hunkered in his parents’ basement, Oh spent his days calling family members and friends with immigrant parents, ostensibly for research but also to connect in a period of intense isolation. The first draft of Coleman ’72 poured out in a month.
“It’s about a family that’s complicated but also full of love,” he says.
The story, which toggles between 1972 and 2010, is told through the varying recollections of three Korean American siblings as they recount a family road trip from Milwaukee to Los Angeles with a rickety Coleman camper in tow. The idea of a Korean family on an all-American road trip inherently raises questions of identity, assimilation and legacy, Oh says, with the nostalgic tone disrupted as the siblings probe their past. Oh structures the narrative around the idea of unreliable memory, of the constant push and pull between certainty that what you remember is true and how quickly it can be undermined.
“On the surface, the play presents itself as a classic road-trip story,” Oh says, “but facing the truth allows them to better understand who they are.”
The play premiered at the South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival last spring (starring Jessica Ko ’02) and won the Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award.
Oh, who grew up in Wilmette, Ill., often went to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre, where he “absorbed diverse theatrical experiences.” At Northwestern, Oh says, he learned the perseverance required for playwriting from Laura Schellhardt ’97, associate professor of instruction in theater.
“Laura is really good about having her students cultivate a playwriting practice,” Oh says. “We had to turn in 10 pages a week, which totally prepared me for grad school [at the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program], where we had to write a full-length play about every 10 weeks. She taught us that writing is about consistency and showing up, really engaging even when the inspiration isn’t there or when you don’t want to. It’s helpful to remember that it’s not always going to feel good.”
Oh has written a handful of plays to date — most focus on allowing Asian American characters to contain multitudes, to be messy and emotional and complicated, but also funny and profound. His play LONG, about two Asian American men working in the gay porn industry, won the Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting and took second in the Mark Twain Prize for Comedic Playwriting. The Disruptors is the story of a college graduate who lands her dream job working at a massive social media company but finds herself caught in the middle of a scandal that could destroy her life.
When the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike in May, it put Oh’s film and television projects on pause — the life of a modern playwright means keeping a lot of irons in the fire, he says. Meanwhile, Oh has continued workshops and rehearsals for the plays he’s currently involved in, including making inroads to bring Coleman ’72 to theaters across the country.
“Right now, though, what’s next is [joining] the picket line to help negotiate for a more equitable Hollywood.”
Karin Vandraiss ’15 MS is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in narrative storytelling, ghostwriting and editorial production. When she’s not writing, she helps authors strengthen their manuscripts as a developmental editor.