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Play shines a light on mental illness in Korean community

The play "99 Histories," written by Julia Cho, examines how a Korean immigrant mother, and her American-born daughter, confront – and deny – mental illness. An Asian American theater troupe, called Artists at Play, is staging the production at The Lounge Theater 2 in Hollywood.

Julia Cho — no relation to the playwright — plays the lead character, a young woman named Eunice, who she describes this way:

And, she's hearing voices.

As a health reporter, I usually look at how mental illness is treated. But until I attended that rehearsal, I’d never considered how mental illness sounds - inside someone’s head, and to everyone else.

'Can't you hear them?'

During a rehearsal earlier this month, at a downtown Los Angeles church, I watched the actors rehearse an intense scene: A young woman sits, practicing her cello. Throughout the play, this cello stands for Eunice’s creativity, but also her inner torment.

The music starts out delicately, but then it becomes agitated. The music stops, but the voices in the girl's head play on.

“No! Shut up,” she suddenly screams.

“I don’t see anything, I don’t understand,” her mother yells back, confused and alarmed. “Who are you talking to?”

The girl turns her attention from the voices to her mother: "Can’t you hear them? Make them stop!"

The scene ends, and director Leslie Ishii digs a little deeper into what's going on. They talk through where they can suss out a little more drama, and how they can make a confusing scene understandable to the audience.

'Break our own isolation'

Everyone involved in the production – from the actors, to the director, to Michi Fu, a psychologist consulting on the production – told me that no one in the Asian, or Asian American communities, talks enough about mental illness.

"In Southern California, it's very in vogue to say, 'My therapist said such and such,' says Fu, a psychologist with Pacific Clinics. "In Asian cultures, people often times are not able to talk, even if they are receiving treatment."

But often times, Fu says, people don't even seek out treatment.

"We do such a good job, so to speak, of taking care of our own, that sometimes we don't get help that's readily available outside of the home," she says. "And when I say good job, I mean, keeping it under wraps, not necessarily treating it, or managing the symptoms effectively."

Actress Julia Cho agrees, and points to her own experience as the daughter of Korean immigrants.

"Even when you have a headache, it's like, that's silly, you don't need medicine or anything for that," she recalls. "You suck it up, and you move on."

"It's funny because I'm realizing now that it wasn't until I myself was an adult, that I even started to take Aspirin."

But to accurately portray mental illness on stage, director Leslie Ishii says they all had to talk about it.

"Every week, we keep diving back into the play, to go deeper and deeper, and get more specific, so our production is rich and dynamic," she says. "We basically break our own isolation about mental illness."

Dr. Michi Fu hopes this gets the theater-goers talking, too. She even says "99 Histories" could maybe make the impact that a 2001 Oscar-winning Russell Crowe movie did.

"This is like the Asian American live version of "A Beautiful Mind," which opens up a lot of conversation for American households everywhere," she says.

"99 Histories" runs at The Lounge Theater 2 through October 5th.