The Dallas Theater Center was founded in 1959. More than six decades later, Oscar Seung is the first Asian-American leading man to be featured at the Tony Award-winning theater. He plays a North Korean teenager who becomes Kim Jong-un in the world premiere of Don X. Nguyen’s The Supreme Leader, now playing through November 21 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas.
“I can’t believe it’s me. I can’t believe I get to do it. I’m completely flabbergasted,” Seung said. “At the same time, I’m like, ‘Why did it take so long?’”
The comedy imagines Kim Jong-un’s senior year at a boarding school in Switzerland before he returns to North Korea to face his fate. Seung recognizes parallels in his immigrant story and the North Korean teenager’s experience. Born in Switzerland, the Dallas-based actor, violinist, pianist, opera singer, and music director was eight years old when his family moved to Arlington in 1993.
While doing research for the show, Seung realized his and Kim Jong-un’s paths could have crossed if his family had remained in Switzerland. “He actually visited Lausanne where I grew up, three years after I left for the States,” Seung said.
Seung never felt like he fit in anywhere as a kid growing up in America, much like Kim Jong-un at boarding school. “He’s in Western culture, he’s in a foreign land and is very much Korean. And I know exactly what that is. I know exactly what that’s like to suddenly be in a place where the expectations are different, the dress is different, the language is different, for heaven’s sake and I understand what it is not to fit the mold,” Seung said.
The young "Oony" is torn between his father’s expectations as communicated by his minder and his charming American friend Sophie. “Your entire life been basically decided. The second he was next in line, that was it,” Seung said. “This is something that all of us have to deal with is do spend our lives fulfilling societal and familial expectations or do we become self-aware enough and perhaps strong enough to ask the question: what do I want? Who am I? Am I brave enough to defy expectations and go after what I really want in life?”
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The wealthy teenager contends with the awkwardness of puberty: the first crush, a complicated parental relationship, conflicting friendships, and the angst of body confidence issues. “Money is not a concern for him. Nothing is really a concern for him,” Seung said. “And yet, you see he has all the struggles of a regular teenager. That stuff doesn’t go away because you have money.”
Playwright Don X. Nguyen was in rehearsal throughout the entire process. “It was a dream,” Seung said. “I can literally in rehearsal walk up to him and be like, ‘Don, help. What’s happening here? Tell me your thought process. And he has an answer for everything. Any question, every question, he has an answer. And an incredible and insightful answer at that. It’s priceless.”
Nguyen uses comedy to explore tough questions about life’s choices, the immigrant story and fake news. One scene illustrates the origin of fake news. “Every night, that scene gives me chills,” Seung said. “I get it. I get how people can succumb to this. I get it, but I don’t want to get it.”
Although the show is a comedy, it takes an emotionally dramatic turn at the end. “The script is unbelievably funny,” Seung said. “But you do actually get to see him become Kim Jong-un.”
Besides playing the leading man, The Supreme Leader is the first time Seung has gotten to share a scene on stage with another Asian American actor, Albert Park who plays the teenager’s minder. It is a career breakthrough for Seung, and the representation is important for the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) artistic community.
“It means everything. It took me 24 years before I had the guts to pursue acting because I never saw a single person like me on stage, on screen, anywhere,” Seung said. “So, the implicit message was I don’t have a place. I don’t belong here. I don’t want any other Asian American artist to have those doubts, to have that internal dialogue, to demean or to invalidate their own voice and their own experience. No, your voice is valid. You do have a place in the arts. You can make a place for yourself and carve a path for yourself as an actor, as an artist in 2021.”
In 2020, the AAPI community dealt with a rise in racist violent acts against Asian Americans. The violence led Seung to have a difficult conversation with his parents. “’Please don’t go outside. You could be killed because of the way you look.’ What? Why would I be having this conversation in the land of the free, in the land of the immigrants?” Seung said.
His parents saw The Supreme Leader when it was in previews. It was the first time they saw their son play a three-dimensional human being with a full range of emotions. “For the first time in their lives, they were actually speechless,” Seung said. “They were completely gobsmacked at the end of the show.”
Seung thinks of the long days his parents worked to support him becoming an artist. He hopes immigrants see hope for the future in his work. “To immigrant families, you are truly seen. You are loved. You are validated. And you do actually belong,” Seung said. “You have a home here.”
Learn more: https://www.dallastheatercenter.org/