How one actor turned her brush with street harassment into a raucous, emotional concert.

Three years ago, Diana Oh was followed down the street and viciously catcalled by a group of men in an SUV.

In the wake of that incident, the New York City-based actor and musician sat down in Times Square in her lingerie in front of a stack of paper bags arranged on a soapbox.

One bag read, “The world bends over backward to make excuses for male violence.” She stood there, silent, for hours, as passersby stared, applauded, jeered, and, occasionally, joined in.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

That installation, titled {my lingerie play}, garnered a raft of national media attention (in Upworthy and elsewhere) and spawned nine further installments, which eventually came together in a raucous storytelling concert that follows Oh’s struggle to assert her voice and exist without fear of abuse as a queer woman of color in America.

Now remounted at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York after two years of development, the concert seesaws between tales from Oh’s childhood and life in New York City and its anthemic songs, laid down by a hugely talented, synced-up band (full disclosure: Oh and I once collaborated together on a theatrical project). Where the piece truly transcends are in its audacious — and plentiful — moments of audience participation, including an on-stage haircut and an electric make-out session (more on that later). Audience members are encouraged to write their own messages on paper bags before the show and take one home at the end, either their own or someone else’s.  

Oh, who grew up the child of working-class immigrant parents in Southern California, is a magnetic, open-hearted, and funny performer. She transforms the show’s wrenching subject matter into a celebration of life, difference, and voice. She considers the stage show, with its message of joyful resistance and predominately performer-of-color cast, a radical statement.

“We do what we want,” Oh says. “I do what I want on that stage. And that is a revolutionary act, to see a queer woman of color who is Korean-American get to be … doing what I want on that stage.”

As the Harvey Weinstein scandal sinks toward an unknown bottom, and #MeToo stories continue to spread, I sat down with Oh to discuss the performance, its call to arms, her belief that white critics frequently get art made by people of color wrong, how much work putting together a diverse team required, and why that work feels worth it.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There’s a moment, late in the concert, where you talk about the frightening experience you had on the street and how it led to the genesis of {my lingerie play}. What was the moment like when you decided, “I’m going to stand on a soapbox in my underwear in Times Square”?

My roommate was like, “Do you want this thing someone is throwing away outside? It’s a soapbox.” I remember I saw it, and it was turned over, so it looked like an open box, and then I turned it upside down, and it was like, “Oh my God. A soapbox. I know what soapboxes are. People used to use them. They used to stand up on them and talk about their feelings.” And I was like, “OK, I think this is something. And then that was it. Before I even knew, like knew, what a soapbox was, I primally knew what a soapbox was. My memory, my previous life or something like that. It was like a spiritual something, where it was just like, my spirit knows that I have to be with this thing.

I knew that I wanted it to be silent. I knew that I just wanted to stand there and make a point, and I wasn’t going to yell, and I wasn’t going to be frantic.

How did you choose the location?

It was the most public location I could think of, and it was like the center of the universe, and anywhere else would have been too subtle. I was done being subtle. I don’t want to be subtle anymore.

Diana Oh. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

I was already writing this piece [for the stage]. And then eventually, I was like, “This is crap.” Because all the people who know not to treat people like shit are going to come to the theater and be like, “I’m doing so great.” It came out of being frustrated that I was choosing a bubble — that my art form was actually a bubble. Knowing the things I had to say, I wanted it blasted to the universe. So that’s where the street installations came in.

It’s very bold, obviously. You’re standing there and you know that the people walking by you — it’s not necessarily safe. What was the experience you expected to have?

I don’t even know. It was like I blacked out. It was like something came over me. I didn’t even have an expectation. I just knew that I had to. I had zero expectations.

“Every step of the way, I feel like, I always have agency. Always. And that is the power behind this piece.” — Diana Oh

Being out there, it was a mix. A lot of people were like, “Thank you,” and a lot of other people were like, “I don’t understand? Why are we seeing more women in their underwear. I just don’t get it.”  

In thinking about the stage show, and selling it, was there something you came up with that was like, “This is how we’re going to get people in who wouldn’t ordinarily come?”

I’m a theater nerd at heart. And I believe in collecting people in a room together and having a powerful, spiritual experience. And that’s a gift that only theater can give. So that’s what I knew. In terms of marketing or selling it in any way, it was less about that than about “join in.” The revolution can’t be bought. I cannot sell the revolution. I don’t own the revolution, so it’s not mine to sell. But I can join the revolution, and you can join with me. And you can give your time and your support, and that’s it.

In terms of this year, 2017, with this concert, the thing I keep rubbing up against right now is this concert is for the people and by the people. I can sense that there’s a great chasm in between the people and theater culture and the theater critic world.

What sort of divide?

The divide I sense is in what we’re doing. And I believe the people who come to it believe in it. And I believe the people of color who are in the audience are a direct result of us making sure that people of color are making the work. The culture of the room needs to be right for the culture of the room. And I wish you could write down this dance move.

I’ll write down what you’re doing.

[Oh does a breaststroke in the air, as if releasing, then corralling, a litter of puppies.]

The chasm I find is — I call it the “theater helmet.” When people put on their theater helmet, that’s like, “Ah-ha. I know how to take this work in because I am incredibly educated. I come from a lot of privilege. I studied many many things. And I come from a very certain socioeconomic background. And now I am deemed as a professional thinker in the arts. I know what good art is.” But when it gets to be the same people with the same backgrounds commenting on what good art is, you can feel that commentary. You can feel the difference in experience an audience member is having versus a theater critic who has had a lot of schooling.

Guitarist Matt Park. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

One of the things that I connect with is that many people of color have grown up in messy households. And I find that to be very true. Even if we’re wealthy, even if we’re becoming doctors or whatnot, there’s a certain mess to our households by virtue of us straddling this dual citizenship in the world. And I think it’s this messiness that our educated theater critic cohort don’t quite know and understand. Understandably — because why would they? They didn’t grow up in these messy households. So there’s a certain hunger that I feel from them to have neatness.

Do you think there’s a solution? Do you think there’s something these critics and theater professionals can do to put in the work to come to a better understanding, or do you think it really has to be a change in personnel?

Does it have to be a change of personnel? Sure. Absolutely. Do I want to see more of my artist-of-color friends being reviewed by writers of color? Absolutely. Because I feel like we would feel more seen. It wouldn’t feel so dimming. It would just feel like, “Oh my gosh, you see me. Thank you.”

I think part of the nature of the game is, “I dispense my wisdom from up on this perch,” and that in itself creates a resistance to listening. Because you get so many people telling you, from angles, who are mad at you for giving their shows a bad review, so I wonder if part of it is, you create this wall.

That sounds like a terrible life. I don’t know why anyone would choose it.

The night I was there, at least, you had a very young audience, very diverse, all genders and ethnicities and ages. Not the typical profile of a theater audience. What does that feel like, that you made that happen?

That feels like we did the work. That feels like, I fucking fought for that. I’m done with subtlety, and I’m done with being silent. And if I’m feeling an instinct, I’m feeling an instinct. If these young people need to be reached out to, they need to be reached out to. And our collaborators need to represent the houses that we want. We have a big problem if the majority of our group is white or cisgender or straight. We’ve got a really big, big problem. And so we have to queer our room so that we can queer our room.

You spent five months looking for a female bassist of color. Was it important to you to have a woman of color in that specific role, or was it because you didn’t have that represented already in the band?

Oh (L) with bassist Rocky Vega (R). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It just was really important that it extended beyond parity, that it extended beyond equality, that it was more about just representing my upbringing. I wanted more than one Asian person because I was tired of being the token Asian. I wanted that there, and I knew the bassist had to be a person of color, and I didn’t want to be the only woman or non-binary or queer person in the band.

People often talk about, “If you’re really committed to find full representation, you just have to look harder.” What was that process like for you?

It was exactly that. So much digging, so many emails, so much asking friends of friends. And even with bass player Rocky Vega, we found her, we found this spirit, we found a voice, we found her politics, everything. And we still had to be like, “Let’s teach you the instrument.” Because we could find all these capable bassists, but also the ability to sing and do harmony and stand up on stage with us in their underwear and be liberated.

Where did you find her?

Guitarist Matt Park had done “Peer Gynt” with her, and he was like, “Rocky is so awesome.” And for a long time, we were like, “Oh my gosh, but she doesn’t play bass, so we can’t.” And then eventually it got down to the end of five months, and it was like, if we don’t find someone, I’ll be so sad, and we can’t do it. So we just asked her, and Ryan got in a room with her alone to play bass, and he was like, “She can do this. She can learn this.” And she’s incredible.

There are two big moments in the show where you engage in fairly intimate audience interaction. There’s one where you shave someone’s head and one where you make out with an audience member as part of a consent workshop. And I’m wondering how you went about creating those moments — and the guardrails around them.

There was a lot of work that went into it, into framing it, into how to word it perfectly so that we are naming enthusiastic consent. So that we know that we are making sure it feels like an invitation and not like hazing. So that it feels like a gift for an audience member and not like they’re a prop. And every night, it changes. I usually share my head-shaving story. And some nights, I don’t want to share it when I’m shaving a person’s head. I just want to honor it and be with them. And then I’ll share my stuff later. And it’s just about being really present.

The make-out workshop came out of so many rewrites and so many things being thrown away, being like, “We can’t do this. We can’t do this. It’s not working.” There was a point where there was a version of this concert where there was so much trauma in it that it was like, we’re not here to exploit trauma. And the make-out session was born out of a conversation that our dramaturg Mei Ann Teo [note: a dramaturg is essentially a theatrical editor, though the scope of the role varies from production to production.] and the director Orion Johnstone had. I think they were having a conversation about the text, and they came to me the next day and were like, “We have a proposal for you. What if you make out with an audience member on stage.” And I was like, done. Yes.

You were super enthusiastic about that from the beginning?

Yes. Huge. I was just like, life of my dreams. Let’s freaking do it. We’re done with subtlety. Orion, Mei Ann, and me were all aligned in the belief that our sexual liberation is so intertwined with social justice. Oftentimes, the shame or the hiding or the silence or the questions or the anxiety that surrounds my sexual expression, it wasn’t born out of nowhere. And I wasn’t born with all of that. And it’s something that I feel like was piled on me as I have lived my life through this world, identifying the way I do sexually.

I don’t want to feel shame in the streets. I don’t want to feel shame in the bed. And I find that to be true of so many people. To think of how much hiding we do, of the kind of intimacy that we want and who we want to have it with and all this stuff, and all the hiding that we do, and all the breath-holding that we do, and how that’s actually intertwined with, “Well, if you would just let us be who we are, maybe we wouldn’t close in so much.”

The night I was there, two people volunteered really quickly to make out with you. Do you ever have a moment where you felt uncomfortable during that part of the show? Where you had to be, like, this is not working for me at this moment?

This is why working with a sex and relationships coach on your art is amazing because they literally had to tell me, “Take your time to choose.” I have been conditioned to be like, “Make a choice. You have to love it. I’m so into it. Yeah. Do whatever you want.” Where it’s like, “No no no, we’re going to disrupt that and be like, ‘let me take this in and see who it is that I actually want to share this moment with.'”

From there, I have that time to sit with them in the Super Sexy Hot Enthusiastic Consent workshop to be like, “How is it that I want to kiss you as I’m looking at you?” And some nights I want to, like, make out with the person. And some night it’s like, I want to give them a really soft, welcoming kiss. And some nights, it’s like, I want to kiss you everywhere but the mouth. But every step of the way, I feel like, I always have agency. Always. And that is the power behind this piece. And that’s something the dramaturg has given voice to. That the night is actually about watching you, about agency in the room.

You’re performing this at a moment where these issues are exploding into public life in an unfortunate way — with previous accusations against the president of the United States and, of course, more recently in your industry, with Harvey Weinstein. What sort of tools do you hope people walk away from the show with?

My hope is that people walk away feeling like they have complete and total agency to act and speak out and honor themselves and honor their truth and honor their power. That any time they feel that urge to be like, “I feel like I can do something but I don’t know if it’s like this, and I don’t know,” that it’s like, “You can. You can and you will. And you must.” You just have to put one foot in front of the other to do it.

You said you’re preparing one more installation?

Drummer Ryan McCurdy (L), Oh (C) and Vega (R). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

On Oct. 28, at a to-be-disclosed location, at 4 p.m., we are going to be inviting all the past audience members of the show to stand outside together with the paper bag they left with. And if you don’t have a brown paper bag, we’ll give you one of the leftover ones that we have with the hopes that between now and then you will have given some thought to how we can make this thing possible in whatever small and big way. And it’s just a chance for us to stand outside together, be together, meet each other.

I think that community is built by shared experience, and we will have shared this experience. And every night is so different.

In the meantime, we want everyone to see the show because we believe in it so much. We believe in the spell of it , that it’s really using our civic duty.

{my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS. The Final Installation runs through Oct. 28 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York City. Tickets can be found here.

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