From left, Julia Cho, Rosie Narasaki, Zandi De Jesus in "This is Not a True Story."

According to Preston Choi, This Actually Is a True Story, Sort Of

The mixed Korean American playwright talks about "This Is Not a True Story," filled with dark humor, deep existential questions, and a thoughtful critique of reality

From left, Julia Cho, Rosie Narasaki, Zandi De Jesus in "This is Not a True Story."

Grettel Cortes Photography

Words by Kirie Ventura

Mixed Asian Media: JoySauce is proud to present something very special—a partnership with the ultra talented team over at Mixed Asian Media. In JoySauce’s mission to cover stories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, we’ve always considered it incredibly important to include mixed AA+PI perspectives. Since their team already has that piece on lock, we’re delighted they were willing to join forces to help us share even more fresh, funny, interesting, irreverent stories each week. Take it away, MAM!

Preston Choi is a queer, mixed Korean American playwright hailing from San Diego, later bouncing around with his mother and brothers between Syracuse, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston, eventually finding himself back on the West Coast in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way, he developed a love-hate relationship with theater, but he had a professor who inspired him to write plays as an outlet for his inner rage. He’s been writing ever since.

This is Not a True Story is one of those stories that Choi had written in undergrad, and brought back to life. Debuting at the Latino Theater Company at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, This is Not A True Story is a collision of Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon in a purgatory-like space by reliving their written narratives, then ending in a non-stop repetition of tragic death. As their sense of self develops after many deaths, a third Asian heroine makes her appearance, disrupting the life-death loop between them. This is Not a True Story is filled with dark humor and thoughtful critique of reality and racialized storytelling leaving the audience with deep existential questions. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Preston Choi.

Courtesy of Lucy Pollak Public Relations

Kirie Ventura: Where did you first get inspiration for this play?
Preston Choi: I've heard much about Miss Saigon and its controversy within the Asian American theater community. When I finally saw it, I was upset. I wanted to take these stereotypes of these characters and try to carve out real people for them, before they were stereotyped or bastardized into this version that we know, and that goes back to Madame Butterfly, one of the preeminent introductions. The play came from looking back at the history of how East/Southeast Asian women had been depicted. Why are white men still fascinated with telling Asian women in these tragic stories?

KV: I felt compellingly connected with all three of these women that were portrayed in the play. What was it about these three women’s perspectives that you wanted to write about?
PC: I wanted to create a space where you make a rehearsal room that is positive and safe with my friends. We were wondering how to avoid having the traditional white man in the room. [We were] trying to get as many women and Asian people in the room working on this play in undergrad and continuing that to how can this play be a space for people to have these conversations not often talked about in theater.

KV: One of the babies’ names touched me because there's a "woe is me" narrative as a mixed person. How did the background tale of these three women's stories affect you growing up as an individual?
PC: It was a lot of self-discovery, and at some strange level I felt connected to the boys in these narratives, where they're cut off from their culture and what they would learn and if they knew these musicals or operas or what they knew about the family. I think about how we can dig into our histories, especially if they do feel fraught, and try to find truth in them. It’s important to the formation of my Asian identity, especially through strangers and friends and not directly through lineage. That is what I look for in these characters and for myself, is people feeling lost or alienated in the world. What I've identified with these characters is that they feel trapped in a system that they don’t want to be trapped in anymore.

KV: What pulled you to write about these specific archetypes in general and how did you come up with their personalities, making them into fully fledged people?
PC: CioCio is very traditionalist, but she's very naive, stubborn, quick to slip, very prudish, prideful, afraid, and also sensitive. She can have these sort of contradictory aspects about her from this 15-year-old Japanese girl that this person has formed for the stage. Kim similarly has gone through so much war, she's dramatic and larger than life. I was looking for teenager-like day-to-day things or versus just lotus blossom style, always weeping or trying to be at war. Coming up with Kumiko was an interesting case because she is based on a real person and I wanted to try to depict both what the newspapers and film said. It’s the impossibility of ever truly knowing who this person was.

At the end of the day, I do think Kim and CioCio are based on real people to some extent, and there's something about never really getting to know who these people were or who the base person was. That eventually inspired this character about grieving, but also being their character. We could change them and find beauty in that. Sadly, we can't give real people better endings.

From left, Zandi De Jesus (Kim/Miss Saigon), Rosie Narasaki (Kumiko/The Treasure Hunter), and Julia Cho (CioCio/Madame Butterfly) in "This is Not a True Story."

Grettel Cortes Photography

KV: People attempting to string together the background was strongly depicted in the play as well. Paying homage to their mixed children that they kept tossing around how and who came up with that idea?
PC: It's one of my favorite parts, I personally love a fake baby on stage in parallel. I think it's so exciting because an audience will quickly care so immensely about it, and it's so fake. But the magic of theater makes us care about it. I just love that trope. In terms of all the throwing, it is in the script sort of that they are tossing their babies. The elaborate interesses are the directors and design team coming together figuring out how to get these babies on stage. All the extremes that they had to go through are definitely their work. I was just over the moon. I was like, oh my god, yes. This is how you get all those babies on stage.

Choi is working on a new play at the University of California, Santa Cruz, based on his time as a third-party health insurance data accountant in Chicago. Think grim, hopefully very ridiculous, and funny, and like Severance, but not. He looks forward to working with students on the production, tuning into their wonderful, discerning, critical, and fun minds. You can keep up with Choi’s work through his New Play Exchange account and he might be venturing back into social media soon!

Julia Cho as Madame Chou Chou in "This is Not a True Story."

Grettel Cortes Photography

Published on November 13, 2023

Words by Kirie Ventura

Kirie Ventura (otherwise known under the moniker, Key Chan) is a mixed Asian person (she/hers) who is obsessed with creating and fostering safe, warm spaces of love and belonging. Over the past decade, she has been surviving Los Angeles transitioning from product design to thriving by revisiting her past journalism, filmmaking and painting endeavors. You can find her wandering around with her sassy Shiba, Maru, striking up conversations, participating in social equity movements, painting, being silly, meme foraging and traveling the world to gain new perspectives on life while appreciating the Earth's natural beauty. She normally does not refer to herself in the third person. Find her on the IG: @___keychan. Name pronunciation: kee-ree, or kiwi except exchange the w for an r.