Philadelphia playwright Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters talks about the world premiere of “Esther Choi and the Fish That Drowned”, coming to Simpatico Theatre later this month.

-Brenda Hillegas

This show will be postponed until a later date. Please visit Simpatico Theatre’s website for details and updates. 

Esther Choi is an all American, overachieving Asian teenage girl. Nothing out of the ordinary really…except she has a ghost BFF. And her grandfather owns a haunted dry cleaner on Cheltenham Ave. This all seems funny, and it is…but Esther Choi and the Fish that Drowned is also playwright Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters’ personal love letter to those who have passed on too soon. It’s a must-see play about grief and how we deal with those experiences.

Esther Choi and the Fish that Drowned will premiere via Simpatico Theatre at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake. Tickets are pay what you decide (after you see the show) and can be reserved here for dates between March 25th and April 12th.

Read on to find out more about the development of this play, Stephanie’s inspirations for writing the piece, and her work as a founding member of the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists.

Stephanie Kyung Sun WaltersQ: What part of Philly are you from and what are your earliest theatre experiences here in our city?
A: I’m actually from north of the city in the Lansdale area. I moved to Center City after graduating from Bucknell University. I began my career as an actor in Philadelphia and continue to perform, most recently in Man of God at InterAct. Writing came to me a few years ago when I saw a dearth of roles for Asian and Asian American actors in our city. Being a founding member of the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists is an experience that is very close to my heart. Seeing the moves PAPA is making is such a joy!

Q: Where did the idea for this story come from? What inspired you to write it?
A: Esther Choi is inspired by my own grapplings with grief as a young student through my adulthood. Grief is not linear and everyone experiences loss in unique ways. Writing this play has been my love letter to the ones who have passed on, the ones who have been ripped from this earth without justice, and hearts that ache for those they miss.

Q: How did Simpatico become involved with the play?
A: Allison [Heishman, artistic director] came to see the PlayPenn reading of Esther Choi and the Fish that Drowned and I emailed her for feedback regarding the script. We met for a burger at Khyber Pass in the summer and the rest is … well not history … but the rest is opening in March!

Q: In what ways do you find yourself similar to the title character, Esther Choi. Is she based off of you at all?
A: I think when I was growing up, I was more similar to Anthony. Hard working, sunshiney, and kind (not to toot my own horn). Parts of Esther that came from me are definitely her big mood swings and her love of Mariah Carey!

Q: Why do you feel Claris Park was the right actor for the role?
A: Claris brings so much truth to Esther. I love how Claris can elevate Esther’s insecurities or flaws in a genuine way. Claris and Aaron [Bell, playing Anthony] have such a beautiful friendship on stage and it really brings the two characters to life in the most specific way. It’s like they are in my head. Dan [Kim, playing Mr. Choi] handles his role with genuine precision. Because Mr. Choi’s life is rooted in my own grandfather, it’s been amazing to watch Dan engage with my loved one.

Q: You recently worked with Claris in Man of God at InterAct. How did the two of you balance time between that show and prepping for this one?
A: Man of God was up and running when we began workshops of Esther Choi – which was helpful when Claris, Cat [Ramirez, also assistant director of Man of God], and I began working through revisions. I can’t believe how much the workshops supported my revision process. It just goes to show that you can’t write a play alone – you need actors and a director and a dramaturg to help create a fully realized version of the world.

Q: Simpatico’s 19-20 season shows revolve around the theme No Place/Like Home. How does this show fit that theme?
A: I really believe home is where our hearts rest. My heart rests most with my loved ones. I think that’s really true of Esther and Anthony and their friendship. When we feel like we don’t belong, we turn to our loved ones. They shelter us and protect us. But they also show us the truths of the world. I think Esther Choi fits the theme because it’s about just that.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from Esther Choi and the Fish That Drowned?
A: I hope audiences walk away with a larger understanding of young people processing grief. I hope audiences take home a new appreciation for intergenerational theatre.
I hope audiences examine underlying bias. I hope audiences look for more magic in their lives.

Q: Tell me a bit about Philly Asian Performing Artists’ Playwrights Project and what you’re currently working on with the project.
A: The Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists created a mini-residency program two years ago and I was honored to be in the inaugural cohort. After that experience, I came to Cat Ramirez with a dream of creating a playwriting group for emerging Asian American playwrights. We just finished our pilot year and I would most certainly name it a success! We culminated in a two-week long reading series of five new plays.

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