With 32 states and counting now offering legalized marriage for gays and lesbians, it might be easy to think that the issues of hate crimes against the gay community are over. The Pasadena Playhouse’s powerful new play “Stop Kiss” – opening Tuesday and running through Nov. 30 — offers a stark reminder of just how recently even a first kiss could draw a violent reaction, with a message of both caution and hope for the nation going forward.
Written in 1998 by playwright Diana Son, “Stop Kiss” tells the deceptively simple story of two heterosexual women who become close friends and eventually feel attraction toward each other. Sara is a young teacher from the Midwest who leaves her boyfriend and family to take an inner-city teaching assignment in the Bronx, where she’s befriended by traffic reporter Callie.
After the two women unexpectedly fall in love, their first kiss results in a tragic consequence that transforms their lives in a way neither of them could have imagined. The play unfolds in dual tracks that jump between the present and the past as it parallels the story of the women’s budding romance with the tough decisions they have to make after one is hospitalized from the hate-crime attack they endure after their kiss.
“Neither myself nor my immediate network has experienced this level of violence,” Seema Sueko, the director of “Stop Kiss,” says of the crime committed in the play. Sueko has been the Playhouse’s associate artistic director since January. “I grew up in Hawaii, as half Japanese and half Pakistani, and my maiden name is Ahmed, which is a common Muslim name. There was an incident where a couple of pipe bombs went off at our house during the first Gulf War and the FBI investigated but never solved who set them off. We had property damage but no physical damage, so I’ve been fortunate not to be hurt on that level. “
Sueko joined the Playhouse staff after serving for nine years as the executive artistic director of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Co., a community focused, socially conscious equity theater company that she cofounded in San Diego. In addition to directing at Mo`olelo, she led the company to its selection as the inaugural Resident Theatre Co. at La Jolla Playhouse and to awards from the American Theatre Wing, the National Endowment for the Arts, Actors’ Equity Association and the NAACP San Diego Branch, among others.
The romantic drama won an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) upon its debut, and made a splash touring in theaters nationwide in its initial years. To enhance its value to the community, the Playhouse hired community organizer Alison de la Cruz to arrange a series of post-show panel discussions on the play after Tuesday-night performances.
“Since I joined the staff, we hired community organizers for each production, and on ‘Stop Kiss,’ it’s Alison De La Cruz, who self-identifies herself as a queer woman of color since she’s both Filipina and lesbian,” says Sueko. “Through her community organizing work she schedules our talk backs and one of those is on the topic of ‘Rebuilding After Hate’ on Nov. 18. She put together a panel of experts on how to rebuild after hate, including a couple whose son died as a victim of hate crime.”
The first such talk, scheduled for Nov. 7, is called “Stop Kiss 1998 & 2014” and features the playwright Diana Son, actors Sandra Oh (who originated the role of Sara in 1998), director Sueko, and other artists from the production for a discussion about opportunities for and representations of Asian Pacific Islanders in theater, film and TV. Meanwhile, on Nov. 11, “Talkback Tuesday: Beyond the Kiss” features a multi-generational panel of lesbian, bi and queer identified women of color as they throw off stereotypes and explore the themes of discovery and courage found in “Stop Kiss” and their contemporary implications.
On Nov. 18, “Talkback Tuesday: Rebuilding After Hate” features a diverse panel of community experts as they explore how the characters would rebuild after hate, from the perspectives of health care, forgiveness and the law. On Nov. 23, there will be a post-show discussion with the actors and artists of “Stop Kiss” following the 2 p.m. performance, and on Nov. 25, the talk “Found Spaces, Found Families” explores the idea of finding a family of friends at times like the holidays, when one’s family rejects someone for being gay.
“Though it’s 16 years later in 2014, there’s so much in the play that’s very relevant to this day,” says Sueko. “I was talking to a playwright earlier this year who said there were hate crimes in the West Village. While we have made tremendous progress in accepting all types of people that are different than us, it really seems like we take steps forward, then steps back. Fighting hate is a conscious step for society, and when we’re not being conscious of it, these incidents happen.”
The Pasadena Playhouse presents “Stop Kiss” starting Tuesday through Nov. 30 at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $45 to $125. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit Pasadenaplayhouse.org.