Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sun Mee Chomet - A Seach for Meaning After the Paris Attacks

Sun Mee Chomet is a St. Paul-based actor, activist, and playwright. Upcoming in 2016, Sun Mee will be in Mu Performing Arts production of You for Me for You in the Dowling Studio (Feb. 19-March 6) and the Guthrie Theater's production of Harvey (April 9-May 15). She will be Assistant Directing the Guthrie's production of Disgraced (July 16-August 28). She is currently working on a new piece through a TCG Fox Fellowship called The Sex Show, exploring intimacy and sexual stereotypes in the Asian American community.

I am writing this in the wake of the attacks in Paris, France. Sitting and watching the news last night for hours, it sparked a familiar and unfortunate sensation. My body memory was taken back to the day I sat in a building on lock-down. I was in my final year of the N.Y.U. Graduate Acting Program. It was my first day of class and it was September 11, 2001.

My classmates and I all sat quietly, our hearts clasped with the unknown. Water bottles were brought into our classroom; then a television. We watched the World Trade Center towers come down, one and then the other a mile away from where we sat on the 5th floor of 721 Broadway. 

As actors, we are living and breathing vessels of the humanities. It is in moments of tragedy, of incomprehensible violence, that we are stopped in our tracks. On a cellular level, actors’ bodies instinctively attempt to digest how the world has just shifted forever. It immediately affects our life’s work. After all, actors are the players on the stage set to examine the human experience. We are assigned the task of portraying the unspeakable because that, too, is part of the human experience. What one human being does to another is part of the truth that actors commit themselves not only to shed light upon, but to embody completely.

Everything we do as artists can suddenly seem meaningless. After all, my biggest worry on September 10th was how would I secure a good agent and get new headshots. On September 11th, when we were finally permitted to leave the building, my worry shifted to giving blood. My friends and I walked to the blood bank, but were turned away. We were told that there weren’t enough survivors to require donations of blood. 

I was living in the East Village at the time, at 2nd  Avenue and 2nd Street. White dust lined the streets. Second Avenue was closed to the public to make it a throughway for fire trucks to get downtown. School was closed for the next week. Many of us tried contacting family in other states, but lines were jammed up for days. My classmates and I stayed in touch; yet it was an eerily quiet time.

A week passed and school was finally re-opened. An all-student meeting was called. Most of us sat there stone-faced. Zelda Fichandler (world-renowned theater maker and founder of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.), head of the Acting Program, sat quietly waiting, listening to the silent chaos of her students’ minds. My classmate, Darren, finally spoke, “I just don’t know what it’s all for…I mean what are we doing? We should be down there helping the firefighters. What is the point of acting now? It’s meaningless....” There was silent nodding in a room filled with fifty plus aspiring young actors at the cusp of their careers. 

I will never forget Zelda’s response. She said quietly, “The firefighters are doing their jobs. We are not trained to do what they do. We would be in their way. We must do what we have trained to do. The world will need to try to understand life again. They will need to heal. We, as artists, will help them to do that. The world needs us, just as they need the firefighters.”
That afternoon, we begrudgingly began rehearsals for The Three Sisters, a play by Anton Chekov. We continued rehearsing…amidst the din of sirens. We continued rehearsing…watching the firemen high up in their trucks, returning from downtown covered in white dust with ghostlike, stoic faces. We continued rehearsing…until one evening, we were interrupted by the sound of singing. We walked over to the window. The theater was directly across from a small church and the congregation was filing out into the street with lit candles, singing songs for the deceased. We all watched, crying and holding one another before our director encouraged us to continue rehearsing.

Zelda was right. People did come to the play to laugh and cry and to examine life with us. Towards the end of the play, as the youngest sister, Irina, each night I said the lines Chekov wrote in 1900: “The time will come, and everyone will know the meaning of all this, why there is all this suffering, and there won't be any mysteries, but meanwhile, we must go on living… we must work, we must work! …It's already autumn, soon it will be winter, the snow will fall, but I will be working, I will go on working…”

The audience wept with us, a few weeks after 9/11 and as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan began.

My heart goes out to Parisians. My heart also goes out to the thousands of innocent Syrian families that will now be turned away at immigration borders internationally. And, as an actor in search of truth, my heart is trying to wrap itself around the heart of a terrorist, an actual living and breathing human being who is so marginalized, so poverty-stricken, that in this moment in his/her life, violence and hatred seem like the only answer. It is not something I comprehend, but I can only begin to try. May the tides turn towards peace, I can only hope.

The offices of the Humanities Center will be closed the week of Thanksgiving, November 23-27. The Humanities Center will reopen at 8 am on Monday, November 30.


  1. A brilliant portrayal of the humanities' stereoscopic vision: recognition, first, that "the world will need"--over and over--"to try to understand life again," and second, that artists such as Chekhov, interpreted by trained actors, provide an essential help. Actors, in their way, save lives just as firefighters do, in their way. This blog puts me in mind of an unforgettable line in John le Carré's "The Little Drummer Girl": "... as actors they derived no surprise from miracles."

  2. Brilliant. Thank you Sun Mee. You are making the world a better place. What a wonderful essay.
    I found this piece by Cass Sunstein helpful in understanding why they hate us.

  3. I encourage Sun Mee Chomet to use her unique gifts to dig deeper into the sexual stereotypes that encourage men to kill and women to self-destruct due to some ideology. We need to move beyond easy characterizations of who "they" are. Those of us who benefit from privileging systems are seen as hating those who are harmed, whether we consider ourselves haters or not.