The simplicity of “The Heart Sellers,” in which two young women talk and laugh while a Thanksgiving turkey roasts, may seem a surprising topic from playwright Lloyd Suh, who has been writing sweeping plays about the Asian American experience. But Suh acknowledges that “The Heart Sellers,” which runs Nov. 21-Dec. 23 at the Calderwood Pavilion in a production by the Huntington, also emerged from his exploration of Asian American history.
The title is a play on the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, a law that reduced immigration barriers for people from outside Northern Europe. “Researching one play about the Asian American experience, particularly during the Exclusion Era [1880-1943, when immigration from China was severely restricted], led me to other stories about the way Asian immigration helped shaped the fabric of America. And although the play’s title references a historic law, the politics are not in the foreground,” Suh says. “Instead, the story emerged from a conversation May Adrales and I had after she directed the premiere of ‘The Chinese Lady,’ ” another of Suh’s plays.
It turns out, both Adrales and Suh’s mothers arrived in the United States in their 20s, with Adrales’s parents coming from the Philippines and Suh’s from Korea, both thanks to the Hart-Celler Act.
“I interviewed my mother for Lloyd,” says Adrales, “and I had a crystallizing moment, a memory of the first time I really saw my mom cry, was the moment she couldn’t go home to see her own parents when her father was ill. It took my parents 17 years to get their permanent resident status, and in the days before the internet, they were so separated from family, language, and home.”
“The loneliness and homesickness are part of our moms’ stories,” says Suh, “but they also had to create a new community and find solidarity in people who are like and unlike them.”
The tension of the play, says Adrales, “is not knowing if this friendship will be enough. Can it heal their pain, can it fill their longing for home and their longing to belong here in this new country?”
In the rehearsal room, the energy fairly crackles between Jenna Agbayani (who plays the loquacious Luna, from the Philippines) and Judy Song (who plays the more reserved Jane, from Korea) as the two strangers share stories, drink wine, do a little disco dancing, and even have a pillow fight. They meet at the supermarket when both realize they are wearing the same coat, and even though they don’t share the same native country or language, they do share the common challenge of finding their way as strangers in a strange land.
“Our moms were impossibly young when they arrived in the US,” says Adrales, “and so I’ve cast two women right out of school — it’s actually their first professional job — and they are so vibrant, full of curiosity and tenacity and so receptive to building rich, inner lives for these women. It gives weight to the quotidian tasks the play asks of them.”
During rehearsal, both Agbayani and Song are playful and relaxed, even as they mark the emotional beats of the scene they are working on and track their characters’ emotional swings from sadness to joy and back again.
“I feel like a conductor of an orchestra,” says Adrales. “While the play appears simple on the surface, there is so much going on underneath. There’s the orchestral scoring and then there’s the technical precision required of comedy.”
Although the story follows the experience of two very specific characters, the notion of two newcomers will resonate with audiences no matter what their own backgrounds might be.
“This play doesn’t want to be loud or aggressive,” says Suh. “I want to honor the tenderness and intimacy of two strangers becoming friends.”
The Plum and Snee Show
Boston’s theater royalty, Paula Plum and Richard Snee, present “Home for the Holidays Special,” a fund-raiser to benefit Gloucester Stage Company, Dec. 2 at 7:30 pm. With the show structured as a retro television set with a live studio audience, these two comic masters — who are a married couple offstage — will be joined by the band What Time Is It Mr. Fox? and guests including actor Paul Melendy (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and others. Ticket prices, which range from $50 to $150, include an open bar and dessert bar. Go to gloucesterstage.com/home-holidays for more details.
THE HEART SELLERS
Presented by the Huntington. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Nov. 21-Dec. 23. $20-$139, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.