Five questions with: Playwright Zhen E. Rammelsberg

Underground New Play Festival

Theatre Cedar Rapids — Aug. 8-18, 2019

‘Black Box’ explores the perspective and experiences of the playwright, adopted into an all-white Midwestern community at age 2. — courtesy of the artist

Picture this: a young girl, living in a thriving community, full of life, with creativity that flows from her fingertips. She loves to write. She lives for the theater. Just like her peers, she cultivates dreams that she hopes to one day achieve. She takes all the right steps, invests time and energy into her craft and plows forward in the relentless pursuit of her goals.

But there’s a setback: she is the only Asian in a community of 700 people. Some may think this is a trivial detail. But being Asian becomes a roadblock despite the fact that she has the same credentials and achievements as her peers. And what started as “weird looks” growing up turns into rejection in the professional world. More specifically, in the theater and movie industries, this detail becomes underrepresentation.

Zhen E. Rammelsberg was that girl.

Abandoned at 2 years old, Rammelsberg was adopted from South Korea in 1974 and grew up in Van Horne, Iowa—population 700. She was the only non-white person in her community, which made people curious and often judgmental.

Her journey inspired her to write Black Box, an intimate theater piece that was recently read as part of a sold-out Chicago event called Our Perspectives: Asian American Play Readings. The series, from Asian Improv aRts Midwest, features playwrights, creators and actors with Asian backgrounds.

Rammelsberg, an active member of the Iowa theater community, was thrilled to get the chance to share her story. And she’ll have that chance again — it was announced late last week that Black Box is one of the shows chosen for production in the Underground New Play Festival at Theatre Cedar Rapids this August.

A staged reading of ‘Black Box’ as part of the Our Perspectives: Asian American Play Readings series in January. — courtesy of the artist

Tell us more about Black Box.

So this was a piece I wrote for a playwriting class at TCR with Cavan Hallman. It’s also a piece I’ve literally been “composing” my whole life. So you know in the Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy sits at his typewriter and types “It was a dark and stormy night …”? I had one of those go through my head constantly. My “dark and stormy night” was “In the corner of the world, there stood a little black box — and in that black box was …” and I could never finish it. It haunted me my whole life.

I finally was able to finish that sentence with this piece.

I was abandoned in South Korea at age two on Jan 26, 1974 (two days after my second birthday) and adopted by August of that year to an all-white American Midwestern family (mom, dad and their biological son). I grew up with parents who were educators and encouraged my creativity. We also were certified organic farmers and painted houses in the summer. During those times of weeding and painting I would make up songs, write stories in my head and act out shows I’d seen.

What do you hope people will get out of this piece?

I hope people will understand the story of bullying and self-acceptance even if it isn’t the same for everyone. That it is a universal story even if you aren’t an adoptee — don’t judge a book by its cover and think before you speak.

What was the easiest or most difficult part of this process?

It was difficult sitting and listening to my words … basically feeling like you are naked and exposed for the world to judge you. It’s very personal and raw and emotional, so it is tough to be that vulnerable. Plus, a lot of my Korean adoptee friends were [at the Chicago performance] and you just hope that it doesn’t suck and that it is good enough that they appreciate it as well. You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of them.

Playwright Zhen E. Rammelsberg (far left) with the Chicago cast of her play ‘Black Box.’ — courtesy of the artist

I was pleasantly surprised that along with the other pieces, mine stacked up and was really good. Of course, the perfectionist in me heard things I would probably like to edit and tweak.

Do you have a favorite moment from the show?

Seeing the audience brought to tears and laughing — and how the actors brought my words to life. [They] breathed life into the pages and characters.

What’s next, where do you go from here?

I’ve been going around the country seeing high schools who are doing my first published piece called Canst Thou Hearest Thee Now. It’s a modern day text speak version of Romeo and Juliet where they come from two different operating systems — the Applelets and Montagoogles. I will also continue writing.