By Darlene Donloe
Black Americans and Korean-Americans have an uneasy history. Tensions between the two groups began in the 1980s.
Elements of the conflict can be blamed on the noticeable infiltration of Korean-owned Black beauty supply stores into Black neighborhoods across the country — forcing mostly Black women to buy their hair care products from Korean merchants.
Strained relations escalated in Los Angeles in 1991 when two Black customers were shot and killed by Korean merchants in two separate incidents.
It escalated further in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots that left many Korean-owned storefronts looted and burned to the ground.
Of course, a deeper dive into the two groups will unearth other fragile business strategies, not to mention the elephant in the room — racism and racial discrimination.
Award-winning playwright Inda Craig-Galván has written her own kind of theatrical case study on the subject of Korean-Black American relations in her latest work, “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” set for its world premiere at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts through Oct. 9.
The show is directed by Korean director Scarlett Kim.
Inda Craig-Galván said she likes to write from a lens that she knows. That usually means that she is writing from a Black perspective. Her work often explores intra-racial conflicts and politics within the African-American community.
The show was developed in the East-West Players’ Writers Group and was a finalist for the 44th annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
It’s about an African-American woman who takes a job at a Korean immigrant’s Black beauty supply store and the relationship that develops and the various issues it conjures.
Taken straight out of the pages of Galván’s life, when she talks about her latest work, it’s clear she has put her heart into this show.
As the story goes, Veralynn Jackson knows hair, her neighborhood and that the invention of the Jheri Curl marks the end of the world. When she takes a job in Mr. Kim’s Korean-owned Black beauty supply store and the posters start talking to her, Veralynn might finally come to know her true calling.
Craig-Galván, 54, wanted to explore several aspects of her mother, one being why she was willing to have her Korean boss change her name — merely because he couldn’t pronounce, Vernell. Writing the play was also a way for Craig-Galván to delve into who her mother was besides that of a hair stylist, beautician and cosmetologist.
Her theatre credits include “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” and “I Go Somewhere Else.”
A prolific writer, Craig-Galván is also a television writer whose work has been seen on ABC, HBO, and Paramount+.
A married mother of two, Craig-Galván, was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. She moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago.
I recently caught up with her to talk about her upcoming show.
DD: What is the Great Jheri Curl Debate?
ICG: It’s at its core, a debate over the commercialization of the culture and how that tends to move workers and artists out of the way. It’s also an examination of two specific cultures during a specific time — Korean immigrants and African Americans coming together and working together to regain their joy of creating.
DD: Tell me about the show and why you wrote it.
ICG: My mother was a hair stylist, beautician and cosmetologist. At some point, when I was 8 years old, she took a job at a new beauty supply store in our neighborhood. She was a divorced, single mother. She had to take care of me. She was able to take me to work. Working in a salon wasn’t always an easy way to do that. I wanted to write about how she let her boss change her name because her boss couldn’t pronounce it. Her name was Vernell but he called her Julie.
I wanted to dig into the relationship she had with this man. I learned about her through the play. She did what she needed to do. If the concession she made was to be called Julie, then that’s what she did. I wanted to explore that. I wanted to create Mr. Kim and get to know his side of the story.
DD: In your research of Mr. Kim, did anything shock or surprise you?
ICG: Yes, they said they had intentionally been rude to customers because it would slow the business down. They said the white people who owned the property they were leasing would keep an eye on the number of customers coming and going. If it was too much, the landlord would raise their rents. They were intentionally being mean.
Also shocking was the way they were treated by whites in this country and weren’t allowed to bring over their money. Their bank accounts couldn’t transfer. They were relegated to Black neighborhoods. We wonder why there are so many Korean-owned Black beauty stores. They weren’t allowed to have businesses in other neighborhoods. That’s how a lot of them started their businesses. They weren’t allowed to make money elsewhere.
Another surprising thing about the people interviewed was their attitude toward Black people was based on what they had seen on television. It wasn’t from one-on-one communication. Their bias was based on the fallacies they were fed.
DD: Talk about the East West Players Writer’s Group and how the group helped you with the play.
ICG: I got invited to be in the writers’ group. I initially said no because my focus was always on an African-American protagonist. I thought, “that’s not what y’all do. I shouldn’t take up a spot.” Talking to the artistic director — they wanted a diverse group of writers. The only criterion was that one of the main characters in the play had to be Asian.
DD: Describe the relationship between the owner of a Korean-owned Black beauty supply store and Black women. How did you approach the intra-racial conflicts?
ICG: The relationship starts off being about consumerism. He needs to hire someone and she needs a job. She is initially a bit deflated by the fact that he doesn’t know hair or the community or the neighborhood or his customers. She only knows the artistic side.
Over the duration of the play, they gain a better understanding of each other. There is an amount of understanding between him understanding her and her being a Black woman in America. Her having to understand his culture dictates his behavior and she’s gotta give him space and let him know she is a safe person to be around.
DD: Did you purposely choose a Korean director?
ICG: I wanted to have a Korean American director for this piece. I wanted to make sure I was getting that part of the story right and honoring that culture adequately. It was a great partnership
DD: What is it about Black people’s hair?
ICG: It’s an expression of our culture and our community. It’s beauty. It’s rebelling against white beauty standards. There’s so much creativity in it.
DD: Did you have a Jheri Curl?
ICG: No, my mother would not allow that. Julie would never.
DD: Tell me about your own hair experiences.
ICG: I had very long hair, long and thick hair growing up. My mother was quite proud of it and maintained it and liked showing it off. When I went away to college and cut my hair, she was not happy with me. I was raised by this woman who had ideas about our hair based on a white supremacist view.
It needed to be straight and picture perfect and long and hanging down my back. This is part of my personal journey. For me, I thought, I don’t live in her house anymore. This is not who I am.
“The Great Jheri Curl Debate” opens at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso St., in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit eastwestplayers.org or call 213-625-7000.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most popular newsmakers or celebrities.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.