Cast of "ISCARIOT" on stage in front of set featuring Hollywood sign.

Junior Sophie Kim's "ISCARIOT" reimagines Judas as a queer Asian American teenager attending a posh Los Angeles high school.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Kim

Arts & Culture

3 student playwrights, 3 deeply personal Asian American stories

4 min read

Success of Harvard group's fresh take on ‘Legally Blonde’ inspires trio to stage more boundary-pushing work

A Harvard group’s reimagining of “Legally Blonde” with an all-Asian cast in 2021 has inspired a trio of students to develop three deeply personal shows that push for better representation in theater.

Karina Cowperthwaite ’23, who worked on the “Blonde” production last year with Kalos Chu ’23, said the Asian Student Arts Project musical “became this massive steppingstone to the possibility of what Asian American theater can be on this campus.”

“I remember sitting with [cast mates] and we’re like, ‘Everyone is Asian in this room,’ and that was a mind-blowing experience to us because we had not experienced that on campus before,” said Cowperthwaite. “All of a sudden, people wanted to see a show that featured an all-Asian cast.”

Both seniors, along with junior Sophie Kim, have since developed stage works that dive into the Asian American experience, life as a young queer person, and identity.

Overhead stage view of "OUT" at Aggassiz Theater.

"OUT" rehearsal at Agassiz Theater.

Photo by Scott Eisen

‘OUT’

In his new musical “OUT,” staged last week at Agassiz Theater, Chu explores a personal struggle: “balancing my own identity with what I feel I owe my family and their expectations of me.”

The Dunster House resident said watching the coming-of-age queer film “Love, Simon” highlighted how many Asian American queer people and children of immigrants don’t enjoy the same sense of support as the film’s title character. That realization motivated Chu to capture what many LGBTQ+ Asian Americans face.

“I want people to be able to see themselves on the stage and know that their experiences are being felt by others and that they define a little bit of themselves, regardless of who they are, how they identify, and what their experiences are,” he said.

‘Ugly Feelings’

Identity also plays a central role in Cowperthwaite’s “Ugly Feelings,” her thesis for the English and Theater, Dance, & Media departments. The play follows 17-year-old Jenny — a mixed-race high school senior who grows up in the predominantly white suburbs of Maine — through a series of vignettes in which she hyper-obsesses over categorizing everything in her life.

Karina Cowperthwaite.

Senior Karina Cowperthwaite’s new play explores questions of multiracial Asian American belonging.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Cowperthwaite’s biracial identity pushed her to balance feelings of otherness with the white privilege she holds in different spaces. “I’ve never come across a play that has a mixed-race Asian American character that wasn’t some sort of product of colonial interaction,” the Winthrop House resident said.

The 90-minute dark comedy explores questions of multiracial Asian American belonging. “I identify as biracial Asian American. I’m part Asian, part white. A lot of what I have come to reckon with in College is what does it mean when you simultaneously exist as a person of color, but also as someone who is white?”

‘ISCARIOT’

Issues of race, gender, and identity figure prominently in Kim’s December production of “ISCARIOT.” The Lowell House junior’s musical reinterprets the relationship between Judas and Jesus Christ, this time at a posh Los Angeles high school.

“I wanted to write this story where Judas was imagined as this underdog because I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to,” Kim said. “I was also thinking about this archetype of the pariah and the traitor. Who is the pariah? What if the group that they’re betraying or that is casting them out is different?

“That’s where the idea to make Judas a queer Asian American high schooler came from, because I’m also a queer Asian American. I had a lot of thoughts about being cast out or being made a pariah in your own community that I wanted to explore.”

The cast of “ISCARIOT” released a single on Spotify and will be performing a few songs at Arts First on April 29 in front of the Smith Campus Center. Cowperthwaite’s “Ugly Feelings” will also be featured at the festival on April 27.

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“We, as students, can be creators in our own communities and we can make the spaces if we want them,” said Cowperthwaite. “We don’t have to be bound by what people before us wrote.”