Peerless is a comedy of high-school achievement manners. In 2017 it will be staged at theaters in Chicago, California and Boston.

Ever since graduating from Amherst and earning an MFA in acting, Jiehae Park ’02 has followed a dual-skill path as actor and playwright, earning a suitcase full of prizes, fine-tuning her writing in half a dozen major workshops and staging multiple readings of her plays. 

In 2015 the Yale Repertory Theatre staged her first full-length premiere—a comedy of high-school-achievement manners, peerless. In the coming year, peerless will move on to other theaters, and another of Park’s plays will see its world premiere.

“If there were standardized tests for emerging playwrights, it’s a good bet that Jiehae Park would ace them,” wrote Sylviane Gold in the The New York Times, describing peerless as “darkly comic.” 

It’s the story of two Asian-American girls immersed in major-college admissions rituals at a Midwestern high school. Park’s handling of the topic did not surprise her mentor, Amherst’s Playwright-in-Residence Constance Congdon: “She is a very sharp comic writer, and her plays have a bite to them.” 

The Barrington Stage Co. produced peerless this past summer, and in 2017 the play will be staged at Chicago’s First Floor Theater; Marin Theatre Co. in Mill Valley, Calif.; and Company One in Boston. Also in 2017, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will present the world premiere of her play Hannah and the Dread Gazebo from March 29 to Oct. 28.

Gazebo begins with a FedEx box containing ‘a wish and a suicide note.’

Gazebo has laughs, but it also portrays potentially more fraught cultural effects of South Korean immigration, separation from the North and industrialization. The play begins when a South Korean-born American woman receives a mysterious FedEx box from her grandmother, containing “a wish and a suicide note.” The play begins when a South Korean-born American woman receives a mysterious FedEx box from her grandmother, containing “a wish and a suicide note.”

“South Korea,” says Park, “is a model of Western capitalist ‘success.’ After the war, the nation pulled itself up (by some pretty brutal tactics) to become a high-tech economic powerhouse. And yet it has the highest suicide rate in the developed world.” 

“On some level, everything I’ve written so far feels related to the spiritual cost of ‘success,’” she says. “What do we give up in order to get to the place we think we want to be, and how does it feel once we get there?”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch sees promise in Park’s writing. “She is gentle and open and collaborative, but really clear about what her play needs and fiercely articulate about how to achieve that.”

Jihae Park ’02
Park received her MFA from UC San Diego and worked as an actor and producer with the performance group title3 in Los Angeles. Her journey into playwriting began at Amherst, where she majored in theater and dance and graduated magna cum laude. “Intellectually,” says Park, “it was mind-blowing to get to pick what I wanted to study. That freedom hadn’t been part of my high school education at an intense math/science/computer magnet program. And the idea I could act in plays, major in something like theater and spend time with Professor Congdon was ridiculous and wonderful to my little 20-year-old brain. I basically wrote a play for my thesis so I could hang out with Connie.” 

That play was Happy Moon Day, Holly Woo,a light satire that Congdon remembers well. “It’s about a Korean family that moved to Los Angeles and lost their identity. In the opening scene,” recalls Congdon, “the father is wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig and the mother has a dress that matches their wallpaper.” 

Congdon, a devoted follower of Park’s current and future efforts, says, “she’s in this for the long haul.”

Paul Steinle ’61 is an Oregon-based writer.