Pictured above: Kathleen Park and Rich Lee in Born to Lead.
by JIMMY LEE
If there is one Korean American whose life demands dramatization, it would be Susan Ahn Cuddy.
The elements for a gripping saga are all there: as the daughter of Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, a deep and complicated family history; wartime heroics and Cold War spying; forbidden romance. And it’s epic in length—Susan turned 100 this year.
Though it was not an epic, the L.A.-based East West Players, one of the most established Asian American theatre companies in the country, created a 45-minute play about Susan, targeted for middle school students as part of the company’s Theater for Youth program. And what young audiences got out of Born To Lead, written by Vivian Keh-Hue and directed by Jennifer Chang, is an inspiring tale of a woman overcoming a myriad of obstacles, including her father’s overwhelming shadow, to cast her own indomitable legacy. Susan was the first Asian American woman to join the U.S. Armed Forces, and the first female aerial gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy. By 1947, she went to work for the National Security Agency, where she became a code breaker and later supervised 300 agents in its Soviet Union section.
I have been fortunate to spend time with Susan over the years and to hear bits and pieces of this story from the original source. She talked about growing up in Los Angeles with an absentee father who was away fighting for Korean independence; the discrimination she faced when trying to enlist with the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor; and marrying a white man her mother did not approve of. Unfortunately, she has always kept mum about her days at the NSA.
So to see actress Kathleen Park portray Susan with an infectious exuberance at a final April 4 performance of Born To Lead was to witness the vitality and the irrepressible energy with which I’d always imagined Susan living her life. Plus, I got to see her actressversion play baseball, Susan’s playing days a favorite topic of hers. In Born To Lead, we got to watch Kathleen smack a hit right to the proverbial behind of a racist heckler.
“It’s that scene that really resonated with youth audiences,” said Kathleen. “What I’ve got from performing it so many times in front of youth is that bullying is always going to be an issue. [In this case] it just happened to be racial slurs.”
For Kathleen, who moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to pursue acting and for whom this role is her first in this town, a few qualities quickly stood out as she researched her subject.
“Every picture that I saw of Susan, she was smiling. I know it’s a picture, but it’s every picture I saw of her. That just gave me an idea of who she is,” said Kathleen, who bears a striking resemblance to Susan. “She welcomes the challenge … almost like she’s saying, ‘Bring it on.’ And she’ll pull it off with aplomb.”
After the April 4 performance, Kathleen recounted how Susan grabbed her arm and said: “You’re wearing my uniform.”
“That was just so validating, and just such a moment,” Kathleen said.
For Philip Cuddy, who uses the nickname Flip, there wasn’t anything in Born To Lead he wasn’t familiar with. But, he added, “It does make those old Navy pictures come to life.”
“The big thing I like is how my mom’s story is a success,” Flip said. “Born To Lead is shedding a clear light on her numerous challenges and accomplishments.”
There is also delight to be found in the play’s small details, such as Susan noticing the shoes on a statue of her father. There is also a strong sense of emotion from the stories not seen. “My mom has overcome a lot of disappointment in her life on an amazing path as a trailblazer,” said Flip. “[But] I see between the lines of success where she overcame more difficult times than most people imagine.”
When asked how he separates the groundbreaking figure Susan from the nagging mother all of us have, Flip replied, “I always thought she was a cool mom. All my friends thought she was cool. She annoyed me to manipulate me. She’s a [former] gunnery officer and NSA spy. She had a lot of practice making life difficult for all those Navy guys. She’s tough.”
“100 Years of Susan Ahn Cuddy” – KoreAm Journal‘s February 2014 issue
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