Asian American Spotlight: Korean American Director Peter Hyun

Detail from an undated portrait of Peter Hyun in the Federal Theatre Project collection.

In the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put struggling artists to work through an ambitious undertaking: under the aegis of the Federal Theatre Project,  actors, technicians and others throughout the land put on stage productions of classic repertory and bold, timely new work. These shows boasted a deep talent pool with figures well-known today: Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, years before making cinema history with Citizen Kanein 1941, were prominently featured in photos for the 1936 production Horse Eats Hat, and among hundreds of circus photos you can find, taking a break from an early career turn as an acrobat, a young Burt Lancaster. But for every big name in the archives, there are dozens of lesser-knowns whose hard work deserves more recognition. Like Peter Hyun, who was poised to become the first Asian American director on Broadway until fate and prejudice stepped in.

Hyun took a long and strange path to the theater. He was born in 1906, the son of a traveling Methodist minister who had led a group of fellow Korean immigrants to Hawaii.  But with the Japanese government threatening to annex Korea, the senior Hyun took his family back home, where he fought for the nation’s independence.  When Peter was 12 years old, he was part of a peaceful uprising in Seoul, which was met with violence from Japanese military and police. The family fled to Shanghai, and eventually reunited in Honolulu.

Peter was just 17 years old when he returned to Hawaii, but he had already experienced a lifetime of drama. And that was just the beginning. The young Hyun knew he had a flair for entertainment. In his 1991 memoir,  In the New World: The Making of a Korean American, he writes about performing a skit for his father’s church to demonstrate life in Shanghai, which at the time was “carved into various foreign ‘concessions’…each ruled under foreign laws and foreign police.” This meant that would-lawbreakers could avoid capture simply by moving from one jurisdiction to another. Hyun proceeded to impersonate police officers from the French, English, Annamese, and Sikh-ruled concessions. Of this performance, he wrote, “My first appearance in America as an actor was a roaring success!”

Thus the seeds for a long career in theater were planted–at least, that’s what should have happened. Hyun began his college studies for the ministry at DePauw University in Indiana, but caught the theater bug on a trip to New York. In 1930 he earned a spot in the Civic Repertory Theatre’s Apprentice Group, alongside such future luminaries as John Garfield, Burgess Meredith, and Howard Da Silva.  Moving onto New England, where his first job prospects included a stint as a houseboy, Hyun led his own theater group, the Studio Players, through a critically successful repertory season in Cambridge in 1931.

Peter Hyun working with marionettes during a 1935 Federal Theatre Project production of Ferdinand the Bull.

Despite a critically acclaimed season, Hyun walked away from the Studio Players, and felt he couldn’t tell his actors why. In his memoir, Hyun wrote, “I tried to evaluate and determine how I was able to go to a strange town and start a theater movement. From where such audacity?” He concluded, “The driving force was my complete belief in myself and in my ideas.” Sadly, other forces were at work. “…in the process, I encountered invisible but powerful roadblocks; I was never allowed to feel completely at home in America…For me to rise from the accorded level of servitude, such as a ‘houseboy’ or ‘laundryman,’ to the unheard of level of theater director was inconceivable and unacceptable to most Americans.”

Still, he pursued his dream, and in 1935 began working with the Federal Theatre Project in New York. After a failed production of Moliere’s The Miser, Hyun found success with children’s productions of The Emperor’s New Clothes (starring Jules Dassin, who would go on to a career as a film director) and a marionette production of Ferdinand the Bull. But Hyun’s most ambitious work for the Federal Theatre would lead to his leaving the stage for good.

Hyun had earned enough respect in the New York theater scene that two young writers, Lou Lantz and Oscar Saul, approached him about producing their play, Revolt of the Beavers, about working beavers who go on strike after being terrorized by police beavers. “I like the allegorical concept,” Hyun explained. “I know you are completely wrapped up in telling the story of human struggles through the animal life of the beavers.” But there was something missing. ‘The entire story must have dramatic interest, a dramatic development that reaches a climax.”

The director helped the young playwrights  rewrite the script, and the rehearsals that followed were encouraging. Phil Barber, regional director of the Federal Theatre Project, was so impressed that he told Hyun he wanted to bring the show to Broadway. But after that good news, a shadow hung over the cast. Rehearsals became indifferent; it turned out that his actors refused to go to Broadway with him, insisting on a name director. Hyun knew what that meant.

Barber offered to cancel the show, but Hyun didn’t want to get in the way of his colleagues’ success. A socially conscious New York  company known as the Group Theatre was to provide replacement, though Hyun complained that their choice was an actor who had not yet directed anything; his name? Elia Kazan.  But Kazan too dropped out, and, standing by Hyun, Barber still gave Hyun a co-directing credit when the curtain rose on Broadway. Hyun graciously attended the show, but, “there as one weakness: it was not an inspired performance.” The experience left Hyun bitter. “I left the theatre early, and that would be the last time I had anything to to with actors and the theatre.”

Hyun closes his memoir with what he hopes is a solution to bigotry. “Hostility and…hate come from two sources: ignorance and fear–the ignorance of another culture, and the fear of being exposed to it.” As he perhaps learned when he was 17 years old, impersonating the various populations of Shanghai,  he writes, “The most effective weapon was laughter… The sharing of laughter more than any books or lectures could draw us together and open the door for communication.”

One Comment

  1. Scott Kleyla
    May 19, 2021 at 2:36 pm

    DePauw University of Indiana has such a creative influence and solid reputation that I claim Peter Hyun my Hoosier Family Brother! Wonder if his memories keep comming back to Indiana?

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