Break Down and Build Up - Performers who've found success often find self-doubt, addiction, and the need to give something back as well.
The 1990s provided a remarkable roller coaster ride for Margaret Cho. At the beginning of the decade, she was hot and hip. A smart-aleck comedian with hilariously original subject matter, she was a high-spirited, ultra-assimilated Korean-American constantly battling an ultra-traditional mother who only wanted her to settle down as the demure wife of a real Korean man. Cho's stories of the protracted conflict with her mother gained her enormous notoriety as she became the darling of the comedy clubs.
Suddenly Cho was the star of ABC's All-American Girl, a clever series that caricatured her real life. But like so many young performers who leap to fame, Cho was unprepared for the pressures brought to bear by the corporate world of network television. Her weight became an issue and she complied with her boss' implied wishes by suddenly dropping her weight drastically, and in turn developed kidney trouble. The emotional disconnect she felt on the set led to alcohol and drugs, a combination that certainly hastened the demise of the series.
The show's cancellation sent Cho into a tailspin of depression, complicated by chemicals. She spent four years in freefall, heading towards inexorable death. However, Cho did not ultimately go the way of so many youthful artists who embrace the dark side. Perhaps it was the voice of her oft caricatured but truly loving, mother. Perhaps it was her absolute stubbornness and refusal to leave the planet. Whatever the reason, Cho pulled herself together. Her experiences through this decade are now an intense and highly public part of her recovery, as she tours with a critically acclaimed one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want. Los Angeles audiences have a chance to see her live at the Wiltern with the show on Feb. 26.
Cho's new century begins clean and sober, and her show is a testament to survival-still, it is comedy, not a lecture. Cho laughed, "I like to say it is a cross between Behind the Music and The Joy Luck Club. It's about self-reliance and trying to look for assurance and love from the inside out as opposed to looking to the world to meet your needs. There is this message from society that you have to get it from other people or other places or the right relationship or the right body. But if we look inside, it is so much easier and more accessible to get love and feel better about who we are. That search for acceptance constantly leads us to bad places, which I talk about in my show. Because I never really trusted in my own judgement and own abilities I fell in a hole."
Although she went through hell, there was part of Cho's personality that never let go completely-again, it may have been the work ethic from her family, which she both mocks and emulates. "I lived at the bottom for the entire time, but I never stopped working. Of course, I was incredibly depressed and incredibly sick in the way I was living. Every aspect. Lots of drugs and drinking and having all manner of horrible relationships-really horrible. It was just like, How bad could it be? I had this weird fantasy that if I could make enough of a disaster of my life and if I died, then drag queens would impersonate me."
There is a tendency for personal survival stories to become too sentimental, but Cho has kept her comic edge sharp enough to avoid this pitfall. "When you share really personal experiences, it is appreciated by an audience. Still, it is standup comedy, which is what I do. I tell a story in the language I speak: jokes. It's an opportunity for me to get to know an audience more, to let them get to know me more, to really share this big part of my life and what happened."
This sharing with audiences has been a huge success throughout her national tour. Cho's deftness at the business side is showing itself as well, with a feature-film version of the piece as well as an autobiography to be released later this year. Cho produced and financed the film herself.
With her finances still intact ("I never spent the money from the TV show. I still have it"), Cho is learning how to be emotionally recovered. "The key is looking within to create that inner peace. It is so simple, yet it is totally the hardest thing to do. Part of it is giving up drugs and alcohol. I just couldn't do it any more. I didn't have the ability to take drugs or drink in the way I did. I just found peace on my own."
While nearly destroying one's life with drugs and alcohol before making a public recovery is certainly a tried and true method of dealing with celebrity in the entertainment business, there are other approaches. One is the straight-edged, business-like approach favored by writer/actor/producer James Reynolds. For 15 years, Reynolds has been one of the stars of Days of Our Lives-with a brief hiatus to appear in the short-lived Generations. Throughout the years of television success, he and his wife Lissa Reynolds have successfully raised a family, kept theatre careers constantly going, and even built a successful small theatre, the Fremont Centre in South Pasadena.
As part of the celebration of Black History Month, Reynolds is performing his highly successful one-man show I, Too, Am America at the Fremont Centre each Sunday of this month. He has been developing this remarkable program of characters, songs, and poems as long as he has been on television. The concept for the show comes from his connection to politics-Reynolds had originally planned to be a political columnist. Now, as an actor/writer, he is able to share his human concerns through the medium of theatre.
Reynolds explained, "This play is political, because race is political. I have always believed in the pioneering spirit of all Americans. Too often excluded from that view are African-Americans and Hispanics and Jews and others who don't fit into traditional WASP ideas of what American pioneers were all about. This play addresses that. I include a lot of people who have a lot to do with the building of this country. We often celebrate the great names. The country was built by average people. I have a lot of those people in this play; some are ministers, some are cowboys, and some are writers.
"I bring in my own family I can trace them back to a bit before the Civil War. There was a great-great-great-great-grandfather who we know was over 100 when he died and remembered Thomas Jefferson as President. We can go back as far as his memory. I am always fascinated about it. Talking to a grandparent-certainly one who is 104, you realize you are really talking to people almost 200 years ago. You assume grandparents spoke to their grandparents and they spoke to theirs. So you are getting some accurate memory."
Though Reynolds' show is steeped in the politics of race, his personal story has been an unusual one, as he is one of the most successful African-Americans in the television business. His concern is for others who did not meet with spectacular success, and he feels a strong responsibility to lend a hand. Politically and socially, he is conflicted about the recent agreements between the NAACP and the major networks to add more color to their line-ups.
"I am of several minds," he said. "I am very happy about it. But I am also sorry it was ever necessary. It seems to me that television, much like magazines and other aspects of popular culture, should reflect our culture. There should have been no question. My family and I will look at specific shows and wonder why in the world there are no more minority characters. Why, on a show with a relatively large cast, didn't the producer look and see there were no minority characters? I am not talking about one person, which often happens on TV. I am talking about looking realistically at why they don't have an open call for this role. Cast a person regardless of ethnicity. If you really look at TV or film with a critical eye as to the make-up of the cast and walk down the street and look at the make-up of the country, there is a great disparity. It is not racism so much of lack of consideration."
On his own show, Days of Our Lives, he is thrilled to be part of a highly visible storyline that is very inclusive. "I am the straight-forward police commander," said Reynolds. "Some people call him the moral center of the show. Suddenly we've found that there are some rather dark secrets in his past that we didn't know about before. I am very pleased that a number of minority character are going to play crucial roles. The presence of minority characters is going to increase tremendously-at least on this show." BSW