Interracial couple struggles with race's competing forces

BYLINE: Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic


Satellites: By Diana Son. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Through March 2. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 95 minutes. Tickets $40-$42. Call 510 843-4822 or visit <> .

The problem of gentrification in Brooklyn is getting so out of hand it's taking over theaters thousands of miles away in downtown Berkeley. It's the primary focus of Danny Hoch's new, extended hit solo, "Taking Over," at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It's also the setting and catalyst for the action next door at the Aurora Theatre, where Diana Son's engrossing "Satellites" opened Thursday for its West Coast premiere.

It's a central metaphor for Son's first play since her breakthrough "Stop Kiss" 10 years ago. Newly arrived in a neighborhood that is losing its connection to its past, Son's upwardly mobile couple - Korean American architect Nina and her African American husband Miles - have to face how divorced they are from their own ethnic heritages. And what that may mean for their new baby.

Not that "Satellites" is a message play. Son, a new mother in an interracial marriage herself, is exploring issues of identity and motherhood, and their effects on a marriage, in some complexity and without any easy answers. If her plot takes some overly convenient turns, in what is for her an unusually naturalistic drama she's been working on "The West Wing" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" in recent years, her characters are richly conceived and their problems, for the most part, intelligently and intriguingly drawn. Under Kent Nicholson's sure-handed direction, the Aurora cast brings them rivetingly to life.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Julie Oda invests the relentlessly plainspoken Nina with dynamic ambition, insight and self-assurance, complicated by the sleep deprivation, doubts, biological demands and mood swings of new motherhood. San Francisco Mime Troupe mainstay Michael Gene Sullivan creates a richly layered portrait of Miles, his discomfort in his own body reflecting his disorientation as an unemployed new father, having been laid off from his high-tech job, and as a man who neither understands nor trusts his new black neighbors.

The demands of the other characters pull at this couple as insistently and revealingly as the clutter of unpacked boxes, peeling linoleum and cracked plaster walls in their newly purchased, fixer-upper brownstone terrific set by the ubiquitous Melpomene Katakalos. Issues of racial identity and racism crop up and grow more complex. As Nina is torn between the demands of her baby well depicted in Chris Houston's sound design and the project she and her very focused partner a magnetic, attentive Ayla Yarkut are trying to finish, her desire to give her child the Korean background she didn't get leads her to hire a nanny the beguiling Lisa Kang, who brings her own racial and family issues into the house.

Miles' disconnection from his ethnic heritage takes center stage, both in his relationship with his entrepreneurial, white brother Eric a captivating Darren Bridgett, as loose as Miles is uptight - Miles was adopted and raised in a white environment - and his dealings with Reggie a genially quick Michael J. Asberry, the longtime resident across the street. Each man has his own reasons for wanting to help Miles.

Some of the plot twists and personal traits seem gratuitous, as in Miles' odd reluctance to hold his baby. But most of Son's exploration of racial, social and marital issues is sharp and compelling. As depicted by these actors, Son's satellite-people circle the planet of their lives to crisply entertaining and moving effect.

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Copyright 2008, Roger W. Tang

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