1: Kuhoo Verma // Racial Awakening
Last seen at Signature Theatre's Octet, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Annie Tippe, Kuhoo Verma played Velma "the newcomer, [who] relates a quiet, heartfelt account of connecting with someone in a distant land." (The New York Times)
I got the pleasure of working with Kuhoo on my new musical, The Golden Threshold, set in 1930s India. She recorded the demo of the very first song I wrote for the show, Outside/Inside, in the summer of 2018. Not only were her vocals completely transformative and elevated the song with perfect Carnatic music stylings, I was also overwhelmed by her joy and the way she carried herself at 21 years old. This made her the perfect candidate to kickstart this series.
I was curious about her catapult to stardom right out of college, and how her background informed her intersection of art and activism.
Full transcript of podcast: East Side Story, Episode 1.
Embracing Her Indianness
"It was a huge transition going from hating myself and hating my Indianness and finding out that in the process of white-washing myself, I was erasing my parents' existence in my life." - Kuhoo Verma
From graduating NYU, to booking a movie, to starring Off-Broadway and working on multiple Broadway-bound workshops, Kuhoo Verma is a force to be reckoned with. There is an energy about her that is pure and open, and the perfect embodiment of light.
Kuhoo [00:00:00] (Riffs then laughs.) Oh, I can’t hear as it cuts out.
Cheeyang [00:00:07] And I say, “Shit is peaking, shit is peaking. Abort! Abort!” (laughter)
(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Plays)
Cheeyang [00:00:15] This is East Side Story, and I’m your host, Cheeyang Ng. Each week, I sit down with an Asian or Asian-American working in the New York Theatre scene, and I excavate their life story—how they grew up, how they got their start in theatre, as well as projects they’ve worked on and upcoming work that we should anticipate.
Cheeyang [00:00:36] This week’s guest is Kuhoo Verma. She was most recently seen at Signature Theatre’s Octet, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Annie Tippe. She made her movie debut in The Big Sick and is currently in workshops for Broadway-bound musicals Monsoon Wedding and Secret Garden. I got to work with Kuhoo on my musical The Golden Threshold, and she is not only a really smart actor, but her voice is also completely out of this world — therefore, the perfect fit for the first episode of the series. Enjoy!
(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Ends)
Cheeyang [00:01:07] Let’s jump into our conversation.
Kuhoo [00:01:08] Great.
Cheeyang [00:01:09] So why don’t you introduce yourself. Who are you? Where are you from? Ooo, where are you really from?
Kuhoo [00:01:13] Where am I really from? Uhh, we’re gonna get, like, copyright issues from that.
Cheeyang [00:01:17] Oh. (Laughs.)
Kuhoo [00:01:18] My name is Kuhoo Verma. I am from—I was just speaking to the cab driver on the way over—I am from Pennsylvania, but my parents are from India. But the little tidbit that I usually don’t tell racist people is that I was actually born in India, so technically I really am from India—
Cheeyang [00:01:32] Yes.
Kuhoo [00:01:33] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:01:34] I didn’t even know this.
Kuhoo [00:01:34] Yeah, yeah. Well, I present as very white, usually, and so I very much am like, “Oh, I’m from Pennsylvania,” and I like, kind of, begging them to ask the “where are you really from” question so I can be like “Pennsylvania”. (Cheeyang laughs.)
Kuhoo [00:01:47] But the truth is I’m actually from India! I was born in India.
Cheeyang [00:01:49] Which part of India?
Kuhoo [00:01:50] New Delhi.
Cheeyang [00:01:51] Oh! Wonderful—
Kuhoo [00:01:52] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:01:52] City. City girl.
Kuhoo [00:01:53] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:01:54] City girl her whole life.
Kuhoo [00:01:54] City girl my entire, entire life, yeah. A little different, but... (Cheeyang chuckles.)
Cheeyang [00:01:58] Yeah. Talk a little about your childhood. Um, how big is your family? And, uh, you grew up in Pennsylvania, and how was that experience?
Childhood & Family
Kuhoo [00:02:04] I grew up kind of everywhere. Like I got to see a lot of different places in America, so like... was in Delhi and, you know, in India it’s such communal living.
Cheeyang [00:02:013] Mhm.
Kuhoo [00:02:13] It’s very much, like, everyone is taking care of each other, and family is always nearby, you know. And if you’re a kid, you have, like, seven guardians, eight guardians, you know. The gardener is taking care of you. The person that sweeps your house is taking care of you, you know.
Cheeyang [00:02:27] Right. Right.
Kuhoo [00:02:28] Which is really great, um... And then I went to—I lived in LA for a bit, lived in Ohio for a bit, New Jersey for a bit, obviously, ‘cause I’m Indian. (chuckles) And then we eventually ended up in Pennsylvania.
Cheeyang [00:02:40] I did not know this! I did not know that you—you grew up so many places. I just—I knew you were from Pennsylvania, but I never knew you were born in India, and then you, like, traveled so many places...
Kuhoo [00:02:04] Well, I don’t have an allegiance to the states I think in the same way that a lot of people do.
Cheeyang [00:02:55] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:02:55] So like, you know, even now, I talk to people, and they’re like, “Oh, like, I’m a Colorado dude. Like I love Colorado. Like that’s where I’m from, you know. Born and bred.” (laughs)
Cheeyang [00:03:04] (laughing) That is gonna be edited as the Kuhoo Verma tag: “I’m from Colorado!”
Kuhoo “I’m a Colorado dude!” And I’m like, “That’s great!” I don’t have any allegiance to Pennsylvania specifically or to any other state in America at all.
Cheeyang [00:03:17] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:03:18] You know, my allegiance—
Cheeyang [00:03:19] Not even to New York?
Kuhoo [00:03:20] That’s the thing, like, New York would be the only place!
Cheeyang [00:03:23] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:03:23] You know, and it’s not a state thing, and it’s not a geography thing, and it’s not a family thing. It’s the feeling that no matter—everywhere I’ve been, the place that I had 100% of a choice in picking of, like, where I wanted to end up and where I wanted to live was here!
Cheeyang [00:03:40] Hm.
Kuhoo [00:03:40] And that was a choice not up to anyone else but me. It wasn’t visas, and it wasn’t where the work went and we followed the work as immigrants. It was just me being like, “I wanna live here. I see myself flourishing here.” And this is where I choose to be.
Cheeyang [00:03:54] And flourish you did.
Kuhoo [00:03:55] And flourish I am.
Cheeyang [00:03:56] yeah, am! Am! Not even—yeah! It’s happening right now. Right here, right now.
Kuhoo [00:03:59] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:04:00] And do you have any siblings?
Kuhoo [00:04:02] I do. I have a little sister.
Cheeyang [00:04:03] I never knew that either!
Kuhoo [00:04:04] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:04:04] Wait, have I seen photos of her?
Kuhoo [00:04:06] Probably not. I find I don’t speak about my family very much.
Cheeyang [00:04:09] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:04:09] Um...
Cheeyang [00:04:10] I mean I do know about your mom.
Kuhoo [00:04:11] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:04:12] I do know about your mom. I do know about your dad and the little “-isms” that we talk about sometimes.
Kuhoo [00:04:17] Yes. Yes. They’re so wonderful. I—yeah, it’s definitely a—It was a huge transition going from, you know, hating myself and hating my Indian-ness and, like, white-washing myself, um, and finding out that, in the process of white-washing myself, I was erasing my parents’ existence in my life. And transitioning from that period in my life to now being like, “Oh, I have parents that I can talk about,” and that I, you know, I don’t need to hide my family anymore, and I don’t need to hide that part of myself anymore. And suddenly, it’s like people are like, “Oh, I’ve never heard about your family.”
Cheeyang [00:04:50] Right. When did you think that perm—where did you think that permission came from? Do you think it’s a permission? Do you think it’s an awareness? Do you think it’s like a—sometimes people say—like racial awakening?
Kuhoo [00:04:59] Yeah, totally.
Cheeyang [00:05:00] You know?
Kuhoo [00:05:00] It really felt like, you know, I’m a brown, queer person, and in the same way I had a queer awakening, I had, like, a racial awakening. So I love that you said that term.
Cheeyang [00:05:08] Yup.
Kuhoo [00:05:09] I think my racial awakening happened when—the first time I met another Indian actor. Another Indian performer.
Cheeyang [00:05:13] Oh, who was it? Do I know ‘em?
Kuhoo [00:05:15] Um, it was the first project that I ever did in my entire life, and it was all Indian people.
Cheeyang [00:05:20] Oh.
Kuhoo [00:05:21] And so, all at once, I was finding 20 people that, like, were liberal, progressive, young artists that were all Indian. So I can’t really even speak to one name.
Cheeyang [00:05:31] Right.
Kuhoo [00:05:32] It was kind of, like, an overwhelming experience of like—there are 30 Indian people in this room, and every single one of them is nothing like what I thought an Indian person could be.
Cheeyang [00:05:43] Mm.
Kuhoo [00:05:43] I find myself in you, and I, like, see something—a quality in myself—in all of you. And that was a very disorienting, painful experience.
Cheeyang [00:05:52] When was that?
Kuhoo [00:05:53] Was 2... 3 years ago? 3 years ago.
Cheeyang [00:05:55] Was it Monsoon?
Kuhoo [00:05:57] It was Monsoon Wedding, yeah. And it was, you know, the first show that I ever did in my life.
Cheeyang [00:06:01] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:06:02] And so I found that that was the beginning of a very painful process of being like, “Okay, why have I hated Indian people my entire life? Why have I hated myself because of that? And hated my family because of that?” And I remember, like, a year into doing Monsoon Wedding, my mom actually told me—she said, “I’m really happy that you are part of this show because—I don’t know if you notice—but you talk to me differently, and you’ve been talking to members of your family differently. And I feel that there’s less tension when you’re talking to us, and I feel that there’s a little bit more comfort in who you are and less shame in who you are when you’re talking to us.”
Cheeyang [00:06:42] Oh my god, right before you said the word, I was going to latch on to that word a little bit, because that’s how we operate as Asian people: the idea of shame and the idea—and you were also saying you, you know, you felt shame—you felt ashamed of being Indian. It’s the same for being queer sometimes, you know, like that internalized—whatever it is—homophobia or—how do you say racial phobia? I don’t know. Just, like, that idea—
Kuhoo [00:07:06] Internalized racism, yeah.
Cheeyang [00:07:07] yeah, especially because we live in a society that values a certain culture, certain color more. I mean I grew up in a very racist household.
Kuhoo [00:07:16] Totally, me too…
Cheeyang [00:07:16] And I never realized it until, you know, I left and be like, “Oh, fuck. This is—” I grew up with this mentality that now I have to, like, check myself and, like, figure out why these were taught to me. I don’t think my parents or my relatives or my family are necessarily bad people. But it’s the idea that you grew up in an environment that just literally gives you that information, and you take it as is, you know? And you don’t question it, you don’t challenge it. And I think that is very prevalent as well in, um, darker, like, brown people and black people. Like colorism, right? Like—
Kuhoo [00:07:53] Yeah. Yeah. yeah, the colorism that’s, like, kinda ingrained in our heads. It’s so funny, like, coming to America and then, like, we’re made to feel like we’re more racist than the white people that are here because of the, like, kind of public, like, unapologetic colorism that our families have grown up with. But you know, we are able—not “able”. It’s always a bad thing, and it’s always to be discouraged, but, like, we have been able to be, like, kind of openly colorist and racist in our households, because we are not contributing to a society that is, you know, racially against, you know, a certain group of people in the same degree that America is. And so to be coming here and being like, “Oh, South Indians are darker than North Indians—” Like I’m North Indian, so, like, that was a huge thing: like South Indians are darker than North Indians. And so, like, they’re, you know, ugly, and they’re blah, blah, blah, etcetera. Like all that fucking—
Cheeyang [00:08:50] Undesirable?
Kuhoo [00:08:51] Undesirable! all that fucking bullshit. And then me being made to feel like, “Oh, like, your family—so basically you’re telling me that your family is racist.”
Cheeyang [00:08:58] Mm.
Kuhoo [00:08:58] And I’m like, “Yes, and… you need to realize that just because you’re not saying these, like, blanketed statements, that doesn’t mean that you are not contributing to the same shit.
Cheeyang [00:09:12] Yeah, absolutely.
Kuhoo [00:09:13] You know, especially, like, you seeing all Indians as the same and, like, fully not understanding, like, that there is a difference between those two things, you know? It’s like—yeah, it’s just a little bit more complicated. It’s a different kind of racism.
Cheeyang [00:09:25] Right. And do you think you were aware—so—‘cause you said— how old are you right now?
Kuhoo [00:09:29] I’m 22.
Cheeyang [00:09:30] I know I’m not supposed to ask that question.
Kuhoo [00:09:32] Illegal. (laughing inaudible)
Cheeyang [00:09:33] We can edit that out if you don’t want to. Like bleep, bleep, bleep.
Kuhoo [00:09:36] I’m bap, bap, bap!
Cheeyang [00:09:36] Like how old are you?
Kuhoo [00:09:37] I’m bap, bap, bap!
Cheeyang [00:09:39] And talk a little bit about, like, how you functioned as a kid growing up in America.
Kuhoo [00:09:45] Yeah, so, like, I mean for me, I just remember—I mean I—number one, I hated my name so much.
Cheeyang [00:09:51] Mm.
Kuhoo [00:09:52] You know, even in Indian populations, Kuhoo is not a very popular or common name at all. Not that that mattered. That wasn’t ever the reason. It could’ve been a common Indian name, but I just hated it with all my heart. I was like, “It’s not serious. it’s not indicative of who I am, I think.” It’s so easily malleable to, like, a lot of different nicknames, you know? And so it wasn’t my favorite, and I think, um, you know, that was definitely an excuse that I used. I had people call me Katie growing up—
Cheeyang [00:10:22] Wow.
Kuhoo [00:10:22] That was one of the—I changed my name.
Cheeyang [00:10:24] Oh, you wanted people to call you Katie.
Kuhoo [00:10:26] I wanted people to call me Katie.
Cheeyang [00:10:27] Wow.
Kuhoo [00:10:28] yeah, and so I would convince people that, like, oh yeah, just, you know, I would love for you to just call me that. And I definitely took advantage of the fact that I’m very fair-skinned. And so I definitely took advantage of that, by telling people I was biracial and that I had some white in me, to make me exotic in a way that was still familiar and exotic in a way that, um, was more intriguing and less common. ‘Cause there’s the exoticism of being an Indian person and, like, being from a far away land and being foreign, and then there’s the exoticism of being, like, I’m very—I’m special.
Cheeyang [00:11:02] Hmm...
Kuhoo [00:11:02] You know? I’m Indian, yes, but I’m also a combination of Indian and white. And that in itself is so—it’s foreign in such a beautiful way, as compared to foreign in a common way of just being one of many Indians in the world.
Cheeyang [00:11:16] And that’s something that you personally believed in. You believed that that would, you know, put you in a spot where, like, you don’t have to—
Kuhoo [00:11:21] A higher status.
Cheeyang [00:11:22] Hmm, yeah. Which is...
Kuhoo [00:11:23] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:11:24] And that, you consciously did as a child...
Kuhoo [00:11:25] Totally. As, you know, a child that, like, really didn’t know better and didn’t know, like, why I wanted those things. But as far as I was concerned—
Cheeyang [00:11:34] Oh! Well, you, I mean, you didn’t know why, but, like, the media was bombarding you with all of that, right? Like even me growing up in Singapore, it’s, like, you’re still bombarded with the white images. You always think that the white person is the ideal.
Conversation Around Diversity
Kuhoo [00:11:49] You know, I also hate the word “representation”, ‘cause it’s like—or diversity, rather—it’s like, ”Oh, it’s a very diverse cast.” I don’t think it’s a diverse cast. I think it’s a cast that is properly representing the world of today.
Cheeyang [00:11:59] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:12:00] That’s what it is.
Cheeyang [00:12:00] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:12:01] And so when someone is like, “Oh, they really went out of their way to have a diverse cast,” it’s like you’re making it sound like there were all these white people, and then you had to, like, really search for the people of color. (Cheeyang chuckles.)
Kuhoo [00:12:11] You know? And it’s special or it’s, like, unique or it’s not actually representative of what the world looks like. But, rather, you’re going out of your way to, like, make this—curate this special diverse group of people, when in reality it’s, like, no, you’re properly representing what the world looks like, you know? It’s not diverse, and you’re not doing anything special. For the first time, actually, you’re doing non-racist casting, so let’s call it that. There’s racist casting, and then there’s non-racist casting.
Cheeyang [00:12:38] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:12:38] You can cast in a way that is supporting the systemic idea that white people are—that more actors are white people and that more people that are going out to audition and, like, wanting to do these things are white people. Or you can do non-racist casting, which is completely, you know, neglecting those ideals and fully realizing that, like, we’re all there. It’s just we haven’t been given the same amount of attention and the same amount of ability to grow in this field because of years and years and years of racism.
Cheeyang [00:13:09] And it’s so cyclical, you know—
Kuhoo [00:13:10] Exactly.
Cheeyang [00:13:11] It’s, like, the reason—I mean I personally don’t think there are less of certain, um, racial groups in the theatre, in acting, in anything. But there is the idea that Asian people, Asian parents don’t want their kids to go into acting, don’t want their kids to go into the arts because—first of all, you’re not represented in the media. Like 50 years ago, the only, like, Chinese representation on TV was, like, a stereotype of a martial arts person. Like little, tiny eyes, a mustache, and, like, bucked teeth, and like—
Kuhoo [00:13:42] Totally.
Cheeyang [00:13:43] That’s… What?! That’s the Western perception of what Chinese people looked like, and that was like—if that’s the only representation that we get, why would your parents want you to be like, “Oh, you should aspire to be that!” You know? “You should aspire to do that form of art or expression.”
Kuhoo [00:13:59] But even now, when people are trying to combat that, and they’re trying to cast, like, oh, this, like, young person, who’s, like, let’s say—let’s just say an Indian actress who is playing a character that, like, goes to school, and it’s a middle school in Virginia. And like, you know, she’s totally normal, and she’s, like, very, like, American. And then you see, like, little, tiny things of Indian-ness in her background. You know, even that, I feel like sometimes they try to combat the race thing so hard to try to make a point that like—Oh no, we’re not stereotyping this person. You know? That they’ll show, like, the liberal Indian parents, and they’ll show the, like, you know, they’ll combat it so hard that they’re losing kind of the authenticity of what it actually means to be a person of color in America.
Cheeyang [00:14:42] We’re not all the same. Not all Chinese people are the same. Not all Indian people are the same. We don’t expect one version of represent—like of portrayal—we don’t expect one version of portrayal to be the thing. Like if you portray a family of Chinese people, we’re not going to be like, “Oh, all Chinese people are like that.” If you make more shows, and you show more sides of the story, you show different types of people operating in different ways, then we won’t jump to that conclusion and be like, “Oh! You know, Fresh off the Boat. All Chinese families are going to be like that,” and like—
Kuhoo [00:15:10] Yeah. Yeah, it’s, like, either one or the other. It’s either, like, playing into the stereotype, which we hate, or it’s, like, the, like, very, very, very like—we’re combating the stereotypes, and we’re going to show every single little characteristic about this family and about this protagonist to be the opposite of what you think this Indian is or this Chinese person is. And I’m like, “I kind of don’t like either version.”
Cheeyang [00:15:32] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:15:33] Like I kind of am craving, um, a story where it’s, like, so many different kinds of Indian people in one space, and, like, how they relate to each other. So many different kinds of Chinese people, and how they relate to each other in a space, you know? Like I would be more interested in that, rather than just having, like, a gray fucking like— look at how many ways we’re, like, trying to show you that we’re not racist by writing this story.
Cheeyang [00:15:56] Right.
Kuhoo [00:15:57] Um, not interested in that.
Was Performing Always the Plan?
Cheeyang [00:15:59] yeah. I wanna go back to your childhood and growing up. Were you always the performer? Did you always say, “yeah I wanted to grow up to be an actor. I wanted to grow up to be an entertainer. I wanted to grow up to be in the arts.” Was that something that was in your trajectory, always?
Kuhoo [00:16:14] Well, like, because I didn’t know what that looked like for me, I never was like, “I’m going to be an actor. I’m gonna like”—it was less of a career-based thought and more of a like—no matter what I end up doing, I always came back to this desire and this need to create, you know?
Cheeyang [00:16:36] Mhm…
Kuhoo [00:16:37] And it was so much more of that. Which I kind of like, you know—it’s like instead of chasing success, chase the things you love, and success will follow.
Cheeyang [00:16:42] Oh, absolutely. Literally, David just said that.
Kuhoo [00:16:44] Amazing! Of course. I mean… Libras. (Cheeyang chuckles.) But yeah. So it’s very much that idea, like, no matter what I did—I thought I was gonna be a vet for a hot sec. I thought I was gonna be a lawyer for a hot sec, you know? Like there were so many little, little things that I was playing with. But at the end of the day, all my hours were going into this one thing, which was singing and acting. And you can’t argue with that, you know, when your body—no matter what you’re telling yourself, your body just keeps kind of returning to this one thing. And I think I was really privileged in that way, because it was not like I was looking at icons like, “I wanna do this. I wanna—I’m gonna follow their path. I’m gonna follow their path.” I actually wasn’t bound by that.
Cheeyang [00:17:23] Mm…
Kuhoo [00:17:24] I had no examples, really, to look up to. So instead, I just found within myself what felt right and what felt wrong, what felt like it was gonna be good for my artistic identity and what didn’t feel good. And in that way, it was, like, such a unique and, like, original way of building my desires and, like, building what I thought was gonna work for me as an artistic person. Um, yeah, rather than being like, “Well, Madonna did this, so I’m gonna do exactly that thing.” You know?
Cheeyang [00:17:54] Right. And so you moved to New York. When did you move to New York?
Kuhoo [00:17:56] For school.
Cheeyang [00:17:57] And that was in two thousand and…?
Kuhoo [00:17:59] That was in two thousand and four-... fif-... fourteen?
Cheeyang [00:18:04] Oh, wow. Such a baby.
Kuhoo [00:18:05] I graduated last year. yeah, I graduated last year.
Cheeyang [00:18:07] Like, she graduated last year, and she’s a fucking star. Like, she’s always been a fucking star, but (Kuhoo laughs) like, you guys have no idea. Okay, so—
Kuhoo [00:18:016] You’re also very biased, but, um, yeah, I graduated—
Cheeyang [00:18:18] (laughs) I am, but it’s true! It’s, like, a positive bias. So you came to New York in 2014, and you came to NYU...
Kuhoo [00:18:25] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:18:26] You came to this building...
Kuhoo [00:18:27] I came to this very building that we’re sitting in right now for classes... (Cheeyang laughs.)
Cheeyang [00:18:31] And how was that experience for you?
An NYU Steinhardt Education
Kuhoo [00:18:32] Oh my god, it was—Listen, I love NYU so much. The school, the university, the place. Like, I came here not—yes, for the academics, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever. But like, I came here for the city.
Cheeyang [00:18:45] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:18:46] And I got exactly that. If I wasn’t here, I would not, you know, be working today. I don’t—I would be four years behind, you know? And so, I got what I came looking for. As far as my specific program, I can’t say that they did anything to respect my artistic identity. At all.
Cheeyang [00:19:03] What—Do you wanna elaborate a little about that?
Kuhoo [00:19:05] Totally. I was one of two people of color in my class, um, and when I looked around in my entire program, all grades, I think I saw maybe a hand—just a handful of people of color and maybe only one other Indian person.
Cheeyang [00:19:18] Wow…
Kuhoo [00:19:19] Um, and as far as Asian people, maybe three Asian people in my entire program. And so, it became very clear very quickly that they were catering to white voice, you know? I was in a vocal performance degree, and all of that has to do with the mechanics of the voice, the placement of the voice, the health of the voice, the stability of the voice, and honing—just very plainly—honing how you sing. And when it comes to how you sing, it gets very complicated when everyone’s perception of good, healthy singing is white opera singers.
Cheeyang [00:19:51] Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The way our vocal cords operate are different from how black people’s voices operate. Tt’s different from how white people’s voices operate. It just—
Kuhoo [00:20:00] It is.
Cheeyang [00:20:00] It really is different.
Kuhoo [00:20:01] It is, and that’s something that’s so big. Like, you know, I sing a lot of R&B stuff, but like, my version of R&B is gonna be really different from what people expect, because they want me to sound like a black woman, and that is just not gonna be that, you know? And the kind of wear and tear that my voice can take is also very different than a white woman’s of my own—this very same stature.
Cheeyang [00:20:23] Absolutely.
Kuhoo [00:20:24] And so I would be sometimes singing in class, and they would be like, “Oh, I’m worried about like—it really sounds like you’re hurting yourself, and it—you know, I’m really worried about you.” And I trust their degree, I trust their education, I trust them as teachers for the most part. But the fact that you’re treating my vocal cords like a white—like a 5’2” white woman is absolutely unacceptable. And the fact that, when you don’t know what to do with me, you’re giving me gospel songs—like slave songs—to sing is also unacceptable. You know, I’m not gonna be—I’m not gonna be doing that. And to be a vocal performance program is not to make everyone sound the same. It shouldn’t be. It should be: “How do I take this person’s specific artistic gift and artistic voice, and how do I respect their identity while simultaneously giving them the tools to be as healthy and as stable as possible?” And that was what I was missing.
Monsoon Wedding (Musical)
Cheeyang [00:21:18] Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about… You said Monsoon Wedding happened—is it in your junior year?
Kuhoo [00:21:25] My—so…
Cheeyang [00:21:26] Sophomore year?
Kuhoo [00:21:26] My sophomore year is when I went into the open—it was just an open audition. It was the first audition that I had been to in New York. Like, I didn’t really know what the deal was, and, you know—I was a student of Steinhardt—and so I would see all my Tisch friends, like, going on auditioning for shit. And I was like, “How are they doing this already?” Like, I’m freaking out, and I feel like I need to get in the room and, like, see what it about.
Cheeyang [00:21:49] Mhm.
Kuhoo [00:21:50] You know? And so the person I was dating at the time was like, “Well, I saw this on Playbill, and it looks kind of, like, up your alley. You’re not gonna get it ‘cause it’s your first audition, but why don’t you just go in and get the feel of the room?” You know, and he didn’t mean anything by it other than “It’s your first audition ever, so obviously you’re not gonna fucking get it. But just have fun! Have fun with it.” So I went in—it was an open audition my sophomore year—and I weirdly got a callback for the lead. And then I kept getting called back until I got it. And so I did two workshops with them, and then I had a show with them at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Cheeyang [00:22:23] Talk a little about Berkeley Rep. Um, how—was that your first—that was your first regional theatre experience?
Kuhoo [00:22:27] yeah, that was my first regional theatre. That was my first show, contract, run, ever. Like, eight-show-a-week situation ever was at Berkeley Rep.
Cheeyang [00:22:35] Oh, let’s talk about that! Eight shows a week, that experience.
Kuhoo [00:22:37] Oh my god, I did not know how to adjust to that. I just like—I didn’t understand. Like, art is seen so differently in India and is seen so differently in Indian culture. Like, it’s never supposed to be something that is monetized upon, really, unless you’re at a certain level. And it’s also something that comes straight from the heart. So it’s really hard for me to be like, “Well, it’s that time again. Every single day at the same exact time, I’m singing the same exact song in the same exact way, in the same exact clothes.” It was like—kind of went against everything that I realized I had been doing my entire life.
Cheeyang [00:23:12] Right.
Kuhoo [00:23:13] So, I was very much someone that was like, “I’m not singing unless I feel like it.”
Cheeyang [00:23:17] Ahh! So interesting. But then this is, like, theatre. Theatre is, like, consistency. You wanna be able to do eight shows a week, the same way, hopefully, you know? And of course you can discover things as you go along the way, but ideally you’re supposed to deliver the same product—
Kuhoo [00:23:32] Totally.
Cheeyang [00:23:33] —every single time you do it.
Kuhoo [00:23:34] Yeah. Oh, boy, it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do ever. Um, yeah...
Cheeyang [00:23:39] Well… Until much later, we’ll—
Kuhoo [00:23:40] Until much later —
Cheeyang [00:23:41] —we’ll still talk about, but yeah. So first regional theatre experience. Berkeley—where is—Berkeley Rep is located in California?
Kuhoo [00:23:49] Yes, yes it is.
Cheeyang [00:23:50] And, um, they have a great program there for cultivating new work, so that was part of a new work, um, programming right?
Kuhoo [00:23:57] Yeah. Yeah, I think Ain’t Too Proud was also with us at the same time.
Cheeyang [00:24:00] Wow.
Kuhoo [00:24:00] They were running at the same time that we were, and so it’s great to see them, like, flourishing right now and be on Broadway and, like, having such a great time. They really deserve it. That’s awesome.
Cheeyang [00:24:08] Yeah, absolutely. And the whole team like—talk about the big cast. You said there were 30—about 30 Indian people…?
Kuhoo [00:24:14] Yeah, I mean throughout the workshops, you know, I was meeting so many of them, but I think, like, by the end—I mean, it was a long while ago, so forgive me—and I have a terrible memory—but, um, I think there was a lot of double-casting and stuff. So by the end, we probably only had, like, 10 or 15 people in the cast.
Cheeyang [00:24:30] That’s still a big cast.
Kuhoo [00:24:32] Yeah. Yeah, I mean it was like—it was very much wanting to invoke, like, the big Indian raucous family liveliness and color, like, color, And so, yeah, we had a lot of people, a lot of family people.
Cheeyang [00:24:44] Yeah. And how did you learn how to do eight shows a week?
Kuhoo [00:24:48] I was—So I was also, like, the youngest person there, you know? The character was, like, 25, 26 years old, but like, I was a fresh 20. (laughs) And I was the only one that was, like, fully underage. Like, by the time we went to Berkeley Rep—I was first cast when I was 18, 19? But like, I was, like, a ripe 20 at Berkeley. And so a lot of it was just, like, asking stupid questions and asking the people around me the dumbest, dumbest, dumbest things. And it really helped that they were Indian, ‘cause I felt just, like, a fundamental understanding of how to communicate with them. And I honestly, at that time in my life—and I still right now get very intimidated by white people in power… doesn’t matter [if they’re] male, female, non-binary. Doesn’t matter. I definitely feel a little trepidation when it comes to communicating with them and asking them questions and, you know, even though I’m a very strong person and I’m a very professional person. So at that point in my life, it really helped that I could be like, “We all understand each other. We all understand our backgrounds. We get where we come from.” There are little language things that soften us to each other, you know? Like, I can throw in one word, and we’re already, like, on the right foot, you know? ‘Cause we just have that understanding. And so that was really nice. I leaned on them a lot, a lot, a lot to get through the eight shows.
Cheeyang [00:26:05] Did any of them take you, like, kind of under their wing and be like, “Alright, I am your mentor now, and we’re in it together.”
Kuhoo [00:26:11] Yeah! Fully! I mean a lot of them did, to be honest with you. But one person in particular, Anisha Nagarajan, did, and she was the other female lead with me. And, um, there were several female leads, but she was one of them. And she’s about ten years older than me, and her career was kind of something that, when I heard about, I was like, “That’s me!” You know? Um, and I wasn’t really aware of her that much. I had seen her on TV, like, a couple of years ago in Outsourced, but other than that I didn’t really—I wasn’t very aware of her. But she booked, um, Bombay Dreams when she was about my age, when she was 20.
Cheeyang [00:26:47] Wow.
Kuhoo [00:26:47] And so she was like, “Yeah, like, went in for an audition and, like, booked the lead, and then now, like, now here I am.” And I was like, “Fuck, that’s me. Like, I’m 20, and I just did that. Like, I just booked a show.” And, you know, I was so intrigued by her. And so yeah, I asked her a lot of questions, and she fully, like, guided me through a lot of hard, emotional things and throughout that show, and, yeah, was kind of like my older sister.
Cheeyang [00:27:12] Amazing.
Kuhoo [00:27:12] And I’m the older sister in my family, so I never had that.
Cheeyang [00:27:15] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:27:16] Yeah.
The Big Sick (Movie)
Cheeyang [00:27:17] So, after you did Monsoon, you booked your first movie.
Kuhoo [00:27:22] Yeah, that was kind of during Monsoon, actually.
Cheeyang [00:27:25] During Monsoon?
Kuhoo [00:27:26] Yeah, yeah. So...
Cheeyang [00:27:27] Great!
Kuhoo [00:27:28] If you’ll give me the space to talk about it, it’s actually kind of a weird, funny—
Cheeyang [00:27:33] I would love to, yeah!
Kuhoo [00:27:34] —story. So basically, I did the first workshop—and I wasn’t fully attached to the show by then, ‘cause it was just a first workshop and people get replaced all the time. So by the end of the first workshop, the director was, like, very much like, “We’ll see you at the second workshop. We love you, we love you, we love you.” So I was like, “Okay, I’m going forward with it.” But then casting called me, and they were like, “We’re so sorry. They’re going in a different direction, but we love you so much that we want to give you this audition.” And so then they gave me my second audition of my career, which was for The Big Sick.
Cheeyang [00:28:03] Mhm.
Kuhoo [00:28:04] And so I went in, and then I, like, just didn’t hear back for a while. And then, the Monsoon people actually called me, and they were like, “So it’s not working out with this other person, and so we need you to come in during the second workshop.” It was the third day of the second workshop, and they were like, “We need you to come in and just do it.” So I ended up going back to Monsoon, and then I got the call from The Big Sick, and I booked that too. So I ended up getting the best of both worlds.
Cheeyang [00:28:30] Yeah!
Kuhoo [00:28:30] ‘Cause I got to do Monsoon, and I got to do The Big Sick, both of them. And so, it’s so weird and serendipitous, but, you know, if they hadn’t hired that other person—which whom I know, by the way. And she’s fucking amazing. She’s incredible. I love her. I respect her so much. If they wouldn’t have cast her first, then like—
Cheeyang [00:28:46] You wouldn’t have gotten the audition.
Kuhoo [00:28:47] I wouldn’t have gotten the audition, and yeah, I wouldn’t have been doing The Big Sick, which is awesome!
Cheeyang [00:28:51] Yeah! Talk about time on set and your experience there.
Kuhoo [00:28:53] Oh, woof. I mean, so much of my life now has been, like, I don’t—like without training or anything, I just, like, go in, and I do it, and I have my experience, and I, like, “fail miserably.” (Cheeyang chuckles.) And I learn from it.
Cheeyang [00:29:07] That’s the best way to learn, though—
Kuhoo [00:29:08] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:29:08] Honestly.
Kuhoo [00:29:09] Fully. So a lot of it has been that, of just, like, trying to hang on, and like, trying to, like, do the best work I can while being scared shitless. Um, so that’s what Monsoon was, and that is surely what The Big Sick was for me. Um, I had never had any camera work, not even like—I wasn’t even one of the people that, like, had the, like, video cameras and, like, shot funny videos with my friends. I wasn’t even that kid. (Cheeyang chuckles.) You know? So I had never been in front of a camera before, ever in my life. And suddenly I was just, like, sitting across, like, Kumail Nanjiani, and like, Anupam Kher, and like, all these people that I, like, respect so much. Um, it was a very short shooting day. It was, like, 13 hours, 14 hours… Now, for me, I’m saying “short” now, because I understand a little bit more how that works, but at the time, I was like, “I have one or two scenes… Why is it taking so long?!” I didn’t understand at all, especially because it’s—so much time of it is just sitting around, doing nothing.
Cheeyang [00:30:06] Absolutely.
Kuhoo [00:30:07] Oh my god, I was like, (jokingly) “I understand why people do cocaine…”
(Cheeyang gasps.) I was like, “I get why actors do cocaine now! I totally understand!” It’s so hard to shut off the energy and then be like, “I’m ready to perform for you, like a monkey!” Like, it’s so awful!
Cheeyang [00:30:21] (laughing) I’m like, “Kuhoo, if you ever do cocaine, I will be there to stop you, to help you.”
Kuhoo [00:30:27] But I get it! But I get it! I’m like—how else are you gonna fucking do this, you know? I get it. Actors have it hard, man. Like, (laughs) yeah, it’s so... an opposite experience of—
Cheeyang [00:30:38] Of what you expected?
Kuhoo [00:30:39] —Theatre! Of what I expected, but also theatre!
Cheeyang [00:30:41] Oh, yeah.
Kuhoo [00:30:42] It’s completely different. And I was like, “Oh, I need practice if I’m gonna do this.”
Cheeyang [00:30:46] Yeah, 100%.
Kuhoo [00:30:47] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:30:47] And you did! You kept going. You’ve been shooting a bunch of web series—
Kuhoo [00:30:51] Yeah. A lot of it—for the experience, mostly. I still don’t know, like, how I feel about it.
Cheeyang [00:30:55] Okay. You’re young, you’ll figure it out.
Kuhoo [00:30:57] Yeah. Yeah. I’m just gonna keep trying things until I settle somewhere. (Cheeyang laughs.) You know, I’m not someone to say no to many things, and so I just keep saying yes and find myself in situations that I don’t know anything about. (laughs)
Signature Theatre's Octet (Musical)
Cheeyang [00:31:08] I mean, talk about situations you know nothing about, let’s talk about your latest expedition into—I mean I don’t think you—that’s a wrong phrase. I was like, “Latest expedition into a cappella,” but I was like, “That’s not true.” You know things about a cappella. You have been in a cappella while you were in NYU.
Kuhoo [00:31:24] I—yeah, I did a cappella in college, you know, but this is a completely different behemoth. So I was in a show called Octet, by Dave Malloy at Signature Theatre, and we had a nice chunk of a run, which was awesome. A lot of fan pages have been made about it already. People love it!
Cheeyang [00:31:39] It’s beautiful.
Kuhoo [00:31:40] It’s awesome!
Cheeyang [00:31:40] It’s beautiful. You were, you were gorgeous in it, and the cast was phenomenal.
Kuhoo [00:31:44] I love them, yeah.
Cheeyang [00:31:45] The music is phenomenal. It’s really, really genius. I’ve never seen anything like it. And—
Kuhoo [00:31:49] Thank you.
Cheeyang [00:31:50] —to be able to experience that in New York theatre, it’s like, “Oh, theatre can do this, you know?” Like, you always expect theatre to be a certain way, and then you go into a space and, like, truly not expecting anything, like, you know—like, “Okay, it’s going to be a Dave Malloy show.” That’s all I’m walking in for. And I personally am truly blown away, because to make a cappella active... in theatre… it’s so hard.
Kuhoo [00:32:15] I mean...
Cheeyang [00:32:16] It’s so hard.
Kuhoo [00:32:16] I was worried about that, and I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Cheeyang [00:32:19] Yup! Because we have had shows before… We will not name names, and we understand—
Kuhoo [00:32:25] It’s tough. It’s a really, really tough medium to work with, and when I first got the script for it, I was reading some of the things, and I was like, (chuckles) “This is gonna be the most whack-ass…” And somehow, this genius, genius team has made it into, um, a weird genre of its own.
Cheeyang [00:32:42] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:32:43] You know? And I think it just comes from a deep respect for the characters, and a deep respect of everything that is… that has to do with humanity. Um, and you know, we didn’t hear any of the conversations about money, nor did we care, you know? So it was really one of the least commercial experiences that I’ve ever had, even though we, you know, presumably made a lot of money for Signature Theatre.
Cheeyang [00:33:08] Um, talk about working with Dave Malloy, working with Annie, working with the incredible octet, with your two understudies. Let’s talk about that process.
Kuhoo [00:33:17] Great. Yeah, I mean... Kind of related, because I was—I mean, I felt like I could do my work as an actor without worrying about "Why am I really here? Am I diversity casting? Like, am I this, am I that?” I didn't have to worry about any of that stuff because it was so clear. Like, the only thing that I had to worry about my character was who she was, and that's it. So for the first time, I felt like a white actor, you know? I felt, like, so—I could focus on the art and just the art, and Dave and Annie were so helpful in that, you know? Annie held my hand—Annie Tippe, the director, she's fully a genius—and she held my hand throughout, like, finding the really, really difficult stuff about this person. My character is someone that has so much love and feels so much, but just has kind of a barrier in front of her and can't really let seep out, you know, and has a lot of social anxiety, a lot of social communication issues. And so to play someone that has to be active and has so many feelings—but you can see that she's struggling to communicate those things—was something that is opposite of who I am as a person and opposite of, like, what I really try to do when I'm communicating with people. And so it was a really surreal experience, and I really felt like I was transforming every night.
Cheeyang [00:34:33] That's incredi—How many performances do you guys do?
Kuhoo [00:34:36] I think—I don't want to get this wrong, but I think it's about 50.
Cheeyang [00:34:39] That's a lot. That's a lot. It's, like, to do it every single night… I think it was… Was it more than that?
Kuhoo [00:34:43] It might have it more…? I mean, so we opened... we opened technically—April 30th was the beginning of previews.
Cheeyang [00:34:49] And then you closed in June, end of June.
Kuhoo [00:34:52] Yeah, June 30th.
Cheeyang [00:34:53] So 10 weeks, that was like—
Kuhoo [00:34:54] That was, like, fully two months.
Cheeyang [00:34:55] I mean two months is like eight shows a week, eight weeks. I mean do your math...
Kuhoo [00:35:00] Aren't we Asian?
Cheeyang [00:35:00] Six... 64? Huh? I'll edit it out if it's wrong.
Kuhoo [00:35:05] So more than 50.
Cheeyang [00:35:06] More than 50. More than 50!
Kuhoo [00:35:08] Should I pull my calculator out? This is so—my parents are going to hear this, and they're going to be like, "Kuhoo, what did you do? We should not have let you go to school for this." Um...
Cheeyang [00:35:16] Eight times eight!
Kuhoo [00:35:19] Is it?
Cheeyang [00:35:20] Eight times eight!
Kuhoo [00:35:21] Yeah, you're right: 64.
Cheeyang [00:35:21] Yeah, I was like, “Okay, come on. I can do mental math.”
Kuhoo [00:35:24] Yeah, 64. Okay, so yeah. Like, that's like a lot of shows!
Cheeyang [00:35:27] That's more. I think it's more than 84, 64. Because you did—you said you opened in April… April 30th?
Kuhoo [00:35:32] April 30th.
Cheeyang [00:35:33] Okay, great. Then yes.
Kuhoo [00:35:34] Yeah, 64.
Cheeyang [00:35:35] Eight weeks. Eight weeks.
Kuhoo [00:35:36] Yeah, I mean, you know, we did runs and that kind of stuff, you know, before, beforehand, but I mean—and I didn't find that I actually clicked into the character until previews.
Cheeyang [00:35:45] Wow.
Kuhoo [00:35:45] You know, I didn't actually get into it until, like, well into previews. I don't know what it was, but some—like, a switch just kind of went off in my head, and I was like, “Oh, I understand who she is.” Um, and I actually think it was talking to people after Octet. There were—my character's name was Velma—and there were Velmas that were coming up after, coming up to me afterwards and were like, “Hey, thank you so much. Like, thank you for doing this. I really connected to your character a lot.” And not being able to even look me in the eye, but feeling such, such strong emotions and such strong passion for what they saw. But it's not being able to really communicate it to me.
Cheeyang [00:36:23] Hmm...
Kuhoo [00:36:23] And so I think that's when it connected. It's like, “Oh, these are the people I'm doing it for.”
Cheeyang [00:36:28] Right.
The 5-Year Pact
Kuhoo [00:36:28] You know, so um, yeah. I mean it was—yeah, it was just such a respectful experience. And for me, I made a pact with myself after Monsoon Wedding—not because of Monsoon Wedding, but just in general. I could see in another world how my life would go and how my career would go. So I made a pact with myself that—it's gonna be risky, and it might blow up my face, but in the next five years, I will not be doing Indian-specific parts anymore.
Cheeyang [00:36:54] Oh, no...
Kuhoo [00:36:55] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:36:56] So then you won't want to do my show anymore… (laughs)
Kuhoo [00:36:57] Well, we're not in year five yet. So we have time.
Cheeyang [00:37:01] Great!
Kuhoo [00:37:02] But I was like, “Yeah, five years from now. Like, that's it. We're done.”
Cheeyang [00:37:06] Right.
Kuhoo [00:37:07] I mean rules are meant to be broken. And so I made that rule to be broken, but I made it because I think it's really important to promise to myself that I don't get stuck in the—it would be really easy for me to make money by just accepting those roles.
Cheeyang [00:37:24] Oh I 100% know where you're talking about.
Kuhoo [00:37:26] Fulfilling that niche.
Cheeyang [00:37:26] I told my agent, I was like, “Don't sign me up for Miss Saigon. Don't sign me up for King and I."
Kuhoo [00:37:30] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:37:30] There are people that can do that. And I personally, as a human being, I don't want to, only because those are true—actually truly, my reason for that is, like, these are not my stories. These are not my stories. Like, I am not Thai. I am not Vietnamese. These are not stories that resonate with me as a being, and so that's why I don't want to do it. It doesn't mean that I don't wanna do any Chinese roles and I don't wanna do any Asian roles ever.
Kuhoo [00:37:59] Yeah...
Cheeyang [00:37:59] But on the broad spectrum, it's that these stories do not resonate with my being.
Kuhoo [00:38:05] Totally.
Cheeyang [00:38:05] So don't put me in these stories.
Kuhoo [00:38:06] Yeah.
Cheeyang [00:38:06] And I'm not trying to be, like, you know, like a stick up in, eh, my nose or my ass, you know? Like, “Oh, I'm too good for this.” It's not that. But it's, like, you have such a limited time on Earth. If you're going to spend time developing something, you want to feel like you are in control and that you are a piece of this. You're a piece of this creation. Not everybody feels that need, but I think that that kind of resonates with you. I hope.
Kuhoo [00:38:32] Totally, totally. It's like, I'm not going to tell a story just because I can, and you know, just because it's easy money and whatever. And like, you know, and I understand that that's also a very privileged thing to be able to say.
Cheeyang [00:38:44] Oh, 100%.
Kuhoo [00:38:45] And I get that, but I'm like—but if I do have that privilege, I have a responsibility to every single person that comes after me and every single person alongside me right now, you know, and people like Anisha. And like, you know, the person I was talking about before and other people who didn't have that fucking option when they were growing up, like, they just had to like—if they wanted to be an actor, they had to be withheld to the Priyas and the Pujas and the, you know, all—and the Rajas, and like, all those people, you know? And so for me, you know, it's a promise to myself that I'm gonna see myself as an actor, you know, and not as someone that is going to allow herself to be branded in a certain way. I'm not gonna put myself in that box, and it's gonna be hard, and it's a risk, and I might not get work for a very long time. But I also—
Cheeyang [00:39:30] Oh, I'm not worried about that at all, girl.
Kuhoo [00:39:32] But you know what? I'm not either.
Cheeyang [00:39:34] Yeah!
Kuhoo [00:39:35] Because if I make that promise to myself, then the work will come.
Cheeyang [00:39:38] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:39:38] It'll come.
Cheeyang [00:39:39] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:39:39] It always has and always will.
Cheeyang [00:39:41] Talk a little bit about your Secret Garden workshop experience and my love of my life, who—well, she doesn't know yet, but like… Shaina Taub's Suffragists? Talk about that.
Kuhoo [00:39:52] Okay, I am absolutely in love with Shaina Taub. Okay? And that is not a secret. I—
Cheeyang [00:39:58] This is a secret: I am declaring this love, and she'll be like, “Get this restraining order right now! Who is this person? I don't know him.”
Kuhoo [00:40:07] I love her. I've done a lot of shows of her. I think a lot of my community here in New York would not have happened if it were not for her. You know, she has brought me into a group of people that are Broadway—you know, Broadway-quality performers that have the kindness and the awareness of the world that also make them activists and that also make them just kind, humble people. And to have both of those things and so many people in this community is, like, absolutely a blessing.
Cheeyang [00:40:40] Yeah.
Kuhoo [00:40:41] You know? So we're doing another workshop of Suffragists very soon, and hopefully The Public will be putting it up soon. But you know, who knows? But in The Suffragists, um, in her show, that's another example of, you know—in Octet I played someone that was just a person, and it had no kind of racial connotations whatsoever. And in Suffragists I feel the same exact way. You know, I have the liberty to be able to play several different characters in that show, and none of them have any kind of, you know—I have no responsibility to share my own life in them. I can just have them be vehicles of art and be vehicles of storytelling.
Cheeyang [00:41:18] And Secret Garden is it the same way?
Kuhoo [00:41:20] Secret Garden is very different. It was really lovely. It was a really great experience and a lot of amazing people. But you know, I'm playing Aya it, and so I am playing someone that is very specifically Indian, but also one of two Indian people in the entire show, you know? And the particular cast in workshops is probably gonna be very different than when we have eventually put it up. But you know, they were very—it was a very “non-racist casting,” which was awesome. It was only—like, less than half of the people were white. And so that's really great. And all of them were like—it's just amazing, amazing people and amazing actors, um, you know? But I did play someone that was Indian, and so I definitely did feel a responsibility and an obligation to be like, “Okay, some of this writing is a little dated from the last time that Secret Garden existed, so I think that we should make some tweaks.” And I definitely did speak up on a lot of those things.
Cheeyang [00:42:13] Do you feel empowered to speak up because of the current climate of our industry, or do you think that's like—or do you see that as a burden? Do you see that as—
Kuhoo [00:42:21] It's a little bit of both, but the fact of the matter is, like, if conversations weren't already being had, then we wouldn't know that it's an option, you know? And so everything is cause and effect. And, you know, because I have the words to be able to have conversations like this all the time is why I felt like I was eloquent enough to talk to the creative team about some of the issues. And they were very receptive to everything. And, you know, and I did feel empowered in that room to do my job, but it is certainly still different because I am playing an Indian person and, you know, especially in the context of that show. It's such a classic show, and also it was in a time when the British were occupying India. And, you know, like, even though the setting is in India, we are the servants, and we are working for them. And so that's something that we—it's not changeable, you know?
Cheeyang [00:43:14] That is part of history.
Kuhoo [00:43:16] Yeah, and so—and that's also not the focus of the show. And so, you know, it's not my job to change that. It's not my job to feel empowered to suddenly be a very different kind of Aya. You know, I need to honor the script and need to do what I need to do. But I can focus on the really important things of the show, which is the protagonist. The person who makes all the change is a young girl. She is the person that has all of the change, which is already different than so many of the shows that are, you know, commercially on Broadway right now.
Cheeyang [00:43:48] That's true.
Kuhoo [00:43:49] And so for me, that's a win. And for me, if I can help in telling that story, that a little girl with foresight of, like, the power of spirituality, the power of nature, and the power of Eastern ideals, you know—these things that just now western people are finally getting their heads around—that nature is something that should be valued, that our bodies are something that should be valued, that you don't have to take Tylenol every five minutes. You know what I mean? Things like that. You know, if we can, you know, expound upon that in this show, then, like, that's already a win for me.
Cheeyang [00:44:24] Yeah. So before we wrap this up, I have three—a few questions. I won't say three, but a few questions for you, and they might be a little bit of, like, a whammy.
Kuhoo [00:44:36] Okay. Okay.
Cheeyang [00:44:36] So if you could tell yourself, a younger self, something, what would you tell—what would you say to little Kuhoo Verma? I mean you're so young, so it's like—I mean you're a little Kuhoo Verma right now still. But, um, what would you give—what advice would you give yourself? Growing up, looking back right now.
Kuhoo [00:45:00] I thought about this a lot, and I've always had trouble with the answer, and I think that's part of why I think I need to grow up a little bit more to be able to tell it. But right now in my life, I think it would be: Nothing matters but the truth. You know? I spent so much time hiding, and I spent so much time trying to cover up who I was and what I cared about. Just in an attempt to confuse people about who I was and in an attempt to rise to a place that—where I thought I could get respect, you know? But you don't get respect by dishonoring your truth and by chasing respect, you know? You make your own place by honoring your truth. And so I think I have to tell her that: Nothing matters but the truth.
Cheeyang [00:46:01] I want to say, like, I really love you because there is an energy about you that is so pure. I don't know if people tell you this, but there is just, like, an openness to your being and your honesty, and I have seen you, like, outside of our working together. Like, I've seen you do so much that just represents your being, and I sometimes I don't know how to explain that. You know, I'm a person who is attracted to energies, and I just remember so clearly that night at the Duplex, when you were doing your solo show and you were singing "I Am Light," and that was, like, a magical moment. I mean I never knew the song and I always understood that concept, but when you were communicating it, I can tell you that the entire room felt it. That is you, you know? And you are that embodiment of that, and that's beautiful. And you're only 22. It's like... What the fuck? It's like beautiful.
Kuhoo [00:47:09] Thank you.
Cheeyang [00:47:09] Yeah. So um... Fuck... I'm getting emotional.
Kuhoo [00:47:13] Yeah, I'm getting teary eyed. We're both sitting here just, like, kind of crying.
Cheeyang [00:47:19] Oh, my god. Um... Uh... one last question would be: Is there anything that you would like to ask me? About yourself, about the world, about my secrets…? Anything.
Kuhoo [00:47:34] (gasps) What a tempting, delicious offer you have just given me!
Cheeyang [00:47:39] You get one.
Kuhoo [00:47:40] Just one?
Cheeyang [00:47:42] Just one.
Kuhoo [00:47:43] Oh, wow. I mean to be honest, I've always been very curious about you... Still am and always will be. Which is why I think we make a great pair, and I think if you could change one thing—and I hate this question already because I don't regret anything, and you shouldn't change anything—but if you could change one thing that you have done in your childhood regarding yourself, regarding how you saw yourself, anything... What would it be?
Cheeyang [00:48:16] Oh, my God... I was always afraid to fail. I think right now, I'm still very afraid to fail, and I think every single part of my insecurity comes from that notion. Like, I'm so scared of being fat, like, I—Asian standards. I'm so fucking fat. Right? Like, just, like, you know. You know what I mean. You know what I mean.
Kuhoo [00:48:34] I know what you mean.
Cheeyang [00:48:35] And I'm very feminine in my own way, and—I don't even know how to answer that question. If I could change one... I want to change every part of myself, honestly. If I could. If I had the power. But I've come to—I am at a point in my life where I respect all those flaws that I have, that I deem as flaws. You know, that personally I deem as flaws, but they are not. They are who I am. They are. They are what makes me who I am. Literally every single part of me. I can give you so many specific things, but I think they all stem from the idea of, like, being afraid to fail, because I'm the only child in my family, and I feel there's this huge burden of, like, delivering success, whatever that means. I truly don't know. But that has to do with, like, how I look, how I behave, how I treat people, the things I do. All of that. And that all stems from, like, a fear of fail—I don't think I've even talked about this... I never really thought about this—stems from this, like, idea that I'm so afraid of failing that—to that question, it's like, I want—if I could change one thing about myself, I want to be not afraid to fail, as a kid. 'Cause every single time I approach anything that I do throughout my entire life so far, I've always come from the headspace of, like, “If I'm going to fail at this, I'm not gonna do it.” But then that's such an irony and so stupid because I'm doing the arts. There's no guarantee here. You can fail. And that's just so—it's just like this... I don't know if that makes any sense. That's a terrible answer.
Kuhoo [00:50:35] It makes sense. It's not a terrible answer at all. It makes sense. What I'm not going to say this to—I'm not trying to fix anything. There's nothing to be fixed. There's nothing wrong, you know? But everything that you do, and everything that you are, and everything that I've experienced from you, and all of the gifts that you've given me from when I first met you, have happened because of all of the “flaws,” right, that you keep referring to: the way that you hug, and the way that you write melodies, and the way that you communicate with people, and the way that you love people, and the way that you love yourself. All of that is a revolution, and all of that is in protest of what you, what I, what all of us have been, like, trying to understand what success is, you know? And if it's failure that you're afraid of, and if it's success that—the thing you want, then like, you're going to find such specific and unique kind of success, which is so much more intriguing and so much more magical and universal than whatever it is that you thought success would be. You know? Because it doesn't feel good to have the success that you thought you always wanted. Why live, if you're gonna get exactly what you wanted? I mean that's not life. And that's not magic. You know? I think the fun really starts when you get something that you didn't expect.
(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Plays)
Cheeyang [00:52:19] Did you like that episode of East Side Story? If you did, follow us on Instagram @eastsidestorypod and @cheeyangmusic. Go onto Apple Podcasts, rate us, review us, and don’t forget to subscribe! Or if you’re a Spotify user, you can also click the follow button. Even better, you can tell someone about the podcast and the best part, they don’t even have to be Asian. Thank you so much for your support, and I’ll see you next week.