Playwright Julia Cho took Spanish in high school, French in college, and “a little bit of German” during her two years as a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. But while she grew up in a Korean-speaking household, she never learned that particular language. On the phone from Los Angeles, where she writes for the HBO series Big Love, Cho says, “It’s a huge source of regret and guilt that I don’t speak Korean.”
That guilt has inspired a new play, The Language Archive, which begins performances at the Roundabout on September 24, directed by Mark Brokaw. The script concerns George, a linguist struggling to preserve dead and dying languages. Cho had become intrigued by the fact that a world language dies every two weeks and began researching exactly why they disappear. Her lack of fluency in Korean “made the whole idea of languages going extinct stick with me,” she says. “That’s a lot of what went into the play, wanting to understand that aspect of my own life.”
Cho began her career as a playwright quite early. In the eighth grade, she wrote a piece about a group of people huddling in a fallout shelter after a nuclear attack. Her drama teacher staged it. “I had no idea how to write a play,” stresses Cho, in self-deprecating fashion. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s so talented—she’s clearly a playwright.’ It was like, ‘That wasn’t very good, maybe you shouldn’t do that again.’ ” And she didn’t—not until 1997, in her final year at Amherst, when she took a seminar with Constance Congdon. After she left Berkeley, she completed an MFA in dramatic writing at NYU, and a stint at Juilliard followed. Plays such as The Architecture of Loss, The Piano Teacher, and Durango have received productions at New York Theatre Workshop, the Vineyard, and the Public.
Cho’s plays typically discuss very terrible events (genocide, murder, sexual assault), but in a gentle—even genteel—fashion. They’re delicate and dangerous, and it’s only in retrospect that you realize just how devastating they are. Though largely a comedy, The Language Archive includes a divorce, a fatal illness, and, if you hold with the beliefs of its protagonist, numerous deaths: George registers each vanished language as a distinct and personal loss. “It is the death of the imagination, of memory,” he says. “It makes me much sadder than I could ever possibly express. Even with all my languages, there still aren’t the right words.”
In writing The Language Archive, Cho had to discover all the right words. In fact, she had to invent a language of her own. The last two speakers of the European dialect Elloway, which the play describes as “a lilting, melodic tongue, not unlike the rushing of water,” turn up in George’s office. “I knew I wanted Elloway to have certain sounds and to have a certain rhythm,” Cho says. “My only thought was that I wanted it to sound beautiful to the listener.”
Suggestively, she has given Elloway some of the grammatical structure of Korean, a particular arrangement of nouns and verbs. Once the play has begun performances and the current season of Big Love has commenced shooting, she hopes to enroll in a Korean class. “It’s certainly not too late for me to learn,” she says. “It’s on my to-do list.”