Going through his director’s notes with his cast and crew, Dimo Kim remains energetic despite having just completed a Wednesday night dress rehearsal attended by NBC News for “Green Card,” an original off-Broadway musical about the ordeals faced by immigrants to the United States.
The 25-year-old director is putting the finishing touches on the musical, based on the life of a roommate who committed suicide and which makes its premiere at the Theatre at St. Clement’s this Friday.
"I felt like his story had to be told,” Kim told NBC News. “His story was very simple. He just wanted to be an actor but ended up committing suicide."
A native of South Korea, Kim moved to the United States six years ago and has already produced, written, and directed two off-Broadway shows in addition to completing a bachelor’s degree in theater at the City College of New York.
His first musical, “Comfort Women,” played at the same theater last year and is believed to be the first off-Broadway musical to have an all-Asian cast directed by an East Asian national, Kim said. He had made a risky decision by broaching the topic of "comfort women," women and girls — many of Korean origin — who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during WWII, he said, but it paid off when the musical garnered attention from the Korean press, and Kim found himself sought after by wealthy Korean producers and investors.
But things didn’t always come so easily for Kim. Determined to chase his childhood dream of becoming a musical director — a dream he said he’d had ever since watching the musical “Cats” in Korea at the age of four — he watched as many musicals as he could, read a number of books on the subject, and bought musical soundtracks, which were hard to obtain in Korea at the time, he said.
“When I was 12 or 13, I began to wonder why Korea didn’t have its own musicals but only licensed Broadway musicals that were translated into Korean,” Kim said. “I mean, American musicals are great, but they don’t carry our own message. I wanted to make musicals about Korean stories, and later, about Asian stories.”
At 15 years old, Kim, dressed in his high school uniform, approached the Seoul Arts Center — one of the most prestigious performing arts centers in South Korea, he said — to direct an original musical on a $500 budget. “The guy asked me, ‘How much you got?’ and when I told him, ‘500,000 won [about $500],’ he just laughed,” Kim said.
Though he successfully directed some small local productions based on Broadway musicals afterwards, his multiple attempts at staging original musicals were met with failure. “Everyone told me to go the licensed route and not choose the hard path. So when I was around 17, I decided to go to New York City since it’s the musical capital of the world," Kim said. "I figured that if I couldn’t get help with making musicals in Korea, I might as well move to New York since it’ll be just as hard.”
"Many of the actors actually cried when they saw that my script for ‘Comfort Women’ had Asian names ... It’s up to us. We have to create opportunities for ourselves."
His parents, who wanted him to attend one of the top three universities in Korea, were dismayed, according to Kim. “They thought the idea of moving to New York and studying theater was too risky," he said, grinning. "I faced a lot of pressure, but I intentionally did not complete the Korean college entrance exam, and my parents and teachers all hated me when they found out."
His parents refused to financially support him, and Kim took up odd jobs, teaching a musical class to high schoolers and working as a delivery boy and waiter at Korean restaurants so that he could save enough money to move to New York.
Once enrolled as an undergraduate theater major at the City College of New York, he became involved in numerous off-off-Broadway shows. After graduating, he founded his own musical theater company to provide Asians and Asian Americans with more opportunities in theater. “I saw a lot of Asian actors struggling,” Kim said. “I was shocked because their resumes were nearly empty — even with 10 years of experience, they’d been cast only in ensembles."
Kim said he realized during this time how important it was to create a space for Asians in theater. "Many of the actors actually cried when they saw that my script for ‘Comfort Women’ had Asian names, he said. "It’s up to us. We have to create opportunities for ourselves."
"Green Card” is based on the story of his ex-roommate, a Korean citizen who had moved to New York to become an actor but failed his auditions because of his ethnicity and thick accent, according to Kim. “Even if he got accepted, they asked him for a green card, but he only had a student visa," he said. "If you want to apply for an artist visa, you need to have been casted in a show, but in order to be in a show, you need an artist visa, so this created a Catch-22.”
“He switched to being a fitness model because he thought if he won some fitness competitions, he might get sponsors who’d help him get a green card," Kim added. "But he wanted to be an actor and was depressed about it.”
One day in his living room, Kim overheard his roommate proposing a fake marriage to a woman, he said. While she agreed to it, he said, she ran off with his roommate's money. On July 4, 2015, three weeks before the premiere of “Comfort Women,” Kim came home to find that his roommate had committed suicide, Kim said. "I’d seen his dilemma, so I started writing the script [for “Green Card”] in September 2015," he said.
“The U.S. still advertises the American Dream, and due to the power of American media, so many people come here believing in it," Kim added. "But when they arrive, they realize it’s not true and become disillusioned.”