Playwright and performer Jodi Long brings the showbiz pedigree and the backstory to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company, with the East Coast premiere of SURFING MY DNA. Photo courtesy of NJ Repertory Co.
Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), May 2, 2019
STAGES: SURFING MY DNA at New Jersey Repertory Company
While she wasn’t literally birthed in a dressing room, Jodi Long could qualify as what might have once been called a “trunk baby” — a child born into a hard-touring showbiz family, and seemingly predestined to carry on the family business.
“My parents were entertainers, dating back to before I was born, so I grew up backstage,” explains the stage/screen actress who’s perhaps most familiar as Margaret Cho’s mom on the sitcom All American Girl, and as Steve Byrne‘s mom on the series Sullivan and Son. “They would pull out a drawer in whatever place they were staying, and that was my crib.”
Prior to making her Broadway debut at age 7 in a show directed by Sidney Lumet, young Jodi hit the road with her folks — Australian-born singer-comedian “Larry” Long and Japanese-American dancer Kimiye “Trudy” Long — as the veteran show people plied their trade at nightclubs ranging from their NYC home base, to the “Chop Suey Circuit” of the Bay Area, with the high point of their decades-spanning career being an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The story of the act known as “Larry and Trudy Leung” — and the experiences of the daughter who had a ringside seat to the showbiz life in her pre-school years — forms the basis of Surfing My DNA, the autobiographical theatrical piece that makes its East Coast debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Accompanied onstage by musician Yukio Tsuji, Long returns to the downtown Broadway playhouse (where she appeared last year as part of a stellar ensemble of seasoned character actors in Fern Hill) with a retooled version of a work that she first performed in Los Angeles in 2006.
Using music, humor, and her own considerable toolbox of talents, the playwright-performer tells the tale of a marriage and a vanished lifestyle; bolstered by highs like an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show— and haunted by such experiences as Trudy’s time in a Japanese-American internment camp.
As Jodi Long explains, despite their popularity on the West Coast “my parents were based in New York, because after being in the camp it was the only place that my mother could go and not be locked up.” It was in NYC (where their daughter would eventually attend the High School of Performing Arts) that Kimiye secured a job as a showgirl at the fabled China Doll Club — and there that she would form a personal and professional partnership with Larry, an immigrant of Cantonese and Scottish descent.
“It was a variety act, where they sang, danced, told jokes…my dad did impressions, too,” says Long — likening their chemistry in part to the classic husband-wife comedy teams of Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, while remaining “based on Asian themes.”
“That was their only national TV appearance, and it was at a time before most people had a TV set in their home,” she recalls of that 1950 Sullivan broadcast. But while the host known as The Great Stone Face famously prolonged the careers of many an old-school vaudevillian, Long observes that “the demise of vaudeville occurred when TV arrived in everyone’s living room.”
With the slow demise of the team’s circuit of venues came the eventual dissolution of the marriage, with Larry becoming a professional golfer in his post-showbiz career, and Trudy going on to a job with the American Bible Society. The show’s Long Branch run represents a Shore homecoming of sorts for daughter Jodi, who “spent summers in Bradley Beach and Asbury Park after my parents divorced…I learned how to swim and surf; I grew up with the Stone Pony and Springsteen, and I saw shows by Janis Joplin and The Beach Boys at Convention Hall.”
While her parents had hung up their dancing shoes, Jodi charged headlong into her own acting career, with her series stints augmented by feature film supporting roles, high profile guest shots in Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City, and an acclaimed turn in the 2002 Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song. And fans of MTV’s glory days take note: that’s her in the weird dramatic-scene interlude that interrupts the video of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” directed by her friend, artist Robert Longo.
The script that would become Surfing had been percolating for some time, with the playwright looking to “revisit it, and add some new perspective…but something else would always happen; my father died, or new projects would come up.” A renewed level of ineterest from SuzAnne and Gabe Barabas of NJ Rep — and the opportunity to work both with Tsuji and with director Eric Rosen (whose mom is herself a Long Branch native) inspired Long to develop a “very different” version of the play, in a setting where “there’s not a lot of pressure; where you can try and start something…it’s an organic process, which is the best way to create things.”
Surfing My DNA goes up in previews tonight, May 2 at 8 pm with a post-show talkback; continues in previews on May 3 (8 pm) and May 4 (3 pm); opens with post-show reception on Saturday (8 pm), and presents a 2 pm Sunday matinee on May 5. After that, the show continues its limited engagement Thursdays through Sundays until May 26, with tickets reserved at njrep.org or by calling 732-229-3166.