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'Between' is a young Minnesota man's coming-of-age story

Deryck Hak wrote and stars in this solo show that considers race, sexuality and a 2010s adolescence.

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Deryck Hak of Minneapolis reads a letter during a run through of "Between" on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at Zeitgeist Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

In an early scene of Deryck Hak’s new play, the writer-actor turns to the audience and asks the age-old question: “Why am I here?"

In his hands, it’s not the kind of existential pondering best considered at 3 a.m. on certain kinds of nights — it’s literal.

Why is the character Deryck Hak, a Cambodian American middle-schooler, now standing in mostly white suburban Minnesota rather than in a place where his friends look like him?

This exploration of race, sexuality and the toll of the Cambodian genocide on his family are at the root of “Between,” a one-person show directed by Tom Isbell that plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Duluth's Teatro Zuccone. There will be a virtual screening available after the in-person run.

“I want audiences to leave inspired and curious about where their family has come from and how they got to where they are today,” Hak said after a recent rehearsal at the black-box theater. “And to figure out where you want to go in life, as well as being OK with not having everything figured out … being OK with being in-between.”

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Deryck Hak, of Minneapolis, gestures during a run through of the one-man play " Between" on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at Zeitgeist Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

***

Hak started writing an entirely different story when he was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Duluth — a tale of growing up during the rise of social media. He was able to work on it as part of the system-wide Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which gave him a stipend and Isbell as a mentor.

But while he was actively working on that play, it was “Between” that was tugging his attention.

“I was thinking about this story all the time, and what was going on in my life,” Hak said. “Tom said, ‘Why don’t you go in that direction and turn it into a one-man play.”

“Between” won the John Cauble award for outstanding short play at Region 5 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Hak has had concert readings, edited it, made a recording of it, and edited it more. Even last week, he was still fine-tuning for the stage. He had just messaged his mom, he said, for the pronunciation of the French school she attended.

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Deryck Hak, of Minneapolis, carries a backpack during a run through of the one-man play " Between" on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at Zeitgeist Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

Hak grew up in Carver, Minnesota, about 30 miles southeast of Minneapolis near Chaska, with a population of fewer than 5,000 people in fewer than 5 square miles.

He and his siblings were among the few non-white students at Chanhassen High School, which led to a certain response when a classmate used an ethnic slur to describe him as being “white on the inside.”

He was flattered.

“My white friends think I’m one of them,” he says in the show. “I was finally fitting in.”

***

“Between” is a coming-of-age story — a single conversation composed of vignettes about a middle-school girlfriend, Justin Bieber’s hair, extended eye-contact with other boys, and nostalgia for Vine, the short-lived form of social network made of quick-hit looping videos.

It’s also about reconsidering his response to the word his friend called him, learning his family’s history, the journal passages from an uncle who died in the Cambodian genocide — in addition to a tutorial on the 1970s killings of millions of Cambodians that appeared nowhere in Hak’s history books.

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"Between," a one-person show written and performed by Deryck Hak, opens this week at Teatro Zuccone. Contributed / Zeitgeist

In his telling, Hak is charming and engaging. He’s relatable, curious and a patient teacher. He is an engaging storyteller who might make a viewer want to see every human being’s 45-minute solo show.

Isbell said he had just recently looked at the file with Hak’s early drafts.

“I think we both knew it was something special,” Isbell said.

While Isbell has been involved with the years-long evolution of “Between,” clicking through it in real time was thrilling, he said.

***

Since graduation, Hak has moved back to Minneapolis, where he has been cast in a seasonal show at the History Theatre and had just booked a commercial. When Hak applied to colleges, he said, he opted to only audition for one theater program: the one at UMD.

“If I don’t get in, I’ll do business or something,” he recalled thinking.

Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. Reach her at clawler@duluthnews.com .

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Deryck Hak, of Minneapolis, acts during a run through of the one-man play " Between" on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at Zeitgeist Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

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The St. Paul native was a counselor to troubled children before he got his start in comedy when he won first place in the Midwest Comedy Competition in 1981, according to Deadline.