Jackie takes over Richard’s lines. She is perched on an invisible sofa, watching an invisible television. When her stage partner calls out to her, she barely deigns to answer. Each time they run through the lines, Jackie’s expression sharpens. She is more dominant, bored, dismissive. Jackie throws Richard’s words like razors wrapped in silk.
After leaving college, Jackie spent a few years working. The jobs she could find without a college degree didn’t pay very well. “I was really depressed,” she recalls. “I felt aimless. I felt useless.
Then Jackie met a friend of a friend who performs a style of acrobatics called deception. It combines gymnastic and taekwondo movements. The art form caught Jackie’s attention. She knew nothing about gymnastics, but she had been practicing taekwondo since childhood.
Jackie found a gym near her home in Maryland. She called the owner and discovered that they shared several friends. Jackie signed up for private lessons. She met new people devoted to the practice of martial arts and stunts, aspiring actors and performing artists who spend their free time creating independent films. Their passion swelled his.
“It totally got me thinking, OK, I really want to follow my dreams and be a stunt performer, martial arts dancer, whatever actor it is,” Jackie said.
Students take turns performing their renditions of “The Lover”. A pair is tender: a young couple realizing they have hurt each other for the very first time. Another pair are exasperated: longtime partners rehashing the same argument for the millionth time.
When Jackie and her partner perform, they betray no affection. Whatever love they once shared is lost. There is nothing left to save. They need a clean break.
When Jackie found a trick, she saw a way out.
“Effect that, life is far too short, thought Jackie. “I have to start somewhere.”
When Jackie was in seventh grade, she asked her mother to buy her a denim skirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. It cost $60.
It was a lot of money for Jackie’s family. The Kims moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the United States when Jackie was 11, in 2004. In Maryland, their finances were strained. Jackie says she’s been working since she was in eighth grade, when she started earning a few bucks an hour as a waitress at a restaurant.
“I don’t think it was legal, but whatever. It is how I didn’t want to ask my parents for money,” says Jackie.
But… this skirt. It was fashionable. It was Abercrombie. It could help her fit in at school, where she struggled to make friends, being targeted by bullies who lashed out at her accent and outfits.
So Jackie asked her mother to buy it.
“She said, ‘Do you really, really, really want this?’ recalls Jackie. “And she asked me as I kept touching him, you know, I kept looking.”
Jackie wanted it. Still, she told her mother not to worry. They might leave the store if the skirt was too expensive.
But Jackie’s mother replied, “Okay. If I get this, promise you’ll share it with your sister.
“And she got it for me, and I’m so grateful to her. I still can’t forget — it’s forever etched in my brain — how much immigrant parents sacrifice for you,” says Jackie .
The first time Jackie tried college, her parents paid for her tuition. When she returned to study acting, she took on that responsibility. She considered applying to famous theater programs, like those at Yale and Juilliard. But it was cheaper and easier to stay local. So she enrolled at Howard Community College.
To pay her bills, she works two office jobs that rely on her training as a nurse, assisting a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. She’s trying to save money for when it’s time to take a big step in her career, maybe New York, maybe LA. She researches what it costs in these cities to pay for rent, utilities and groceries.
“People are like, ‘Oh, you can just go with, like, $5,000.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do that’, Jackie laughs. ‘I just wish I had enough savings to be able to comfortably pay off my loans and live comfortably somewhere for at least eight months.’
When she’s not in class or at work, Jackie is active. In the creative projects she does with friends, she often mixes dry humor with skillful stage combat. In a short film, “Tea Time”, she battles against a series of villains while tracking down a lost pal, eventually coming face to face with a surprising enemy. In another, a “gangster reboot” of a classic legend, called “Mulan: An East Side Story,” she plays the title character, singing, dancing, and generally kicking ass.
Study, work, act, repeat. Jackie is always tired. Ambition does not sleep.
“She physically works very hard in the family, always on the move,” says Brian Kim, Jackie’s younger brother, who lives with Jackie and their parents. “Her daily schedules, I feel like they’re pretty intense, because I’m lucky if I see her in the morning, and I’m lucky if I see her at night.”
In her daily blur, Jackie paused just long enough to notice a courier. She received a brochure from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This encouraged her to come back and finish getting a bachelor’s degree. The letter promised that if Jackie applied soon, the university would waive the $50 application fee.
“And I was like, ‘Sold’,” Jackie recalled with a laugh. “I was going to go back anyway, but what if you give up the $50? Great.”
This is exactly the reaction that university leaders were hoping for. In the summer of 2020, they realized the COVID-19 pandemic had created conditions that could set back adults who left college without finishing. For six hectic weeks, administrators created a marketing campaign called Finish Line, dug up the records of former students who had earned at least 60 credits, and mailed them invitations to return to the institution.
One of these students was Jackie. With fresh acting credits from community college, she returned to the University of Maryland in Baltimore County.
This time around, instead of living in a dorm, Jackie lives with her mom, dad, and brother 20 minutes away. Instead of flipping through manuals, she memorizes scripts. She doesn’t cry at night.
The campus feels different. When Jackie arrived ten years ago, the performing arts building did not exist. By the time she returned, there he was, shining on top of the hill.
Once a week, Jackie practices swordsmanship. She cuts and parries, learning moves her instructor calls “Hollywood swashbuckling.”
She also practices unarmed combat, skills used to perform fights, pushes and falls on stage and screen.
“No weapons, just punching, kicking, kicking, which comes naturally to me, because I’ve done it so much,” Jackie says.
The class teaches students about partnership, communication and “how to work safely while creating the illusion of danger,” says Jenny Male, associate professor of theater at Howard Community College and certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors. When actors take a punch or grab a knife, she explains, their job is to “keep it safe, but exciting.”