Jackie takes Richard’s lines. She perches on an invisible couch, watching an invisible television. When her scene partner calls to her, she barely deigns to answer. Each time they run the lines, Jackie’s expression sharpens. She’s more dominant, bored, disdainful. Jackie hurls 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 that well. “I was really depressed,” she recalls. “I felt purposeless. I felt useless.”
Then, Jackie met a friend of a friend who performs a style of acrobatics called tricking. It combines moves from gymnastics and taekwondo. The art form caught Jackie’s attention. She didn’t know anything about gymnastics, but she had practiced taekwondo since childhood.
Jackie found a tricking gym near her home in Maryland. She called the owner and discovered they shared several friends. Jackie signed up for private lessons. She met new people devoted to practicing martial arts and stunts, aspiring actors and performing artists who spend their free time creating independent films. Their passion inflated her own.
“It totally drove me forward into being like, OK, I definitely wanna follow my dreams and become a stunt-martial-arts-dancer-whatever-actor,” Jackie says.
Students take turns performing their renditions of “The Lover.” One pair is tender: a young couple realizing they’ve hurt each other for the very first time. Another pair is 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 salvage. They need a clean break.
When Jackie found tricking, she saw a way out.
“Eff this, life is way too short,” Jackie told herself. “I have to start somewhere.”
When Jackie was in seventh grade, she asked her mom to buy her a jean skirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. It cost $60.
That was a lot of money for Jackie’s family. The Kims moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the U.S. when Jackie was 11, in 2004. In Maryland, their finances felt tight. Jackie says she has worked since she was in eighth grade, when she started earning a few bucks an hour as a bus girl in a restaurant.
“I don’t think that was legal, but whatever. That’s how much I didn’t wanna ask my parents for money,” Jackie says.
But … that skirt. It was trendy. It was Abercrombie. It might help her fit in at school, where she struggled to make friends—targeted by bullies who picked on her accent and her outfits.
So Jackie asked her mom to buy it.
“She said, ‘Do you really, really, really want this?’” Jackie recalls. “And she asked me as I kept touching it, you know, I kept looking.”
Jackie did want it. Still, she told her mom not to worry. They could leave the store if the skirt was too expensive.
But Jackie’s mom replied, “OK. If I get this, promise you’ll share it with your sister.”
“And she got it for me, and I am so grateful. I still can’t forget that—that is forever embedded in my brain—how much immigrant parents sacrifice for you,” Jackie says.
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 draw on her nursing training, assisting a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. She’s trying to save up money for when it’s time to make a big move for her career, maybe to New York, maybe to L.A. She researches what it costs in those 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 gonna do that,’ Jackie says with a laugh. “I just would like to have enough savings to the point where I can pay off my loans comfortably, and to live somewhere comfortably for eight months at least.”
When she’s not in class or at work, Jackie acts. In the creative projects she makes with friends, she often blends dry humor with skilled stage combat. In one short film, “Tea Time,” she fistfights a series of bad guys while hunting down a lost buddy, ultimately coming face to face with a surprising nemesis. 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 doesn’t sleep.
“She physically works very hard in the family, always moving around,” says Brian Kim, Jackie’s younger brother, who lives with Jackie and their parents. “Her daily schedule hours, I feel like they’re pretty intense, ’cuz 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 piece of mail. She received a pamphlet from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It encouraged her to return, and to finish earning a bachelor’s degree. The letter promised that if Jackie applied soon, the university would waive the application fee of $50.
“And I was like, ‘Sold,’” Jackie recalls with a laugh. “I was gonna go back anyways, but if you’re waiving the $50? Great.”
That’s exactly the reaction that leaders at the university were hoping for. In summer 2020, they realized that the COVID-19 pandemic had created conditions that might draw back adults who had left college without finishing. During six hectic weeks, administrators created a marketing campaign called Finish Line, dug up records of former students who had earned at least 60 credits and mailed them invitations to return to the institution.
One of those students was Jackie. With freshly earned community college theater credits, she transferred back to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
This time around, instead of living in a dorm, Jackie lives with her mom, dad and brother 20 minutes away. Instead of thumbing through textbooks, she memorizes scripts. She doesn’t cry at night.
The campus feels different. When Jackie first arrived a decade ago, the performing arts building didn’t exist. By the time she returned, there it was, shining at the top of the hill.
Once a week, Jackie trains to wield a sword. She cuts and parries, learning moves that her instructor refers to as “Hollywood swashbuckling.”
She also practices unarmed combat, skills used to perform fights, shoves and falls on stage and on screen.
“No weapon, just punching, kicking, hitting—which is like natural to me, ’cause 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, an associate professor of theatre at Howard Community College and a certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors. When actors take a punch or grab a knife, she explains, their task is to “keep it safe, yet exciting.”