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Young Jean Lee's Broken World

What would make you as a theatergoer more uncomfortable--watching a video of a woman well up with tears as some unseen hand slaps her repeatedly? listening to three women wearing overly large smiles and Korean traditional dress (it makes them look pregnant) speak in Korean and Thai with no translation provided? witnessing a fourth Korean woman wearing jeans and jersey get punched and stomped by the three women in Korean dress? worrying that you might be suddenly yanked from your chair and ushered on stage? being insulted because the play you have paid your money to see indicates that everyone, especially the white person, is racist? Experiencing Young Jean Lee's play Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven as the Dresser did at Studio Theatre on October 24, 2010, brought up these kind of questions. Oh, one more question. Is this the stuff of comedy?

BROKEN PLAY? NO, BROKEN WORLD

Lee's play is very disorienting in the purist way that Antonin Artaud meant for his manifesto of theater of cruelty to affect an audience. The very able actors--whether it is Young Jean Lee being slapped repeatedly in the Hitting Video or Jiehae Park, as the character Korean American, telling the audience her parents are like "retarded monkeys" tangled up in the demands of conformity and status--are charged by the playwright to shatter reality. And true to this shakeup of theater reality, Songs of the Dragons has no story line and the characters do not have names. songs_1_web.jpg

The play is a crazy quilt of videos, image, dance, song, mime, a shadow puppet play, and a child's game (scissor, paper, stone). In the intermissionless 90 minutes, a lot happens and much of it seems disjoint and overly long. However, the Dresser has discovered a trail of clues as to what threads together the Korean American's invective against her parents, traditional Korean culture versus the white culture in which she is a minority, overall racism on both sides, and the white couple known only as White Person 1 (played by Rachel Holt) and White Person 2 (played by Brandon McCoy) whose relationship is on the skids and whose interaction ends Songs of the Dragons with what seems to be a total disconnect.

BEATING THE DRUM FOR THE FIRST KOREAN FEMINIST

The Dresser found the first and most important clue in a credit for the nine-minute "Hitting Video." (Be patient, the first five minutes one sees black screen while a practice session of hitting occurs.)

A male voice singing in Korean provides music background. His song in the pansori style (a narrative song sung to the beating of a drum) is about Chunhyang, a young Korean woman who marries in secret above her class and then has to suffer a horrible beating when the new governor of her province wants her as his mistress and she says no. To many Korean women, Chunhyang, who is a martyr to love, represents the first feminist, a woman who stands up for herself.

As for most modern day single women, their parents, particularly mothers, hound them about when they are going to get married. In Songs of the Dragons, that conversation is disguised in this way. Korean American's grandmother asks the granddaughter why she made "the video." (Presumably the video Grandmother refers to is the Hitting Video.) The granddaughter says she was trying to be political. Grandmother says "Jesus will help you, my dying wish." Grandmother makes the girl promise to embrace Jesus as her helpmate. In the Dresser's mind, the Jesus commitment is just a stand-in for the marriage commitment.

What happens next is Korean American declares "All is vanity. [Ecclesiastes 1:2] Everything is fucked up." (Use of the F-word is significant for its male orientation.)Then she proceeds to conduct a reverse Bible study class, but this transitions through a short scene in which the white couple bickers, followed by Korean American coming back on stage in chima jeogori, the traditional two-piece Korean dress. In quick succession, Korean American and the three Korean women strip themselves of their chima jeogoris revealing white full-length slips while a modern-day Christmas song plays in the background. The four women each commit a bloody suicide aided by lighting designer Joyce Liao's effective splashes of red light. All that is left is the white couple. The white woman says, "It's awesome being white." Then the couple talk about getting couples therapy if they can get health insurance to cover it.

WHY IT HURTS SO GOOD

The Dresser admits that the Chunhyang story does not create a one for one correspondence, but it made the Dresser see Songs of the Dragons as a rather strange love story and it was the only way for the Dresser to make sense of the white couple ending the play. Why Korean-American commits suicide by knife is to save her honor since she can't commit to Jesus or any other man. Why Korean 1, 2, and 3 (played by Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song, Youngsun Cho) commit suicide is to participate in Korean American's ritual of death--Lee is making another provocative statement about conformity in the Asian community.

THE MASTER TOUCH

One other clue is that Young Jean Lee has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Mac Wellman's playwriting program at Brooklyn College. Wellman's plays have been characterized as a moving collage of events that are more like dance than plays since he typically ignores traditional plot and characters. Lee relies on image (e.g. the bloody suicide scene), gestures, and dance to get her message across. There are three dance scenes--the hitting dance by the three Koreans that ends in Korean-American's shocking beating, the fan dance which evolves to the sexually lewd shadow puppet show, and the dragon dance by the three Korean women who have dragon markings under their skirts. Yes, these are the dragon ladies who fly up to heaven with Korean-American.songs_3_web.jpg

In his theater treatise "Speculations: An Essay on the Theater," Wellman connects experimental theater and ceremony. For Wellman, personal insights--epiphanies--are the endgame of any play. The following quotes from Wellman's poetic essay help the Dresser put Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven in perspective:

"The theatre of our time is, for the most part, a theater of question-begging; plebeian theatre is a theatre of the Already known."

"In Geezer theater the broken world is replaced by one apparently fixed."

Songs of the Dragons charts unknown territory (e.g. the story of Chunhyang) in a broken world where one thinks the terrain is recognizable. After all, the playwright tosses in deceptively familiar elements like the Soup Nazi from the Seinfeld TV sitcom. The problem is how to assemble the patchwork pieces of Lee's play into something meaningful.

The Dresser will toss this last little bomb into the mix before closing the book on Songs of the Dragons, the Dresser believes that the playwright builds an argument--however sardonic--that the white woman in the play is the perfect woman. Why? Because White Person 1 continually trounces her boyfriend White Person 2 while he wants not only to unite with her, but become her. Here's what Mac Wellman has to say on the subject of the perfect woman in his poem "Secret Expedition to the South in Search of the Perfect Woman."

SECRET EXPEDITION TO THE SOUTH
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT WOMAN

I want to see the world through your eyes,
How music gathered you up and brought you here,

How the Fly was chatting to the Other Bug...
I want you to know what I am doing when I practice myself,

How I resemble you by virtue of loving you,
What small anguish it takes to make up some monster,

And I am sick to death of this double death:
How trivial the distance is, this endless toiling by the river.

So I am going to steal you away...
It will all happen like clockwork: the guards

Gagged, the old Enchanter enchanted,
And the two of us whistling

Through the cornfield like smoke, feeling what we feel,
I'll tell you what the Fly said to the Other Bug.

Larks will be cruising the tree-tops there,
Some delectable fruit will be dangling there...

My secret wish is secret but it involves
You, and that's all I'm saying...

I can chop wood, am in excellent health, as of
This writing, and can write my name.

I am going to learn your secrets!
I am going to steal you away!

By Mac Wellman
From In Praise of Secrecy

Copyright © 1977 John Wellman

Photos by Carol Pratt

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 27, 2010 2:36 PM.

The previous post in this blog was When Maybelline Left Chuck Berry.

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