Can racial identity overpower one's individuality? Has globalization already glossed over the subtle beauties of cultural diversity? Are all Korean people fundamentally evil? Glib questions like these are posed, evaluated, and ultimately dismissed in playwright Young Jean Lee's staggering and luminously defiant new play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which opened this week at the HERE Arts Center.
Lee also serves as director of this autobiographical production, which traces a somewhat dotted line through her own heritage as a Korean-American as the play ponders the strong, culturally Korean aspects of her upbringing. In counterpoint is the influence of American culture, in the form of an insipid and self-absorbed relationship between two white Americans. There is no real story line; instead, Lee presents us with chaotic impressions of Korean and American culture and repeatedly crams them into intensely funny scenes.
Representing her Korean side are three women clad in traditional schoolgirl chima jeogori dresses (vibrantly designed by Colleen Werthmann), who act out skits in Korean. This chorus only sporadically speaks or sings in English, but it is clear that the true nature of the women's revelry is much darker than their attitudes suggest. Nearly all of the blocking in these segments suggests self-destruction—a masochistic instinct that Lee quite angrily suggests might be present in all minorities.
Stuck in the middle of Lee's culture collision is a character named in the playbill as "Korean American," who has deep ties to both societies. This character, who addresses the audience directly, is clearly Lee's proxy. Dressed casually in jeans, Korean American (Becky Yamamoto) hilariously alternates between anger, submission, and apathy in her search for meaning.
The cast handles the irreverent material with ease. The obvious standouts are Yamamoto, who is adorable whether she is goofy or incensed, and Juliana Francis, who is captivating as the scatterbrained White Person 1. The chorus of Korean women, consisting of Jun Sky Kim, Haerry Kim, and Jennifer Lim, creatively depict a twisted version of Korea, one focused on mutilation, Christianity, and, well, America. Rounding out the cast is Brian Bickerstaff, who plays White Person 2 with appropriately graceless candor.
Eric Dyer and Jesse Hawley's scenic design effectively evokes a Buddhist temple: three unpainted wooden walls and a matching floor, complete with Zen gravel paths leading into the theater. The lighting design, also by Dyer, is subtle but highly effective. In another nod toward globalization, several rows of fluorescent lights flicker on and wash out the traditional Asian set when the white characters take the stage.
The play itself is beyond categorization, which Lee openly admits in the script. In one dance, set to "All I Want for Christmas," the Korean women mime numerous methods of suicide, each more horrifying than the last. This scene is the perfect illustration of the show as a whole; it seems to indicate some deep-seated self-loathing, yet it is presented with farcically overblown characterizations and dance routines, which are amusingly choreographed by Dean Moss.
Perhaps more interesting, Lee gives the last word to the white American characters. The last 20 minutes or so are devoted to Francis and Bickerstaff struggling to make their relationship survive in the face of disgust, alcoholism, and absurdity. Their romantic involvement is never completely clarified; we know they are living together, but whether they are married is left unanswered. Although they seem unable to part, they continually attack each other with hurtful verbal abuse and criticism of drinking habits. Quite quickly, however, they switch gears and speak adoring sonnets to each other.
This strange cycle causes so much turmoil that Francis's character dreams that the two have health insurance to pay for couple's counseling. In her dream, they "learn how to be humble and realistic." This seems to be a reversal from a speech made earlier in the play by Korean American, when she insists that all minorities hate white people yet secretly want to be them. Now we are presented with two white Americans yearning for the same traits that made Yamamoto's character detest her own race.
Granted, that is probably reading much further into Lee's breathtaking work than she would like. The reason the play is so enjoyable is that it surprises and shocks at every moment. The juxtaposition of culture and identity is so vivid that audiences can't help but laugh. Unique, sophisticated, and profound, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is exactly the sort of downtown gem of a play you hope to discover.