Korean-American playwright and critical darling Young Jean Lee has broken exciting new ground with Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, her brash, slightly-uneven vision of Korean-American culture and racial politics in the United States.
Now playing at Studio Theatre, Lee’s intensely personal work operates on three unique, occasionally intersecting planes. The main protagonist, known only as “Korean American”, serves as the onstage avatar of the writer herself and details Lee’s struggle to reconcile her goals and self image as a successful playwright with her Korean culture and roots. Three women, referred to as “Korean 1”, “Korean 2” and “Korean 3”, shatter the stereotype of the reserved, subservient Asian female with their lewd humor, wild emotions, and shocking outbursts of violence. Finally, a white couple in crisis engages in a long, complex examination of the disparity between idealized love and reality.
Director Natsu Onoda Power and her well-cast ensemble produce numerous flashes of brilliance. As the likeable protagonist/narrator, Jiehae Park paints a sympathetic portrait of an artist anguishing over her true identity and deferred dreams. She rides an emotional rollercoaster, alternating between scathing monologues about race and heartfelt invocations of Jesus. Park is at her best during her tongue-in-cheek rant about the secret hate all minorities harbor for whites. She mixes a strain of real anger into the seemingly facetious outburst, eliciting a blend of hearty yet nervous laughter from the audience.
In an impressive performance as the three Korean women, Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song, and Youngsun Cho convey a world of complicated emotion with their eyes, tone, and body language, while speaking solely Korean for the majority of the show. They deftly walk a tightrope between comedy and cruelty; in their strongest scene, they pretend to kill themselves in increasingly creative ways, making the difficult transition from unsettling spectacle to hilarious competition in a few short minutes.
In the play’s emotional finale, Rachel Holt and Brandon McCoy exhibit wonderful chemistry as lovers and antagonists probing the deep-set resentment and fears poisoning their relationship. Holt had me choked up with her deeply felt monologue about her dream of a simpler, more fulfilling life. I was fortunate enough to see McCoy deliver an excellent turn as a morally conflicted artist in New Jerusalem, and his mastery of repressed anger and quiet desperation in that production prove a perfect fit for this role.
The impressive visual design was a key part of my enjoyment. Through clever costumes, elegant set, and inventive digital projections, the designers do more with less, transporting the audience from a Korean pagoda to an American Church and even to Hell and back with nary a scene change. The impact of the aforementioned mass suicide scene is increased exponentially by the projection of rapidly expanding blooms of red on the women’s white dresses. It’s quite the startling image.
Songs of the Dragons as a whole succeeds through its strong performances, striking visuals and occasionally brilliant writing, but several scenes prove bewildering, frustrating, and profoundly unsettling. The protagonist/Lee does admit several times that her work suffers from forced profundity and self importance, as exemplified by the disturbing “political statement” video that opens the play, in which she is slapped repeatedly to the point of tears. A cohesive plot is either too much to ask for, or was never part of Lee’s overall vision. Perhaps each of these trouble spots were conscious additions, included to shake the audience from their comfort zone or convey Lee’s own feelings of creative turmoil. Or perhaps the script is merely a dramatic experiment with great potential and flawed delivery. Whatever the case, I encourage you to see this thought-provoking work and decide for yourself.
Songs of The Dragons Flying to Heaven
By Young Jean Lee
Directed by Natsu Onoda Power
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven runs thru Oct 23, 2010 at Studio Theatre, Washington, DC.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN