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Among the Dead, Hansol Jung’s complex exploration of family and war now playing at Spooky Action Theatre, sprang to life shortly before “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a feminist rallying cry. But the insult/compliment Mitch McConnell gave Elizabeth Warren could also be applied to Number Four (Kyosin Kang), the World War II-era Korean woman who is the play’s emotional heart.
Number Four encounters a series of men who attempt to undermine and use her. She first outsmarts and flees enslavement as a “comfort woman” by the invading Japanese army, only to find a lost American soldier (Chris Stinson) who, while superficially kind, tries to subject her to his own whims. That she continues to fight for herself through years of other people telling her what to do makes her story both inspiring and heartbreaking.
Frustratingly, even the script forAmong the Dead attempts to rob Number Four of some agency; her story is not her own, but told through a framing device that layers unnecessary complexity and even a shapeshifting, time traveling Jesus Christ (Nahm Darr) on top of her simple and poignant journey. We learn about her instead through Ana (Julie M.), a young Korean-American woman who has arrived in Korea in 1975, one day before her birthday. Like Number Four, Ana is also constantly told what to do; but in a key difference, she mostly acquiesces to the demands others make of her.
Ana has travelled to Korea at the behest of her recently-deceased father—the same American soldier who encountered Number Four in the jungle. When a suspiciously Christlike bellhop offers her a mysterious journal and even more mysterious joint, she puts up a token resistance, but accepts both. After one drag on the joint, she finds herself possessed by the journal, forced at ghostly gunpoint to act out her father’s memories of the war.
Ana’s violent trip doesn’t recommend much for whatever was in that joint, but it’s an enjoyable enough experience from the safe confines of the audience. Though the acting overall is uneven, Kyosin Kang and Julie M. are equally compelling as Number Four and Ana, and the actors have April Joy Vester’s beautiful and variable hotel room/jungle set to climb over, crawl through, and otherwise use as their personal jungle gym.
As might be said about World War Two, it’s messy, but it’s justified and ultimately important. Number Four’s story is one worth telling, and Spooky Action has done a commendable job of bringing Among the Dead to life.
To March 10 at 1810 16th St. NW. $30–$40. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org.