Being a young person of color and an artist in this country seems to condemn you to one of several fates: You either dwell in obscurity or in niche-market semi-obscurity, where your work is only consumed and appreciated by the people of your race. Or you get stuck pandering to mostly older, mostly white arts audiences, who seem to see health benefits in occasional doses of your “minority rage.”
Studio 2ndStage’s production of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which closes after this weekend,won’t let you walk away feeling entirely healthy, even if you are a young person of color. New York-based playwright Young Jean Lee wrote a work that invites every single negative stereotype about Korean-Americans over for dinner. The central character is identified simply as “Korean-American” (Jiehae Park), and her monologues are frequently interrupted by a trio of gleeful, and gleefully violent, women in kimonos who seem to be some sadist’s version of a Korean minstrel show. Bob Mondello reviewed the play for City Paper. Recently, Arts Desk followed up with director Natsu Onoda Power and actress Jiehae Park.
Washington City Paper: Describe what it was like for you to play a part that was never played by anyone but Young Jean Lee. How do you feel your performance differs from the original? Did you set out to imitate her performance or try something new?
Jiehae Park: Actually, as far as I know Young Jean never performed in this play. A Japanese-American actor/stand-up comic named Becky Yamamoto was the original “Korean American.” That separation of what is spoken as “true” and what the audience knows to be actually “true” adds a few additional layers of distancing and representation to the piece. And the fact that a surprising number of people have come up to me thinking I “am” Young Jean Lee adds another bunch of layers. But that confusion in itself is representative of the race and form issues the play explores. Beyond the theoretical stuff, which can get a little heady, the play is really funny, and I hope our “funniness” quotient lives up to the original.
I tried to avoid watching clips of the N.Y. production because I didn’t want to be influenced by what that cast did—-not only because our production is quite different from having been created by a different team, in a different time, in a different town, but because the audience is quite different at Studio versus at HERE in NY. In a lot of ways my character’s primary relationship is to the audience, so even if we were trying to serve the same original intention of the play, we had to go about it a different way.
WCP: Are there any aspects to the play that you feel audience members and/or critics seem to misunderstand?
JP: The audience every night is a surprise. I think most actors would tell you that every audience is different, with a unique energy, and this has been one of the biggest rollercoasters in terms of that energy that I’ve personally experienced. Sometimes the group really wants to have a good time, sometimes it wants to think seriously. Sometimes it wants to cross its arms and stare angrily at us. I don’t know if that’s as much about misunderstanding as it is about personal taste. Art is so subjective, and there are elements in this show—-both in form and content—-that are simply too alienating for a few audience members, especially the violence, which is thrust upon them early on. On my favorite nights, I feel like there’s a crackly zipping back and forth between peals of laughter, reflection about the implications of that laughter, and honest struggle about how thorny these issues are.
WCP: A lot of the performance involves characters chattering away in untranslatable Japanese and Korean. Were you aware of the translation before you started performing? What’s the background story that was left untranslated?
JP: The script is really specific about the lines that are to be spoken in non-English languages. The actors are supposed to speak those given lines in their personal “native” tongues, so yeah, we all knew coming aboard. The alienation that this causes in large chunks of the audience is also, I think, part of the writer’s intent. But knowing that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable for those folks! Those dialogue chunks as I understand them don’t make a whole lot of traditional narrative sense either. They bounce all over from comically sexualized schoolgirl banter to how one of the girls was basically raped. They exist more as texture than backstory. But someone else might have a totally different interpretation! It’s wide open, which is the fun of this show.
WCP: Are there any funny or memorable moments from production?
JP: I love when the audience feels free enough to engage with the production. For example, during the “Bible Study” scene when my character goes on a tirade against religion, and Sue Jin’s “Korean 2” character mounts a passionate defense of why Christianity works. One night, a few people yelled back to agree with her “that’s right!” which is awesome. They cared enough about what they believed in to speak up, and were unselfconscious enough to do so. A few other nights, people have commented on the simultaneously spoken-monologue, in which all four Korean women admit that they don’t really know what the play is about and proceed to list some observations about the way racism is present in others and themselves. A few nights ago, after we said the line “But the truth is, if you’re a minority and you do super racist stuff against yourself, white people are like ‘ohhhh you’re a cool minority’ and they treat you like one of them”, someone called out “THAT’S SO TRUE!” while cackling with laughter. The play can be really confusing, and as a cast we still debate what this or that moment might mean. Having the audience be an active part of that dialogue is invigorating.
The play runs through Oct. 31 at Studio 2ndStage, 1501 14th Street NW. Photo by Carol Pratt.