Daniel K. Isaac’s new play, ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME blends Korean folk tales, storytelling traditions, family history, and coping with trauma into a short but far-reaching 20th century epic of Korean history and diaspora. Isaac works in broad strokes and colorful images rather than emotional detail.
Ralph Peña’s inventive production utilizes fantastical projections to achieve many of Isaac’s adventurous concepts. Sometimes Isaac’s cheeky, anachronistic tone works and sometimes it’s trying too hard. But at its core it is a meaningful story of resilience, survival, and family.
Isaac divides the story into chapters of 20th century Korean strife—the fight for independence from Japanese colonization, the horrors experienced by the Korean “comfort” women forced into sexual bondage by Japanese forces during World War II, what we call the Korean War, and the LA Riots. There is a familial through-line that connects the chapters as well as delving into issues of Korean adoption. He also bookends the piece with stories of gay characters (although it might be a little too subtle at the jump). If that wasn’t enough, there’s a musical number to boot.
To say it’s an ambitious piece is an understatement, yet, because of the mostly smooth execution is feels quite natural for the stage. Peña and his team try to find creative solutions to leap from reality to fable and back again using projections, masks, lighting, and costumes. Sometimes it works marvelously (particularly with Yee Eun Nam’s projections) and we understand we are deep under the sea or magic is unleashed from some green glowing gourds. But sometimes the play crumbles a bit under the ambition and it is a little murky as to exactly what is happening (for instance, the end of the LA riots sequence, the journey from the cave).
Throughout, Isaac happily presents an expansive lens on the idea of family with scenarios that include single parents, collaborative child-rearing, and surrogate parents.
The characters speak in contemporary vernacular throughout. I am assuming a woman in 1930 would not say “Does this hanbok accentuate my beautiful baby bump?” However, it did remind me of that famous Branden Jacobs-Jenkins quote from An Octoroon:
“I’m just going to say this right now so we can get it over with: I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”
I understand the desire to take things out of the period and remind us that these characters were not so different from us. It collapses that distance and puts us directly in these scenarios.
Isaac is also the over-arching storyteller here and this choice reinforces that. It is a contemporary diasporic queer retelling of these stories and it’s a subtle reminder of that throughout.
I only struggled with the slang during the “comfort” women scenes. Here, Isaac opts for the women to be crass and direct—which is fine—they are employing black humor in the direst of circumstances. Except it kept throwing me out of the seriousness of the setting, for instance, when they used the word “sharted.”
To achieve the story’s scale in 95 minutes, we have to speed through history covering both the real-life scenarios and their attendant folk tales. The cast ably manages the multiple roles they play and do their best to bring some specificity to each scene. But often times it’s a character in a scene telling a folk tale so with all that narrative layering we only get glimpses of who the initial character is.
This issue became sharper as we reached the end of the play with a group of Korean adoptees in present-day K-town. With them speaking primarily in their own voices (they tell a folk tale but with more of a “putting on a scene” panache) and using their own colloquialisms, the characters blossomed a bit more. I realized I had missed that throughout. I wanted to know more about the characters on stage.
But perhaps that is how family history works. We only get a peek at the past. “Where we come from” is itself a mythology written by the people who came before us. They only tell us what they want us to know. In my Catholic immigrant family, my family history is for sure 60% buried secrets. The stories they tell are not the full story.
Isaac makes an attempt to bridge some of that gap in creative ways.