In Ma-Yi Theater Company’s world premiere of Hansol Jung’s Among the Dead, the past is more than memory. A young woman finds a way to understand parents she barely knew and leaves us space to contemplate our own uncertain future.
Ana Woods (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) is the Korean-American daughter of Luke, an American WWII soldier (Mickey Theis), and a young Korean woman called Number Four (Diana Oh), who is on the run from her life as a sex slave for the occupying Japanese army. In 1975, thirty years after her birth, Ana arrives in Seoul to retrieve her estranged and recently deceased father’s ashes with little idea of who her mother was and unable to speak a word of Korean. When a shape-shifting Jesus (Will Dagger), appearing as a bell boy, delivers Luke’s wartime journal to Ana, she finds herself reliving her parents’ story, at first as an observer, and then as the embodiment of the mother she’s never met.
The show bounces freely between Ana’s 1975 reality, the jungle of Myanmar in 1944 and Seoul’s Hangang Bridge just before its bombing in 1955. Despite the constant fluctuation of time and space, the direction of Ralph B. Peña and the strong characters created by Jung never allow us to get lost in the back and forth. Their work is helped immensely by Reid Thompson’s scenic design; the versatile set allows for the clear but simultaneous representation of all three time periods and spaces while still leaving space for creative, occasionally shocking ways for the action to move between them.
The play is most effective when lines are blurred between time, place and identity. When Luke crawls from 1944 up through Ana’s bed and into her hotel room with his rifle drawn, the rules are still up in the air and we are on the edge of our seats. We aren’t sure what’s illusion, to what extent marijuana is playing a role, or whether or not Jesus Christ is literally in the room. This sustained confusion is electric and engaging, and it is missed when traded out for flashback commentary provided by the real Number Four and Jesus Himself.
At a certain point, Ana stops participating in scenes as herself, and transitions fully into Number Four. We are no longer watching a woman learn the painful story of her past, we are just watching the past. When Ana is no longer commenting on this history while being forced to live it, and instead just walking through her mother’s motions, we gain efficient exposition but lose the valuable, grounding perspective that ultimately makes the play.
The performance I attended also happened to double as a special event for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). Representatives of the organization spoke before and after curtain, and to my understanding the audience was almost entirely made up of board members and donors to the organization. Having seen it among an audience who regularly work in one way or another to assist displaced people, it is impossible for me to reflect on this play without also worrying about the way that immigrants, children of immigrants and refugees will be treated in our nation moving forward.
Jung’s play is not overtly about what has just happened in the United States or the tension and pain we are sure to feel in coming years, but it is hard to watch a play that asks difficult questions about broken families, fractured identity, and a guilt that lives on long after a terrible decision has been made, and not see at least a little bit of our own contemporary collective regret.