Hansol Jung is an imaginative young playwright whose work focuses on feeling perpetually uprooted. Born in Jeonju, South Korea, she moved with her family to South Africa at the age of 6. When she was 13 they went back to South Korea, Ten years later Jung was in the U.S., where she has spent the last ten years. Her plays have been produced at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Public Theater, and the Artists Repertory Theatre.
In an interview with American Theatre magazine (December 2018), Jung said, “I feel like I have multiple existences…[b]eing in Korea, being here, and being in South Africa – those are all different people, and they all still live inside of me.”
Director Richard Henrich brings us a first-rate production of Jung’s drama, Among the Dead. It is the story of Ana Woods (Julie M), who comes to Seoul in 1975, carrying the ashes of her dead father. She is not sure why she is there, but eventually, a purpose becomes clear. Ana embarks on a dreamlike journey based on the unanswered questions in her past. Despite the writer’s emphasis on dislocation, Among the Dead leaves us with the feeling of connection against impossible odds.
A bellboy from Ana’s hotel turns out to be the one and only Jesus of Nazareth (Nahm Darr). Darr has an engaging humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He will be Ana’s guide, and will eventually assist the whole family in healing. Ana will come to view her father, Luke Woods (Chris Stinson), and her mother, Number Four (Kyosin Kang) in an entirely new light.
We see her father Luke in crisis. It is 1944, the Burmese jungle, and he is detached from his unit. He witnesses a horrifying war crime. Stinson offers a compelling portrait of a young private, frightened and alone. The Allies were beset by conflicting goals in the Burmese campaign; for the British, Burma was a colony; to China, it was key to their survival. America’s goal in the Burmese operation was more complicated: to keep the Japanese tied up and away from U.S. forces in the Pacific.
Kyosin Kang, as Ana’s mother, employs a combination of wit and stoicism to endure her tragic situation. For she is one of the Korean “comfort women” who were forced to prostitute themselves to Japanese soldiers. Very few lived through their ordeal; an estimated 90 percent did not survive the war.
Julie M is marvelous as Ana, her every moment fresh and truthful. In the fantasy sequences, she takes the role of her mother. She and Stinson perform together with great honesty, as they reel from one heart-rending crisis to the next. There are moments of joy, but their fragile bond is destroyed again and again by the pressures of war.
Jung’s writing is intensely theatrical, and director Henrich takes full advantage of its depth and vibrancy. Ana feels tremendous abandonment as a daughter, but when it comes to her parents, she can’t resist the pull to learn more. We can all relate to the ways in which Ana experiences her parents; mythlike figures at one point, and deeply disappointing at another.
The writing is rich in paradoxes. Jung’s heroines are strikingly self-possessed. And yet Luke, who for all we know has had a comfortable American life up to this point, disintegrates into terror again and again.
The evening is not without its uncomfortable moments, especially when Ana interacts with the ghost of her father. But the staging reflects Jung’s refreshing lack of sentimentality. At no point does director Henrich shrink from the brutal realities of war.
The rest of the creative team: Navid Azeez (Sound Design), April Joy Vester (Set Design), Hailey LaRoe (Lighting Design), Amy MacDonald (Costume Design) fulfill his vision beautifully.
Among the Dead is a meditation on the value of human relationships in moments of deadly conflict. What could be more timely?
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.