Hansol Jung, the playwright who created “Among the Dead,” writes persuasively of disconnected and constructed identities and code-switching, but she also writes transcendentally of hope and connection. It’s a difficult balancing act, but “Among the Dead” speaks of the totality of human history of displaced and traumatized people because the damage doesn’t go away with a hug and a “there, there,” but there is some hope left for acceptance and thriving.
. ..a fierceness and vulnerability that is breath-taking. . .
It is 1975 and a Korean-American young woman has checked into a hotel in Seoul. She has her father’s ashes in a silver urn and while ostensibly she is there to do something with the ashes, she doesn’t seem all that sure about that. With a knock on the door, the self-deprecating, adorably sloppy bellman, JC, delivers a package that turns out to be her father’s diary of his time as a soldier in-country and a piece of paper with a phone number on it. There is student unrest in the city, and she is advised to stay in the hotel; as a consolation, JC, gives her some weed. With that gift, she enters the past and, with the help of the diary, experiences the time her mother and father had together.
The language the characters use to tell their stories is at once mundane and cosmic. The words speak to loss and survival, and then of guilt and growth, without pretension. They don’t offer happiness as an endpoint, but they do speak of life in all its misery and joy.
The actors do some very deep and transformative work with their characters, even when those characters are difficult to empathize with. Kyosin Kang as Number 4 brings a fierceness and vulnerability to her role that is breath-taking; when she finally screams her name, you could hear an audience-wide gasp as she crossed that particular finish-line.
Julie M. plays Ana Woods, the daughter of Luke Woods (Chris Stinson); she is wry and cynical and quite dead-pan funny. Nahm Darr plays Jesus (guess what that JC on his uniform stands for?), and he is kind and compassionate and understanding and laugh-out-loud funny. When Number 4 stabs him in a frenzy on an exploding bridge and they end up in the water together, his laconic comment (“Happens”) when she says sorry is snortingly funny.
The role of Luke Woods is difficult to feel connected to. Somehow cut off from his platoon, he, along with Jesus (only this time Jesus is a soldier, well, kind of; it’s complicated) witnesses a horrific war crime. He hadn’t been in the best emotional state before stumbling upon that, and seeing the atrocity sends him babbling. He does remain aware enough to not fire his weapon, even though Jesus is urging him to. One senses that he will pay for his inaction on this occasion for the rest of his life. He whines and dithers and jumps at every sound and is at once terrified of Number 4 when they cross paths and woefully dependent on her. It’s a role that’s hard to relate to; although he does perform two acts of mercy that will also haunt him.
But the show comes most alive when relating what little is known of the history of Number 4 (as she puts it, she’s “military supply” for the Japanese; she’s one of the estimated 200,000 Korean “comfort women” kidnapped and enslaved by the Japanese). Kang doesn’t play her with an eye to sympathy; she is traumatized and violent and a survivor, and yet she still can think of another before herself. Her performance is finely calibrated and catches you by the throat from the start.
The staging is fun and unexpected. The set is high enough off the ground that the actors can crawl and slither under the set when needed as they enact the key scenes from the meeting and aftermath of Number 4 and Luke Woods. The inspired design is by April Joy Vester.
Richard Henrich directs sparingly and unflinchingly; it is as spare as the set (the bridge explosion and subsequent plunge into the river scene is a testament to body language and movement). This play is strong enough not to need extra embellishment.
Advisory: A bloody knife; some drug use; adult topics
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
“Among the Dead” runs from February 14 – March 10, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.