Review of Young Jean Lee's "Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven" Mar 8, 2008

by Tania Kupczak

The first thing I notice when I walked into the theater space was the stark contrast between the pacifying row of paper lanterns, murals and rock garden, and the barren and austere stage. The set seemed incomplete and I couldn't help but think of ways Young Jean Lee could have made this more "Asian." Design a Pagoda perhaps? Yet the juxtaposition of the entrance and set seemed to suit the similarly contrasting title of the show. I had anticipated little Korean girls coming on the set, but quickly I found myself uncomfortably sitting in the dark listening to the filming of someone being slapped. My eyes began to adjust as I imagined on stage the contact between bamboo and bare feet. In my mind, everything about this show had to be Asian. It was in the title and the lanterns after all. I then began to imagine the Korean parent slapping his children with the end of a belt again and again and again to enforce discipline the only way he knew how. When Lee's face appears on the screen, I start to wish for all the slapping to stop. It was indeed hard to watch her escalating agony as her strength diminished with each slap.

The opening song moved me and reminded me of when my grandfather performed Pansori, traditional Korean singing. The singing was beautiful but the dancing that followed seemed intentionally awkward. The three Korean schoolgirls that came on stage represented to me the viciousness of Koreans who in a second can find solace in the simplest of pleasures–food straight out of one's hanbok. It soon became apparent to me one of these Koreans was not actually Korean. She spoke in Japanese fluidly with her Korean counterparts who responded to her in Korean. I couldn't help but think that 80% of the people in the audience probably didn't even notice. Was the joke on them? For just a moment in the show, I felt I was in on it. The dancing became all the more interesting with the K-pop, which I have to admit, worked.

The lines in the show are raw, biting and unpredictable interspersed with the jocular lines like when Korean American (Becky Yamamoto) describes whites as "white slab of white English pudding." At times, I felt validated in my beliefs in the Korean culture and race issues. Then the next line left me feeling vulnerable and confused. I then became angry at Lee for mocking the han, a sense of bitterness and lament that runs so deep for Koreans. How often Lee did this in the earlier scenes. But I actually found myself recalling moments when I too felt Koreans drown themselves in the melodramatic and wondered whether they needed to just lighten up. I then felt guilty.

The scene with the young Lee and her grandmother was most enjoyable to me as it exuded all that to me is Korean. This may have been the safest scene for the audience throughout the play as driving to fifteen stores for Young Jean's cabbage patch kids and persuading her granddaughter to come to "Jesus" is indeed characteristic of Korean grandmothers.

I noticed the lighting was brighter for the scenes with the white couple and I wondered why Lee would do this since they were hard to miss in the show. These scenes also portrayed them to having problems that paled next to the Asian Americans, who Korean American says early in the show become slightly brain-damaged because of their retarded monkey parents. The whites in the show seemed to have dysfunctional personalities more than dysfunctional lives like the Koreans. They seemed to create problems and controversy for themselves versus having no choice but to deal with them like their Asian counterparts. But how were they related if at all? Perhaps it was when White Person 1 talked about wanting to go to Africa to join the monkeys and eat yellow bananas? I struggled with the significance of their relationship troubles, and then oddly began to relate to them. Towards the end of the show, I began to relate more to the whites commiserating over losing ten dollars than I could relate to the Koreans graphically and horrifically committing suicide. Just when I thought I could relate to any one person, race or Pan-Asian group, I found myself being shocked and disenchanted, and then connected again.

- Angelie Kim