- Kumhi’s May
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Until recently in South Korea, any mention of the Kwangju May Uprising of 1980 in a positive light might have resulted in imprisonment or worse. In spite of government hostility, ToBakYi Theatre Company nevertheless has performed just such plays all over Korea since its founding in 1983. On its second North American tour, the company presented Park Hyo Seon’s award-winning Kumhi’s May, based on a true story of one family’s experience during this period. ToBakYi, meaning “native” in Korean, has achieved critical acclaim for street theatre productions, cultural workshops, and Park’s original plays often detailing events of the Kwangju Uprising, an event widely regarded as decisive in Korea’s recent democratic reforms and political liberalization.
The events of the Kwangju Uprising form the background of Kumhi’s May. After the military coup led by Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo in 1979, public protests occurred throughout South Korea, especially in the city of Kwangju. In May 1980, Chun declared martial law and sent troops to Kwangju to suppress the student demonstrations. The troops’ initial massacre of the demonstrators mobilized the inhabitants of Kwangju to take up arms to defend the city. Liberation was short-lived, however, as several thousand troops, given the go-ahead by the U.S military, charged the city on May 27, crushing the rebellion within two hours and killing many citizens.
On an essentially bare stage, Kumhi’s May explores the impact of this struggle for justice and freedom, both on political and personal levels. The scenes move back and forth between public places, such as the market where the city inhabitants plan and fight the battles for freedom, and private ones, primarily the home of the main character, Lee Jungyun, where the toll of the events is made clear. Jungyun, a real-life university student, joined the protesters after witnessing the initial atrocities and was killed in the final battle to defend the city. His story is presented primarily from the perspective of Kumhi, Jungyun’s sister, who demonstrates the impact of the political events of May 18–31 on her family as they move from anger and horror to fear and grief. This personal tragedy culminates in the family’s discovery of Jungyun’s body among hundreds of other corpses at Mangwoldong cemetery. Although these corpses are represented by five actors under blankets, the searching family members give the impression that the stage is filled with bodies. Jungyun’s mother and sister hover at the edge of the cemetery looking at the rows of bodies that seem to stretch into the distance as the father picks his way slowly among the corpses until he finds his son. The mother then runs to join him as the focus shifts from the vastness of the graveyard to the family’s personal tragedy. Kumhi’s continued presence on the side of the stage, however, is a constant reminder that this is just one story among many. Thus the play not only alternates public and personal scenes, but also braids these perspectives together as Kumhi comments, often simply through her presence, on what is happening around her.
The play weaves revolutionary songs written during the Kwangju Uprising and Korean traditional drumming into scenes performed either in a realistic style or in an adaptation of the Korean political theatrical style of Madang geuk, performances which involve the audience and celebrate the voice of the people. In Kumhi’s May, market and battle scenes portraying the dignity and strength of the people draw on Madang geuk techniques, primarily using recognizable political songs and comedy to engage the audience, who often sing along or clap to the rhythm and at times come on stage and join the dance. In one market scene, the women bicker...