- Seven Contemporary Plays for the Korean Diaspora in the Americas ed. by Esther Kim Lee
Esther Kim Lee, author of A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2006), continues her documentation of the drama by authors of Asian descent by editing selected plays of second-generation Koreans, largely in the United States. Thus the text is mostly about American theatre, where most of these figures have their home and locus. The work is literature-focused, and a short discussion of the literary themes is found in the introduction, [End Page 553] but very minimal attention is devoted to production or the theatre infrastructure or educational institutions that generated or supported the material. Some particulars of narrative tropes (intergenerational family issues) or, in two cases, literary references (to a pansori narrative song or the modernist Poet Yi Sang) are the Korean links. Pieces highlight child-parent and sibling conflicts that result as Confucian patterns clash with Euro-American cultural norms. Broad aspects of Korea’s history (diasporas after the devastation of the Korean War, anti-Japanese feeling stemming from the colonial occupation) form a background for a number of the plays.
The work ultimately tags authors who should be watched as the contemporary American or Canadian artists they are. One of the plays has, however, had significant Korean production, Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen (see Kim Yoon Young’s 2011 review of Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen in Asian Theatre Journal 28, no. 1: 262–267).
Lee does not argue any unifying factor for the plays beyond the generation of the authors (all are second generation) and their ethnicity (Korean); rather “the plays are about what the writers have felt emotionally and intuitively in seeing themselves as part of the Korea diaspora” (xxiii). Though the genres range from the surreal emotional landscape that Sung Ngo evokes in his play on poet Yi Sang to the relative realism in Julia Cho’s 99 Histories, the system the artists come from is largely East Coast American theatre education. The authors studied at Brown University (Edward Bok Lee, Sung Rno), New York University (Julia Cho, Diana Son), the New School (Lloyd Suh), or Columbia University (Kyoung Park). The one non-American-trained author is Jean Yoon (University of Toronto). This common educational training may lessen the hemispheric coverage the volume aspires toward. The two frequent themes that emerge from the overall assemblage are exploration of cultural and literary roots treated through the styles of contemporary Western dramatic arts practice and generational misunderstandings that beset the nuclear family.
Kim’s introduction is brief and covers the changing dynamics of the Korean diaspora: Japanese colonialism, the devastating Korean War leading to emigration in search of economic and educational opportunity, emergence of Korea as an economic force in the 1980s and 1990s, and the hallyu (Korean wave) that has made the country a force in Asian popular culture since the 1990s. These comments and the introductions prior to each play, given their brevity, do not push toward deep analysis of the works. Editor Kim wants to hold to the idea of the authors as distinctive and different, yet has—for purposes of Korean-ness—selected plays that consciously link to either the literature of the homeland or the divides Korean upbringing may imprint on Westernized offspring.
Three works adopt realism as a primary acting mode. Juliette Cho’s 99 Histories tells of a pregnant unmarried daughter who returns home to give birth and bonds with her mother as she explores the story of an aunt born with a hereditary mental disease. The Western canon is referenced repeatedly: Glass Menagerie’s “gentleman caller” and mother-child dynamic is directly [End Page 554] cited, and Ibsen’s Ghosts haunt the play with its secret of an inherited mental illness that may beset the unborn fetus. The play zigzags between realism and poetically evocative scenes. The Los Angeles riots of 1992, where the girl’s shopkeeper father died, form the background of the girl’s mental fragility. While there are...