Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006


Written and Directed by Young Jean Lee
Through October 14 at HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue

Photo by Carl Skutsch

Jun Sky Kim, Jennifer Lim, Becky Yamamoto, Haerry Kim in Young Jean Lee’s hysterical mash-up of her own worst nightmare: a typical, Korean-American identity play.

In ‘Songs,’ Young Jean Lee pokes fun at everyone

By Nicole Davis

Young Jean Lee is a big tease. In the first few minutes of her new play, “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” the Brooklyn-based playwright leaves the audience in the dark, literally, as the sound from an unseen video begins. Seated in the pitch-black theater, it takes a few seconds to realize that Young Jean is about to be slapped on her face, because she and her slapper are giggling about just how hard he’s going to hit her. She tells him to start with the softest slap possible—a one on a 10-scale system of slapping. Then we hear a #5-sounding slap. “Whoa!” Young Jean laughs. “That’s pretty hard for a one!” But they continue — Slap, Slap, Slap — as the director offers her chilling comments like: “Better,” and “Chin up, debutante!” It’s awfully funny (emphasis on the word awful) until we hear her sniffling — Sniff, Sniff, Sniff — and suddenly this whole exchange turns disturbing. Young Jean is obviously playing with us, but because but she teases us so well, and so surprisingly throughout this unsentimental, hysterical mash-up of a confessional, Korean-American identity play, the audience is willing — dying to be played.

She’s pushed our buttons before: In “Pullman, WA,” for instance, which premiered at P.S. 122 last year, she set out to annoy the audience, shining a bright light on them and having her characters deliver much-too-long monologues to their faces. At HERE, she shines a light on her own half-baked platitudes about being half-Korean, using Becky Yamamoto ­as her mouthpiece. Playing the title “Korean-American” role in the script, Yamamoto appears on stage looking utterly hip and American in a hot pink jersey, blue jeans, and checkered Vans, and begins a riotous, off-color monologue. “Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents?” she asks, and that’s just the start of it.

Yamamoto veers from one epithet to another, before turning her half-cocked critique of Asians onto white Americans. “We can take the word racism and hurl it at people and demolish them and there’s nothing you can do to stop us "We will crush you!” she promises. Then she invites three traditionally dressed Korean women to the blond-wood stage. Meant to suggest the interior of a Korean-Buddhist temple, it serves as the site of a million sacrileges.

The chorus of women, Jun Sky Kim, Haerry Kim and Jennifer Lim, are both hyperbolically and generically Asian (in the script, they’re noted simply as Korean 1, Korean 2 and Korean 3). Their colorful dresses and their florid non-sequiturs (“Soon it will be time for the festival of the falling flowers!”) seem like relics from some far-off dynasty. And through their horrid tales about being raped, and deliriously funny antics (one mimes her own death by a chopstick to the eye) Lee seems to suggest that self-mutilation, sexual violence, and low self-esteem is a legacy Korean women share­. Together they are the Harpo to Yamamoto’s wisecracking Groucho character, grimacing when she curses, shaking their heads “no” when she professes to hate white people, beating her up when she is disrespectful toward Koreans. But when two white Americans enter the play, Yamamoto puts her self-hating minority act on pause, and the play descends into near absurdity.

The white couple, played by Brian Bickerstaff (White Person 1) and Juliana Francis (White Person 2), are seemingly out of place in this twisted minority report, but they are the perfect counterpoint to Lee’s provocative identity play. The one time these milquetoast types ponder their “ethnicity,” it’s for a brief few seconds when White Person 1 names all the great things in the world that are white, like snow, marshmallows, and paper. The only thing that truly concerns these two is the status of their relationship, a topic so engrossing to them, and one they dissect so thoroughly, they make Larry David seem easygoing. (“When I say that you have sub-par intelligence,” the girl says to her boyfriend, “I don’t mean that you’re stupid. I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that you are just right on the borderline of being smart enough for me.”)

From start to finish, Lee pokes fun — at herself, at Koreans, at white Americans — in a pointed way that never ever feels like a lecture, even when the chorus of Korean women and Yamamoto directly address the audience, in unison, on behalf of Young Jean Lee. Together they confess all her sins and rationales for the play and then admit, in the same breath, that if enough white people complain that this particular section is offensive, Lee will take it out. I find it hard to believe she’ll hear a peep: there is just too much in “Songs” to praise.


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