Mia Chung’s You for Me for You, a New England premiere presented by Company One, imagines the cost of the Crossing from North Korea to the Unites States for two sisters who have only each other left to lose. The play captivates from the opening scene as, with measured movements and without fear of silence, sisters Mingee and Junhee attempt to sacrifice food for each other until hunger wins the day. As this scene played out, the play felt entirely safe to me—tragic, but safe—until the sisters rose from their meal and Mingee donned a puffy modern winter jacket. I did a double take. I, like perhaps others in the audience, was unaware of the current state of affairs in North Korea. Having not had time to read the program before the play, my mind had placed the action in the past, a distant and mythical time when hunger and illness seemed naturally occurring. The minimal sets and practical costumes provided few immediate clues as to the actual time period—until the puffy coat, at which point I remained not totally convinced. Given my ignorant assumptions, You for Me for You provides a much-needed humanization of quotidian present-day North Korea.
The production team makes wonderful use of their small space, choosing the most potent images from each location to create a sketch and trusting the audience to fill in the rest. Each location—and there are many—appears as if by magic; the transition, seamless. Spaces seem to flow into one another. The supermarket and shoe store never leave the stage, forcing Wade and Junhee to sunbath almost inside the produce section. Chung uses magical realism deliberately in her play since, as she puts it, “North Korea itself employs magic realism in the weaving of its national narrative.”[i] Our first taste of this magic, and possibly the most impactful, is the creation of the doctor’s office, which appears with a flash of light and the addition of a stool. The ominous environment created by the sparse atmosphere and ritualistic speech is compounded by its repetition when, with a flicker of the lights, Junhee and Mingee take a turn about the room as if winding back the tape and replay the scene. Slight revisions in these repetitions and Mingee’s worsening cough increase the stakes to heartbreaking levels.
Though the staging adds much to the text, the most impactful aspect of the play is its language. Rather than asking the Korean characters to use accents, Chung allows the them to speak standard English, working under the conceit that the English represents their Korean language. Even once in America, Junhee does not speak with an accent. This strong choice allows the audience to easily relate to Junhee, removing the artificial barrier created by outward markers of difference like accents. The American characters (all versions of “Tiffany” played by a single actress) speak in muddled, squashed strings of colloquial English sounds, a disorienting effect for the audience, as disorienting as it sounds for Junhee. As the play progresses, the Tiffanys become more intelligible to both Junhee and the audience, inviting the audience to participate in Junhee’s growth in America. Chung places the audience firmly in Junhee’s shoes, opening up to insiders the role of “outsider” for a few hours.
In an interview with dramaturg Tyler Monroe, Chung expresses the intense hold the North Korean government has over its citizens and the equally intense belief North Koreans feel in their government—like Stockholm Syndrome, she notes.[ii] In the same interview, Chung cites an influential story wherein a woman who has fled North Korea is filled with regret and pays a smuggler to take her back. While I recognize Chung’s attempt to recreate this paradigm with Mingee, Mingee’s hesitancy towards the Crossing seemed to come more from a combined fear of the strange otherness of America and the possible repercussions from the North Korean government than from a true sympathy with or love for her country. The real-life journey of the woman out of and back into North Korea seems a more potent example of Chung’s Stockholm Syndrome metaphor than Mingee’s journey, which is at once enriched and complicated by her desire to save her sister.
Mingee enters the United States to a cacophony of street noises, paralleling her sister’s experience, and quickly makes her way to a persimmon-orange apartment that rises our of the tattered ramp of North Korea. Like her sister, she notes the absurdities of American life, but she does so surrounded by a room that is at once more and less real than all of the other spaces of the play, setting it off from these places. While realized more fully than any other space, the singular orange color of the apartment sets it off as a magical place, as if Mingee now lives inside the very persimmon she sent as a plea to save her sister. The apartment certainly shows the lonely reality of the world Mingee has entered into, but it is a reality that could have been shown without walls. The repetition Junhee’s experience of the alienating city noises embodies Mingee’s sense of isolation more potently through than the lonely apartment.
As I entered the theatre and found my seats, I was greeted by a Company One survey that I gladly filled out at the end of the show, one of the questions: “How spurred to action did you feel following this performance?”[iii] The answer was on a one to five scale; mine was low. While I felt deeply connected to the characters, particularly Junhee, while I felt that I had learned something important about North Korea and about the world, the production did not make me feel moved to action. I did not feel that there was much I could do. Reading the startling program notes changed my answer. I find myself wishing that Chung’s play, as impactful as it already was, had provoked me as much as the facts in the program.
You for Me for You captures an experience common to immigrants from many countries and asks an American audience to step outside its privileged single-language comfort zone to experience the human perspectives of those who categorized too often only as Other. Chung locates the universality in her work by emphasizing the sister relationship between Mingee and Junhee. Though it fails to capture in their entirety the complexities of North Korean life, Chung’s play remains for me one of the most powerful of the year. You for Me for You runs through February 16th at the BCA Plaza Theatre.
[i] Chung, Mia. “From the Playwright.” You for Me for You Playbill. Company One. Jan 2013. Print.
[ii] Monroe, Tyler. “Spanning Space and Time: A Conversation with Playwright Mia Chung.” You for Me for You Playbill. Company One. Jan 2013. Print.
[iii] “Company One Audience Survey: Impact!” Company One. Print.