Words will never be able to fully capture the atrocities that innocent Korean women were forced to endure during World War II, but the words of Comfort Women, by Chungmi Kim, will certainly make the truth a little more real. The cruel and degrading treatment that about 200,000 Asian women were subjected to by the Japanese Imperial Forces between 1937 and 1945 is the basis for this cathartic and oftentimes vicious play, currently being presented at Urban Stages. Featuring a cast of immensely talented women and a skilled team of designers and crew, Comfort Women is a play of enormous emotion and prominent social awareness. There’s also a good chance it will make you cry.
Heading up the cast is Tina Chen, known on stage for her roles in Empress of China and The Joy Luck Club. Here she portrays the grandmother of an Americanized Korean family, a woman brought from her homeland and deposited into a country where even the ringing of the telephone frightens her. When her granddaughter brings two “comfort women” in town for the 1994 UN protests to visit her, the reactions between the four women shatters the delicate balance the grandmother has worked so hard over the years to preserve.
As is often the trouble with powerful plays, the message here is significant but difficult to endure. The lobotomized history of the Japanese Army’s actions during the War comes crashing down around these four women, changing the way both the characters and the audience might once have reacted to the news. The cruel and inhumane treatment these girls were subjected to is horrific and graphic in its description, but it is a description that needs to be broadcast to the world. Comfort Women is here to not only declare “this happened”, but “this happened to me.”
Jade Wu grips the audience with an unshakable hand from her first entrance. As the first comfort woman to meet the grandmother, Ms. Wu’s Soonja Park is an electric bundle of energy and nerves, bouncing across the room with an underlying current of despair. The more vocal of the two comfort women, it is her impassioned cries and urgent remembrances that make the history of this horrible time that much more believable. Ms. Wu’s performance is one of the more dedicated that I’ve witnessed, and it is extremely fitting, since this subject matter deserves to be delivered with all the grit and honesty that it can muster.
Balancing out Soonja Park is Bohki Lee (Jo Yang), the quieter of the two comfort women. Her delicate movements and voice enhance a fragility that exists around her character, a woman broken by her past but determined to survive with whatever small amount of courage she might have left. Ms. Yang at times appears more contemporary when she speaks, sounding not like a woman born in Korea in the thirties, but a modern woman of the States. This can be a little distracting, especially when all the other actresses onstage possess the slightest hint of an accent. Regardless, when she is given her moment of recognition, Ms. Yang uses the opportunity to her best advantage and drives it to the hilt.
The most surprising and welcome additions to the show are the re-enactments that are played out behind a screen. This is the moment when everything ties together, when this becomes a show about much more than simply a history lesson, but fashions itself into a cohesive narrative where the elements of the actual play eclipse the reality of the events. It is here that we have a play, where the tension and pent-up emotion explode into the relationships between these women in the here and now, not just in the past.
Director Frances Hill has done a remarkable job of joining such brutal subject matter with the regal words of her playwright, Chungmi Kim. With the aide of Roman Tatarowicz (set and lighting design), Heesoo Kim (costumes), and Jane Shaw (sound design), Comfort Women presents an overall picture of beauty belying pain, of torture threatening to overtake peace, and of the truth that can’t be hidden. Comfort Women is a very powerful way to learn, but it’s also a very emotionally draining method of learning.