Theatre Mu's Falling Flowers exposes comfort womens' silenced history
Jeany Park's brave first play, Falling Flowers, plumbs the physical pain and psychological degradation of the "comfort women," young women abducted from Japanese-occupied countries in WW II and forced into grueling sexual slavery for Japanese troops. But not until the second act does her play find its dramatic stride.
Park tells this dark piece of suppressed history through the memories of an aged Korean comfort woman, Sun Hee, played with quiet passion by Maria Cheng. Sun Hee is deciding whether to join other aged comfort women in speaking out about the culturally buried shame of their past. As she wrestles with her decision, she slips back into her girlhood and the day a Korean recruiter tempted her with a false offer to work in an office in Tokyo. On the long truck and train journey to the front line in Manchuria, she meets two other abducted girls. Behind the battle lines, each girl is placed in a hut, a "comfort station," where she must service 20 to 40 soldiers a day. Under cruel conditions, intelligent and plucky Sun Hee tries to motivate the other two girls to survive.
The first act is thick with action as it recounts 13 year-old Sun Hee's abduction from her family's farm, the initial rape of the three girls by soldiers, who line up for their turn, and the girls' attempt to run away. Yet, in spite of this, the first act lacks pace. The girls are victims, young, passive and not yet developed as characters; their plight invites my horror, but not my full emotional engagement.
And director Cecilie D. Keenan gets Flowers off to a slow start. To open the play, Sun Hee and two chorus-like figures in masks and robes perform a dance of anguish against a background of whispered Korean speech. It's an interesting choice, but the choreography is rudimentary, and the play would benefit from moving more rapidly to the moment when Old Sun Hee crosses the threshold of a symbolic door and begins to reveal her story.
In nice directing, Old Sun Hee steps through the door and young Sun Hee follows her. Old Sun Hee slips into shadow and young Sun Hee, played by Mirei Yumagata, steps into the light and the focus of memory. Yumagata brings spirit tempered by Asian demureness to her role. Old Sun Hee remains affectingly on stage throughout, pained by all that befalls her young self.
One of the strengths of this production is the freshness Yumagata and the other two girls bring to their roles. Rebecca Wall plays pretty Jin Ah, who falls in love with a Japanese Captain, and Laurine Price as the fertile Ok Yen has to cope with forced abortions. The youthfulness of all three makes the initial rape scene all the more powerful. Through the luridly lit screen walls of three huts, we watch the rapes in a splay-legged choreography of slow motion. Subsequent choreographed sexual acts work less well.
From the first rape scene to the end of Sun Hee's memorizing, the girls walk and sit as though their genitals hurt from over use. It's an understated but affecting directorial touch.
In the second act, Flowers gains momentum as the girls' characters become more defined and the rawness of their daily lives becomes more particular. Park wisely gives brief glimpses into the lives of the men who manage and use them.
Director Keenan has a flair for achieving much with little. She creates a convincing truck with no more than a held up square, the noise of a diesel engine in Steve Carlino's sound design and the rocking motion of the passengers. In the same way, she uses Jennifer Degolier's lighting to express mood and shifts in focus and place. Rick Paul's simple back screen of a mountainous landscape outlined in gilded barbed wire and his portable set elements serve the play well. The curiously dressed chorus, with their white rope hair and hollow-eyed masks, shift the set elements, and they reflect the play's emotions.
Flowers takes place during WW II in Asia, and phrases in Park's script that sound essentially American and too modern for the period jarred my ear - dialogue like, "it tears my mother apart," "snap back to reality," and "I can't figure it out." But Old Sun Hee's closing speech, as she calls for justice for her fellow comfort women and for all women in war, is noble and fine.
Park's play takes its time to find its momentum, but what it has to say is important, and Sun Hee's words gain added meaning in the light of the recent systematic rape used as an act of war against Bosnian women and in the light of our impending war with Iraq.
Falling Flowers runs through February 16. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2 p.m. $12 -$14. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-338-6131. For more information, visit www.theatermu.org.