"Songs of the Dragons" Hit that Right Note
“Playwright Young Jean Lee’s worst nightmare was to make a predictable, confessional Korean-American identity play with a flowery Asian-sounding title. So that’s exactly what she did. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven follows a character named “Korean-American” as she navigates the increasingly disturbing levels of a pseudo-Korean world like a contestant in an identity-politics video game. "
But this is not your typical Asian-American identity play. The playwright not only seeking out her identity as a Korean-American woman, but where this identity fits in both a Korean narrative and a white narrative.
Lee’s script is funny, thought-provoking and absolutely brutal without apology. Lee’s character’s are given the opportunity to say things that all minorities think about, but may never have the nerve to express. For example, as Korean-American (Eun Ho Lee) states, “Minorities are discriminated against because there’s a thing in this world that is bad. And that thing is racism. And this minority rage is raging within the minorities of the world which can include white people, if they are living in a place where they are the minority...all minorities secretly hate white people...” But Lee also pokes fun at her own ethnicity as well, showing that Asians are not happy little oriental flowers dancing in circles: while white Christians may be considered “evil”, Korean Christians are the most evil in the world! (Bwahahahahaha!)
The story touches on darker topics, like rape, mutilation, and suicide, but levity comes in the form of a white couple (Amy K. Sullivan and Jeff Juett) experiencing all the throes of relationships, romantic adventure and a list of reasons of why it’s good to be white. The script is incendiary and accusatory, and may make you squirm if you lack melanin; but instead of a finger-pointing blame machine, Lee’s script is a call of action for us all (minorities included) to do better.
The cast is completed by a chorus of three Korean female characters; Korean 1 (Maila Rondero Kanealakala), Korean 2 (Denise-Aiko Chinen), and Korean 3 (Jocelyn Maki’ilei Ishihara). The entire cast is cohesive and keeps the story moving at a good pace. Eun Ho Lee is a wonderful lead, standing out when the moment calls, but falling in line with the ensemble when necessary. Chinen has great moments throughout, especially as Lee’s Korean grandmother. Kanealakala and Ishihara balance the Korean chorus in highlights of their own, particularly in a morbid game of charades. While watching Sullivan and Juett volley throughout their scenes, the audience’s internal struggle to identify with them or not is largely in part to their excellent turns as the wonderbread couple.
Director Reiko Ho has taken Lee’s script and updated it to reflect current narratives (I.e. the ongoing gun control debates), but still fully honors the playwright’s intentions. She could not have chosen a more timely piece, as conversations world-wide focus a lens on race, privilege, and appropriation in our society. For years, Asians have been considered the “model minority,” but Ho has no hesitation in using Lee’s ballistic missile of a script to blast (and lambast) that conception.
With dialogue that is so rife with message and nuance, it is refreshing to see a simple artistic approach in the design elements, helmed by Ho and assistant director Stu Hirayama. Two blocks and a festive color-blocked backdrop make up Kara Nabarette’s set design, and all elements worked well with Ong King’s open floor space to host the action. Ho’s costume design makes clear references to Korean culture with the traditional hanbok, as well as typical “trip-to-Starbucks-after-the-gym” garb for the Americans. Sean-Joseph Takeo Kahaokalani Choo makes effective choices with music, especially with the Korean soap opera references. Lighting by Kahana Ho is brilliantly simple, and a chuckle is to be had when you realize when the Americans are on stage, the lights are as white as their skin.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues this weekend at Ong King on Fort Street Mall; don’t miss your chance to be offended. Bravo to all involved.
For more information, please contact Director Ho or EVOLVE Artistic Director Troy M. Apostol at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The new Ong King Arts Center
1154 Fort Street Mall (Please note new location)
Fri, April 27, 7:30pm
Sat, April 28, 7:30pm
Sun, April 29, 3:30pm
$20 online at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3374189
$25 at the door. Box office opens one hour before curtain.
• The show contains adult themes and situations, and profanity