In the Moment: ‘Among the Dead’ at Spooky Action Theatre

Spooky Action Theatre continues to beguile with its distinctive play selections. Under Artistic Director Richard Henrich’s open mind, Spooky Action regularly produces the usually unexplored: women’s voices from playwrights beyond the shores of the United States. In a city aiming to be cosmopolitan and multi-cultural, that is refreshing for adventurous theater makers. It provides theatergoers with the opportunity to move beyond the usual mix of known playwrights and themes.

Chris Stinson, Nahm Darr, and Julie M in 'Among the Dead' at Spooky Action Theatre. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Chris Stinson, Nahm Darr, and Julie M in ‘Among the Dead’ at Spooky Action Theatre. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

The production of Hansol Jung’s Among the Dead is a current example of Heinrich’s penchant for locating plays that would be unseen without Spooky Action taking a chance. Jung is a playwright and director from South Korea. Her Among the Dead is one to let soak in. It is humor and cruelty. It is time travel and family secrets. It is about finding one’s roots with the help of a dead father, Jesus, and an unseen mother. It is about a scared young American soldier “lost” somewhere on the China-Burma border during WW II and the woman he meets; a traumatized Korean dressed in the clothes of a Japanese soldier.

Jung’s play is a wonder of outraged “fictionalized” history about a central World War II issue that remains very contemporary: the vexing matter of Korean women being forced by the Japanese government to be “comfort women”  (ie. sex slaves to soldiers) during the war years before and during WW II. This issue has been receiving attention in the US media in the past few years. Two recent examples including one from just a month ago from NPR are here and here.

Even more, the comfort women issue has been noted here in the DC metro area, especially Fairfax County, VA, where the inspirational Meadowlark Botanical Gardens featuring a Korean Bell Garden sits not far from the burgeoning new Tysons. (Some years ago with the anniversary of the Korean War Armistice approaching, the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NVRPA) and the Fairfax County-based Korean American Cultural Committee (KACC) worked together to establish the one-of-a-kind garden.)

The Korean Bell Garden at Meadowlark helps to communicate Korean culture to the general public. It is a naturalized area with rolling vistas of the park. It showcases stone terracing, trees and shrubs native to Korea, a meandering walking path with inviting educational displays, contemplative areas and traditional Korean stone lanterns.

-Comfort women and prisoners of war with a Chinese soldier, September 3, 1944. Photo courtesy of the US National Archives.
Comfort women and prisoners of war with a Chinese soldier, September 3, 1944. Photo courtesy of the US National Archives.

A highlight of the now naturalized Garden is the hand-crafted Korean Bell of Peace and Harmony and its Pavilion. The Bell was created in South Korea with many traditional Korean images of nature such as birds, plants and animals as well as images symbolic of Virginia. The detailed wooden Pavilion was built by master craftsmen and is hand-fitted without nails. Instead, it is carefully crafted so all the pieces fit together. It is made with a traditional roof tile of handcrafted ocher, a type of clay made of yellow mud. The overall appearance and orientation uses the precepts of ancient “feng shui” principles. Near the Bell Pavilion are hand-hewed, and, what may be surprising, totem poles used to greet and protect visitors just as they did in Korea many centuries ago.

And here is the connection to Jung’s Among the Dead. There is an educational element related to comfort women within the Korean Bell Garden.

Spooky Action’s Among the Dead provides the opportunity to take in a Korean playwright’s voice likely unknown to DC area theatergoers. After taking in the riveting Spooky Action production of Among the Dead under Richard Henrich’s perceptive direction, perhaps visit the Korean cultural elements at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens to further contemplate Among the Dead. A visit may well expand understanding of Jung’s contemporary play about “not the usual” historical issues many of us likely had little or no knowledge or experience with.

Running time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Among the Dead plays through March 10, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

[Related: Sophia Howes reviews Spooky Action Theatre’s production of ‘Among the Dead’]