BOSTON — Junhee, a young North Korean woman, appears on the stark tilted stage. She reverently places one dinner setting onto a low table. Her ill sister, Minjee, walks into the room and immediately they enter a verbal dance of self sacrifice. Each fights for the other to eat the two spoonfuls of rice and matchstick vegetables which constitute dinner.
Thus begins playwright Mia Chung’s intriguing exploration of two Korean sisters with starkly different choices of how to survive the world. The play exemplifies Company One’s commitment to socially provocative performances, and runs now through Feb. 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Chung weaves an emotional story as each sister strives to ensure the best for the other but gnawing poverty and government medicine rationing choke their perseverance. Minjee’s illness spirals and in desperation, Junhee boldly criticizes the medical doctor’s expertise – a direct offence to the government. Afraid of reappraisal, escaping their country village seems like their only choice even though Minjee is steadfast in her belief that the North Korean government will take care of its citizens. Yet Junhee sees no hope and is adamant they’ll have a chance for a better life in America, but their way can only be paved through an unscrupulous smuggler – and the price is very high.
The sisters’ choices (Minjee for North Korea and Junhee for America) unveil some of the mystery that shrouds the contentious country. As Chung said in an interview, “I’ve always been interested in North Korea, but, over the years, I’d pretty much accepted the simplistic image that my parents and the western media had projected about North Korea: that the country is run by thugs, that people are starving, and it’s going to fall apart any second. My primary question when it came to North Korea: ‘Why hasn’t the country fallen apart?’ ”
At times, the drama moves in quick flashbacks and flash forwards punctuated with inventive use of lighting by Annie Wiegand and music by Brendan Doyle, under Bevin O’Gara’s direction. Junhee, played by Jordan Clark, deftly moves between these times and places and is able to quickly adapt to these dramatically different homes. Giselle Ty, who plays Minjee, easily slips into her portrayal of the loyal patriot willing to stoically endure her hardships. The scenes with the smuggler, played by Michael Tow, demonstrate the sharp contrast between two cultures and the corrosive consequences of corruption.
Chung has a remarkable ability to make you empathize with a new immigrant’s experience. Junhee lands in Manhattan and she is overwhelmed by the hustle of a big city. Meeting an American named Tiffany, wonderfully played by Anna Waldron, Junhee can only hear smooth gibberish – her understanding of English. As Junhee acculturates and her English proficiency improves, Tiffany’s words begin to make sense both to Junhee and to the audience.
Junhee also finds love in America with The Man from the South, played by Johnnie McQuarley. But can it last? Can she truly relish life without her sister? Will Minjee thrive in North Korea? Chung never settles for easy answers as she takes us through a quick and fast journey between two countries, two cultures, and two resilient sisters.