Hansol Jung’s 2016 play, Among the Dead, now in an intriguing, surprisingly funny, and sometimes quite moving production with Jackalope Theatre, occupies a bit of the same surreal territory and narrative lines as Mia Chung’s You for Me for You (produced by Sideshow Theatre in 2018) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (produced at Victory Gardens in 2019). As in the former (the story of two sisters separated while attempting to escape from North Korea), the lines between what’s “real” and what’s imagined or remembered become blurry. As in the latter, an Asian American woman returns to the land of her parents (well, at least one of her parents) to unravel some mysteries rooted in the chaos of war.
Among the Dead
Through 12/11: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 11/28 7:30 PM, no performances Thu 11/24 or Fri 11/25; Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, 773-340-2543, jackalopetheatre.org, $35 (students/industry/Edgewater residents $15, limited access)
But in Jung’s story, Ana (Malia Hu) has very little to go on, other than that she’s supposed to do something with the ashes of her white American soldier father, Luke (Sam Boeck), in Seoul. It’s clear that she doesn’t know much about the man who mostly left her to be raised by her white grandmother in Kansas while he bounced from war to war in southeast Asia (his career encompassed WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam).
It’s February 1975, and the South Korean capital is filled with students protesting the repressive government of Park Chung-hee (who would be assassinated by his own security chief over four years later). Jesus (Colin Huerta), the hippie-ish American bellboy, drops off a package for Ana, which is weird because nobody knows she’s in Seoul. (He also leaves her with some potent weed.) It turns out that Jesus, despite his distracted pothead persona, knows a lot of things. It also turns out that the package contains her father’s journal from his WWII experiences, and as she reads about his attempts to survive behind Japanese enemy lines with the help of a woman who calls herself “Number 4” (Jin Park), the 1940s version of Luke manifests in her room. He seems to confuse her with the woman who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be Ana’s mother—who was abandoned at the end of the war by her dad.
“Number 4” got that appellation because she and her younger sister were kidnapped by Japanese soldiers as so-called “comfort women”—forced into brutal sexual servitude. Jung’s script doesn’t spare us the anguished details of that chapter of the war (one that many survivors feel Japan has never been held fully accountable for). She too finds herself seeing Jesus (or as she calls him, “Naked Wood Man,” in reference to how he appears on the rosary Luke carries), particularly at the lowest moments of her life after Luke leaves her.
Time blurs in Jung’s tale, but Kaiser Ahmed’s direction and the cast both stay on point as the story moves back and forth from comedy to terror and (ultimately) a strong hopeful note of redemption. As with Chung and Yee’s plays, there is also a strong sense that telling stories about the overwhelming horrors of war and genocide maybe requires a dive into surreal waters. The nightmarish things people can do to each other never seem believable, no matter how often they happen.