Thursday, February 08, 2018

Tale of a Divided Korean Family

The cast of American Hwangap (Alabastro Photography)
American Hwangap
West of Lenin/SiS Productions
Through February 25, 2018

If your dad disappeared in your teens and then showed up expecting you to celebrate his 60th birthday, what would you do? What if your family was Korean and obedience to family was baked into your DNA? Family dynamics and reconciliation are on full display with Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap at West of Lenin, co-produced with SiS Productions.

In many Asian cultures, the 60th birthday is very important. There are 12 animal years in the Asian Zodiac, each with specific social attributes, and after five cycles, you are honored for your long life. Min Suk Chun (Stephen Sumida) lost his job as an engineer in America, after moving with his wife to Texas and birthing three children. He is so demoralized about his future that he believes moving back to Korea would be best and essentially abandons his family.

Now, on the eve of his 60th birthday, he shows up again, and tries to make amends to his wife Mary (Kathey Hseih), and his adult children, David (Moses Kristjanson Yim), Esther (Mara E. Palma) and Ralph (Michael Cerado). Each of them has their own reaction and their own relationship with him and Suh allows them each to unfold for the audience.
The play is written for 2005, so references to Korea’s leadership is to Kim Jong Il, which can be a bit disconcerting. Most of the rest of the play feels as contemporary as can be, even though the set decoration uses old phones. There is a subtle confluence with the politics of the split Koreas: North and South, where their history of being overtaken by China and Japan meant that Korea never developed a very distinct culture, and then separated from itself in a very bad war.

So the family dynamics relate to the dysfunction in the two Koreas, just as they demonstrate real schisms in the feelings of those who have been abandoned. Sumida must be very charming, in a gruff and disarming way, and nails that portrayal. Suh writes the Dad as accepting the criticism of his abandonment with solid grace and composure. Min Suk is ready to face the music of his family’s disappointment.

Mary is admonished by her eldest, David, not to have sex with his father, but there is an undeniable attraction there (that we are simply not aware of) and the draw of their history entices her to reconnect physically, even as she demands that Min Suk respect the changes and independence that she has won over the years.

David is in New York, an investment banker, and reluctant to reward his father’s appearance with a visit. He dithers through the entire play. We can understand his complex feelings, but it is a difficult role to pull off without getting petty. Yim mostly stays on that tightrope walk.

Esther and Ralph have much more deeply complex stories than we realize at first, which is part of the pleasure of watching them unfold. Suh embeds some small surprises that change our perceptions of their characters. Min Suk’s reappearance seems to begin a healing process that both sincerely need, though neither knew it.

Thankfully, the play does not wrap everything up neatly and simply stops. We get to imagine how this family proceeds into the future. Overall, it’s a sweet and sour portrayal that will stir the sympathies and linger.

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