Mia Chung / Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Playwright Mia Chung is a member of New Dramatists and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. She is a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) playwriting fellow and a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Global Connections grantee.
Her work has appeared on many stages, but most recently can be seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s You for Me for You—a magical realism play about two North Korean sisters separated from each other against their wills. You for Me for You is the first show of Woolly Mammoth’s Free the Beast initiative, which aims to produce 25 new plays over a ten-year period (2013-2022).
Mia recently spoke with me about playwriting, Asian-American representation in theater, and what the DC theater world has done to encourage her continued success.
A Loving Father and His Children / courtesy of Sandbrush, Inc.
Formerly an Official State Propaganda Artist of North Korea, Song Byeok was disillusioned after famine struck his home country in the 1990s. He lost his parents and sister and was brutally tortured after attempting to find food in China. He ultimately defected and now works as a satirist, using paintings to depict oppressive regimes and the people trapped within them—including many images of the dictatorship in North Korea.
After showing in DC last spring, both the artist and his paintings have returned, this time to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. During the run of You For Me for You, Song’s work will appear in full force throughout the Woolly lobby. Song will also contribute to events around the city as part of the theater’s House Lights Up program.
Joanna: When did you first decide to start creating satirical work? Was it difficult to make that transition?
You For Me For You / (left to right) Jo Mei, Ruibo Qian (photo by Scott Suchman)
Rarely does any show depict North Korea, let alone without jokes about the crazy Kim family or nuclear missiles. The people who struggle there, and who risk everything to flee, remain somewhat mysterious to most Americans. But they take center stage in the innovative and provocatively told You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
The show centers around two sisters who bargain with a smuggler after facing starvation at home—bargaining that spans the globe and requires everything they have. Told through magical realism, the production uses music, poetry, and very thoughtful set design to guide the story. A revolving stage accentuates the element of running away. A nearly impenetrable wall represents the closed-off North Korea.
On the surface, the show might sound rather dreary; but playwright Mia Chung and director Yury Urnov avoid being overly didactic or political, and as a result the setting never weighs down the piece. Instead, the storytelling feels well-balanced between comedy and tragedy, between light and darkness.
Song Byeok - Take Off Your Clothes - acrylic on hanji; courtesy of www.songbyeok.com
When Korean contemporary artist Song Byeok exhibits his work, he uses a pseudonym. That’s because he’s actually North Korean: his satirical paintings of the “Dear Leader” could result in execution or lifelong sentences in a gulag for the relatives he’s left behind.
This weekend, “The Departure” – an exhibit of his work at The Dunes – brings that dangerous satire to DC.
North Korea selected Song to be a state propaganda artist when he was only 24. According to an interview with Reuters, Song practically worshiped Kim Jong-il at the time, although he never met the dictator during his duties. Instead, he was handed a sketch every morning of daily propaganda to paint.