Theatre Exile’s production of Hansol Jung’s Among the Dead addresses challenging topics over the course of 90 minutes — intergenerational trauma, the effects of war on both men and women, and the history of Korean comfort women — but it does so with purpose, compassion, and a generous pinch of humor.
The surreal narrative in Among the Dead, which runs through May 26, is an ambitious one: A Korean American woman named Ana Woods arrives in Seoul in 1975 with the ashes of her estranged father. She meets an overly friendly bellhop who is soon revealed to be Jesus, and embarks on a time-bending journey that unravels the story of Number Four, her Korean mother, one of 200,000 women forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army between 1932 and 1945.
Among the Dead is best characterized as a dark comedy. Cathy Simpson put on a pitch-perfect performance as Jesus, who acts as the voice of reason for the three other characters. Bi Jean Ngo’s Ana is sharp and biting. Spam — the canned meat, not the emails — plays an important role. (So does jackfruit.)
The set was intriguing: Lightbulbs and knotty branches dangle from the ceiling, while the claustrophobic hotel room where much of Ana’s story plays out lends urgency to the performance. Physically trapped in the hotel thanks to student protests, she is also emotionally trapped in the trauma she inherited from her parents.
Among the Dead is not a perfect play, but it’s an important one. Jung shows that it’s possible to tell compelling, nuanced stories about the effects of war on Asian women and American G.I.'s without glamorizing deeply traumatic moments. Ana was conceived during a violent, fraught encounter instead of in a moment of passionate love. Luke was not a loving, doting father; instead, he abandoned his baby daughter with his parents to go fight in more wars. Forcing you to reckon with these realities over and over again, the play patiently educates the audience about the horrific events of history.
“I’m glad a story like Among the Dead has emerged about another Asian war story that celebrates the strength and resilience of these women,” Ngo said in an interview with the theater. “The ultimate savior in this story isn’t the American soldier, nor is it Jesus.”
The play really hits its stride in its second half, when key encounters take place. At one point, the audience learns Number Four’s real name as she announces it — defiantly, with a glint in her eye — after choosing survival for the second time. In that moment, it’s nearly impossible not to feel heartbroken for all the women who lived Number Four’s reality and are fighting for their stories not to be erased from history. But it’s also a triumphant moment — a reclaiming of agency and a promise to survive again and again for familial love, even against overwhelming odds.