Stories have a special power, and they fill an irreplaceable role in human life. Once Upon a (korean) Time, a new play written by Daniel K. Isaac and developed by the Ma-Ti theatre company, focuses on the power of stories to provide both an escape and a chance to connect. OUA(k)T traces the story of a family in Korea from the 1930 War of Independence to the LA riots in the 1990s. Each generation is showed as a vignette, with a Korean fable moving through the story.
At every level, this performance was exceptional. The staging was simple but well-executed (OUA(k)T is being shown at the La Mama Ellen Stewart Theatre), with every scene change happening almost as a part of the narrative. Isaac’s writing was brought to life by a talented cast (Sonnie Brown, Sasha Diamond, David Lee Huynh, Daniel K. Isaac, Teresa Avia Lim, Sami Ma, Jon Norma Schneider, David Shih, and Jillian Sun) who showed up generation after generation in new identities. This was truly impressive, given the amount of emotion the stories carried--they were able to snap into a new character seamlessly. I will admit that I was unprepared for the weight of the piece. It opens with the stark reality of two soldiers in 1930s Korea fighting in the war of independence. As a way of distracting themselves from the shells and machine guns, they tell each other a fable about two brothers, Heung-bu and Nol-bu, being rewarded for generosity and punished for stinginess--until one soldier dies. In the next chapter, scenes of his daughter experiencing the horror of being a Korean woman in the comfort camps of Japanese soldiers were mitigated by the women with her--fierce, capable, loving, and filled with vision--as they told the story of Shim-Cheung, a girl who sacrificed herself to the Sea King in order to save her father. Each story felt different and new compared to the last, but the thread of narrative and stories wove it into a cohesive play. There were a total of five chapters, each grounded in a family and the stories they told each other. It was a play that was unafraid of heartbreak, but the most serious moments were relieved skillfully in a way that made it joyful and fun as well.
What still lives in my head is the last scene. There, the modern-day descendant of this family (who was adopted by a white family in Orange County) is discussing what she’s only recently learned about her own heritage. She has a life--an excellent life with a wife, twins, a group of friends who understand and love her. Heritage and history are beautiful words, but it’s impossible to say what their impact should be on daily life, especially when it comes with expectations or blame for today. This play didn’t presume to ascribe a right or wrong answer to that question, but it gave space to think about it--and how different it is for every person. I left feeling grateful for the stories and selves we share with each other.
Once Upon a (korean) Time is showing Aug 23-Sept 18 at La Mama's Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 E 4th St). Tickets are available online for $20.