Young Jean Lee isn't trying to make things easy -- for her audience or herself. In her new play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which she wrote and directed, Lee exposes conflicted feelings and questions about racism, religion, love, and personal inadequacy. But don't expect any answers.
First the audience gathers in a room with a wall painted with pastel dragons and colored paper lanterns overhead. Then they're ushered along gravel paths to their seats in front of a bare wooden stage. The lights go down and a male voice asks, "How hard do you want me to hit you?" We hear the repeated strikes, until a screen is lowered to show a Korean-American woman's head snapping back as she stares at the camera -- at us. This self-abuse is only the prelude, but it remains the most powerful and disturbing moment in the production.
Once the episode is over, a young Korean-American woman (Becky Yamamoto), dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, takes center stage and begins: "Have you ever noticed how Asian kids are slightly brain-damaged? It's because they're raised by monkeys." Her statements escalate, becoming more offensive, until she claps her hands and is joined by three women dressed in hanboks, the traditional Korean dress, who begin to dance, then fight, then attack her. As things begin to seem to follow a pattern -- a Korean American's difficult journey to understanding her feelings about her heritage -- two new characters, White Persons 1 and 2 (Juliana Francis and Brian Bickerstaff), enter and begin a vacuous, bourgeois conversation about nothing.
The Korean-American woman (ostensibly Lee's mouthpiece) admits to wanting to create "a sophisticated critique of racism," and she certainly does. But by the end, after an extended scene between the two white characters in which they discuss their banal relationship, I'm left wondering if Lee has done little more than pick at a scab to uncover a persistent wound instead of letting it heal and move on.
Presented by and at Here Arts Center,
145 Sixth Ave., NYC.
Sept. 25-Oct. 14. Thu.-Sun., 8:30 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or www.here.org.