Editors' pick

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven

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Editorial Review

Review: 'Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven' at Studio Theatre

By Peter Marks
Friday, October 8, 2010

If you're going to be discomfited, harangued and quite possibly even dragged onto the stage, let it be by someone as scathingly mischievous as Young Jean Lee. Her wildly sardonic performance piece at Studio Theatre, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," is a provocateur's funny, guns-blazing take on the utter banality of ethnic stereotypes and other cross-cultural outrages.

Mind you, public-service announcement material this is not. "Songs of the Dragons" begins with a recording of a man repeatedly hitting a woman, and what follows is an unsettling series of sequences of varying degrees of shock value and satire: three Korean women in traditional costumes, taking turns punching and kicking a young Korean-American woman; a porno-style shadow-puppet play; a rousing Korean version of "Amazing Grace"; a dull white couple interrupting the proceedings to air their run-of-the-mill relationship issues.

The events of "Songs of the Dragons" are not tied together dramatically in a classic sense: The play segues uncertainly from one vignette to another and ends in a most bizarrely anti-climactic fashion. The connectedness springs from the idea that any assigning we try to do of behavior by ethnic identity is patently ridiculous. And just as ludicrous, "Songs of the Dragons" tells us, is the "Kumbaya" notion that we could ever walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.

"There is minority rage inside me!" mutters the evening's main character, engagingly played by Jiehae Park and identified in the program only as "Korean American." She addresses us directly, as if the 90-minute play were a town hall grievance session, and confides what she believes to be scandalous realities about the nation's racist pecking order. "Asian women," she declares snippily, "will date white men that no white woman will touch" -- the kind of generalization that carries its own whiff of bias.

Like the comedian Sarah Silverman, Lee is a subversive who toys with our accepted wisdom about identity and femininity. In her case, it's the perceptions of and expectations about Asian women that she's undermining. A large portion of "Songs of the Dragons" is given over to the portrayal of the three gowned Korean women, identified as Koreans 1 through 3 and portrayed with an enjoyable verve by Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song and Youngsun Cho. They mercilessly taunt Park's character, a woman who is alienated from her ethnic heritage.

If that were not ostracism enough, the women -- depicted so often as shy and demure in gauzy works of fiction with titles like that of Lee's play -- begin taking turns beating the daylights out of her. The sequence goes on and on; it's so brutal that you laugh at the audacity of it. All through "Songs of the Dragons" are moments meant to explode an audience's complacency, its typically passive role in the theater. Several times, the actors beseech theatergoers to join them on Luciana Stecconi's utilitarian rendering of a temple, in Studio's penthouse raw space, where they tend to look a little bewildered.

Lee seems perfectly content staying one or two steps ahead of her audience. Part of the pleasure of "Songs of the Dragons" is in letting down your guard and simply allowing her jarring images to force themselves rambunctiously into your imagination.

The play, first produced in New York in 2006 and here presented as part of Studio's 2nd Stage program, retains its day-of freshness thanks to a director, Natsu Onoda Power, who's plugged in to the dramatist's no-holds-barred circuitry. In its slyly eccentric way, it's an evening of enlightenment.

By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Set, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Elisheba Ittoop; fight and dance choreography, Joe Isenberg; lighting, Joyce Liao; video, Tae Jung Choi. With Rachel Holt, Brandon McCoy. About 90 minutes.

Studio Theatre stages Young Jean Lee's 'Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, October 1, 2010

For those of you who think the "The Joy Luck Club" eloquently sums up the Asian American experience, Studio Theatre's latest comedy, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," is going to come as a slap in the face.

Literally.

Playwright Young Jean Lee's "Songs of the Dragons" -- subtitled "A Show About White People in Love" -- is a slyly hyperventilating answer to the identity politics of yesteryear. Just when you think the Asian characters are sweet, modest symbols of cultural tradition, the punches start flying. And when it seems that we (and apparently they) can't take another moment, they off themselves in ways each more hilariously violent than the last. (The whole farce even begins with what is known widely as the "hitting video," a clip in which the playwright directs herself being slapped repeatedly, until she bursts into tears. You can find it on YouTube.)

No, "Songs of the Dragons" is no soapy Amy Tan novel.

"It makes you think it's going to be one thing, but then it does something completely different," says Natsu Onoda Power, director of the Studio 2nd Stage show that runs through Oct. 24. "It keeps undermining the things that it says."

The audience gets its first whiff that it's going to be a wild ride when the character dubbed "Asian American" launches into a monologue that veers from what it means to be Asian American ("slightly brain damaged") to the dating habits of white men (who, she declares, are attracted to "the retarded quality" of Asian women).

It's exactly that subversive, cheeky take on Orientalism and notions of "post-racial" society that caught the attention of 2nd Stage, which frequently chooses avant-garde works.

2nd Stage Artistic Director Keith Alan Baker describes Lee as "the hottest young downtown New York playwright"; her works, including "The Shipment," have indeed made her a critical darling. Baker says the company decided first to tackle a play by Lee, then settled on "Songs of the Dragons" because it offered a chance to have a cast almost entirely made up of Asian American women. (So broad was the search for actors that one audition was conducted by Skype from California; Onoda Power was snagged from outside Studio's ranks as well -- from Georgetown University, where she is a visiting professor.)

The first challenge, however, was getting the play at all.

There is a reason Washingtonians may not have heard of Young Jean Lee: Until now, her works have been staged only by her eponymous troupe, whose members collaborate heavily during rehearsals until her scripts begin to take their madcap shape.

Naturally, Studio initially approached Lee to bring the play to Washington herself. She was tied up with other projects but gave the theater her blessing to re-create it, making Studio the first theater to take on one of her works.

"It's an important and interesting moment in the history of a play when it leaves the original conceiver and becomes its own show," Onoda Power says. "I'm excited and honored to be a part of that."

Now the only question is whether audiences here will embrace "Songs of the Dragons," eccentricities and all.

"There is nothing politically correct about this play," says Baker. "It's so weird. But it's so great."