“Whenever North Korea is in the news, I’m always interested,” she said. “Because especially [when] I was growing up, I had a very limited understanding of North Korea. Essentially my understanding was from Western media, which is somewhat propagandistic, and my parents. My dad would just write North Korea off.”
“Up until that point [in 2009],” she said. “The only question I had in mind was: why hasn’t it fallen apart, and when is it going to?”
Learning about Jaycee Dugard and her sympathy toward her jailers introduced Chung to the concept of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon wherein hostages bond with and even grow to care for their captors.
That knowledge “gave me the paradigm for understanding North Korea,” said Chung. “Because the social control [there] is so based on concepts of family and loyalty.” Instead of assuming North Korea’s demise was imminent, said Chung, “The new question was: Will this ever fall apart?”
“You for Me” is the first play funded by Woolly’s Free the Beast campaign, which aims to produce 25 new plays over the next 10 years.
“Without Free the Beast, we very well might have looked at this script and said, ‘We can’t do this,’” said Howard Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director. “Because you could just read the play and go, ‘Wow!’ But it’s a theatrical minefield.”
Chung’s narrative unfolds on two continents and time moves differently in each place. In an effort to keep the audience on the side of the Korean-speaking protagonists, Americans spend much of the play speaking in nearly incomprehensible sounds; Chung employs a “no broken English” rule because, she said, “I think that is immediately distancing for an American audience.” As the Korean sister in New York improves her English, the speech of American characters becomes clearer.
In addition to paying Chung a completion commission, Woolly used Free the Beast money to hold a three-day workshop on site and, with the Ma-Yi Theater Company, a four-week workshop production in New York.
Yury Urnov, a Russian native who is in the States on a visa, is directing the production. “I must say the juxtaposition of this, the psychology of an American person and somebody coming from a totalitarian background . . . is something I have to deal with in my everyday life,” he said.
Less familiar to Urnov is the experience of working side-by-side with the playwright from Day One. That kind of insta-integration is one of the driving ideas behind Free the Beast, but it’s taking some getting used to for Urnov, who rarely had to interact with writers back home. “90 percent of Russian theater is plays by dead authors,” he pointed out.
“It’s a new kind of creation,” he said of the “You for Me” process. “The play is growing, and you’re participating in each other’s professions. That’s obviously challenging, and obviously interesting, and by now I must say it’s obviously useful.”
As rehearsals wrap up, Chung is grateful that the premonition of her high school mentor has, so far, proved false — he’s the one who advised her to head to L.A. in the first place. Don’t go into theater, he told her, “unless you want to starve.”
As for what’s next, Chung, who has two brothers and two sisters, said, “You know, [my brothers] are probably waiting for the next play, for the play that I write about them. . . . We’ll see what happens.”
You for Me for You
at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from Monday to Dec. 2. 641 D St. NW, www.woollymammoth.net, 202-393-3939.