The Washington Post

Translation: You're Both Nuts

North Korea doesn’t get us and we don’t get them. A new play aims to close the gap.

Sisters Junhee (Ruibo Qian) and Minjee (Jo Mei, above) attempt to flee North Korea for the U.S., but only Junhee makes it. She’s forced to deal with a completely unfamiliar world, full of strange words, strange people and unimaginable plenty. Minjee, back in North Korea, imagines what the wider world might be like and the danger her sister must be in.

When a North Korean woman in “You for Me for You” frets about “ruthless Americans,” the audience at a recent Woolly Mammoth performance tittered. Her seemingly comical fear makes a serious point. The play, about two peasant sisters trying to escape North Korea, demonstrates how we form misconceptions about the rest of the world, and how the world, once experienced, explodes those ideas. We spoke with playwright Mia Chung, whose parents emigrated from South Korea, about her approach.

How did you begin?
The question I led with was “Why hasn’t it fallen apart yet?” In the late ’90s, when the famines happened, my father said, “Finally, it’s going to fall apart.” But it persisted!

How did you research the scenes set in North Korea?
There’s not a lot of nuanced information that’s come out of there. I was interested primarily in looking at the mental shackles of people living in a closed society.

Mental shackles?
I feel like the Korean government has kidnapped these people. There’s a cognitive dissonance that they have about their lives and their government.

There are some fairly broad conclusions drawn about Americans, particularly our consumerism.
The tone of the production is a lot more broad and satirical than I’d intended — my focus was on how we decode worlds and how that plays into uncoding your world.

Is that why all the American characters speak in an unintelligible mishmash at first?
I wanted to bring the audience into the act of decoding, to make them more fully inhabit a North Korean’s point of view. Often North Koreans are portrayed as simpletons. They seem so “other.” But there are people living with Stockholm syndrome and cognitive dissonance everywhere in the world.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; through Sunday, $20-$67.50; 202-393-3939. (Gallery Place)



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Marc Silver · November 29, 2012