“Comfort Women”: A New Musical’ Divulges a Historical Sorrow

By Lynn Chawengwongsa

Forget who you are momentarily and imagine you are a young woman in a militarily occupied country. You have little means of supporting your family, and the foreign soldiers stationed in your town have taken everything you own. All seems lost until you meet a man who promises you a lucrative factory job in a neighboring country. Do you leave for the prospect of newfound wealth or try to eke out a living at home?

The choice is a gamble. Choose to stay and you will live with the hazards of poverty and military strife. Choose to leave and you will unknowingly be forced into sexual servitude at the hands of the occupying army in a faraway land.

As much as this no-win scenario seems to be a hypothetical nightmare, it was once a reality for the women whose lives inspired director Dimo Hyun Jun Kim’s off-Broadway debut, “Comfort Women: A New Musical.”

The musical, which opened on July 31 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, draws its narrative from the accounts of comfort women, women in Japanese-occupied territories who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. It’s a daring tale that will make you rethink your understanding of human cruelty and suffering through the story of one woman in the 1940s. That woman is Goeun Kim, a young Korean whose life is a struggle few of us will ever know.

Goeun’s story is an undeniably somber tale inundated with the kind of indelible suffering that is always associated with sexual violence. She is a young woman who is desperate to take a chance for a dream that is seemingly within reach, agreeing to take a factory job in Japan only to be trafficked. Her foolish naivete, which prompts her to sign a contract she can’t read, is maddening. However, it’s hard to think that Goeun deserves the consequences of her choice. For almost any other character it would be much easier to blame foolishness or blind innocence for a cruel fate. All you can do is sympathize when Goeun finds herself under increasingly horrendous circumstances.

It’s a demanding task to play Goeun, to remain emotionally connected to a character whose life is so far removed from the modern actress’s. But on August 1, Sandra W. Lee’s talent and sensibility provided a nuanced portrayal of Goeun. Although there isn’t much to invest in the character in the first act, Lee, who is double-casted alongside Meagan Lee Hodson, delivered a poignant performance where it mattered most. Her character’s sorrow was comprised of layer upon layer of anguish, homesickness, pain, and every other emotion someone in her character’s situation would feel. Lee depicted the kind of despair that only a person who has lost everything can feel, a despair found in the great depths of human emotion.

While it’s difficult to imagine and even think about the experiences – namely, human trafficking and sexual violence – that could effect the sorrow in Lee’s character portrayal, it’s an integral part of the narrative. What awaits theatergoers is not a vulgar dance number miming copulation but a tasteful dance sequence of resistance and grappling. The dance is sinuous, passionate and dramatic – but definitely not to be mistaken for romance – and is almost as striking as the billowing clouds of smoke, flashing lights and crackling gunshots that lead up to it.

Aside from a few technical glitches and minor flaws, “Comfort Women: A New Music” is a nicely executed work through which Kim has proven his potential for directing and producing. The musical is sometimes infuriating and other times complaisant, but always engaging. Kim has come a long way since his days working on small university productions such as City College’s dreadful and sloppy rendition of the musical “Promenade.”

Unlike most other mainstream theater productions, “Comfort Women: A New Musical” finds its value in preserving an almost forgotten history of social importance, beyond the purposes of pure entertainment. It leaves a real mark for those who are smart to recognize its significance.

Dimo Hyun Jun Kim’s “Comfort Women: A New Music” is running for a limited engagement at the Theatre at St. Clement’s until August 9, 2015.

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