Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 22, 2006
I won't lie: I couldn't tell you what playwright Young Jean Lee intends to accomplish with her new play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. But, I'm not sure she could, either. Billed as an irreverent but thought-provoking look at the author's Korean-American heritage, race, racism, and this country's attitude towards all of the above, Songs of the Dragons delivers something a bit different. It's irreverent, alright, but it's also, I think, willfully unclear. Through a series of episodic (and seemingly unrelated) scenes, Lee riffs on all of those topics, but to no visible purpose. The production feels more like an elaborate sketch comedy show than a cohesive play.
I will say this, though: I was not bored once during Songs of the Dragons. And, I laughed pretty much all the way through it. Despite its lack of cohesion, Songs of the Dragons is very funny. Lee pulls laughs out of thin air, from places you didn't think she would go to. She's obviously a gutsy and talented writer. The effectiveness of the individual scenes is not diminished because they don't hang well together. In this regard, Songs of the Dragons' schizophrenic feel works in its favor.
A lot of things happen in this play. The female protagonist, billed only as Korean-American, gets terrorized by a roving trio of traditional Korean women: they dance, play, and socialize with each other, but exclude her (they also speak Korean through the first third of the play, making things even harder to follow). The Korean-American also makes a lot of snarky statements about her heritage, race and racism in America. One example:
Have you ever noticed how most Asian Americans are slightly brain damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It's like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status.
Then, there's a nameless Caucasian couple who appear every so often. They are on the rocks, and every time we see them they're in some stage of breaking up.
It's hard to say what this is all about, though. As I mentioned before, most of the scenes bear little relation to each other, so it's difficult to understand what the cumulative build or effect is supposed to be. But, each scene kind of stands on its own, and there are some terrific moments in all of them. Most notable is a hysterical musical number where all of the Koreans dance like crabs to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" and pretend to commit suicide in various macabre ways. Another great moment comes when Whiter Person 1 offers White Person 2 a small dissertation on why they must break up ("...you are just right on the borderline of being smart enough for me"). In fact, both the Caucasian couple and the Korean trio are richly drawn and funny enough to merit plays of their own.
For me, the most rewarding parts of Songs of the Dragons are those in which the protagonist speaks in a voice that perhaps comes closest to the playwright's own. In a couple of rare moments, the Korean-American drops the sarcasm and voices her insecurities. One of those moments is a long speech to the audience that begins:
Thank you all for coming here today. Your eyes are not worthy of…I mean my face is not worthy of the strain on your eyes to look at it. My ears are not worth the effort of…um. Your ears…My voice is not worthy of the effort of your ears to listen to it. It breaks my heart that it's hard for me to say I'm sorry. I want you to like me. I want you to have a strong emotional response to my show that isn't hatred.
In the other moment, the Korean-American's dying grandmother (played by one of the Korean women) persuades her granddaughter to embrace Christianity. The Korean-American says:
Dear Lord, for some reason I've always really disliked the idea of Jesus. But I'm completely miserable. I walk around all day feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing and am messing everything up, and I'm constantly tortured by the thought that other people can see what an idiot I am and hate me for it. I always thought I could somehow fix things by figuring out an intellectual system for how to live with the maximum possible benefit to myself. But I give up. I give up.
As written and directed by Lee, and played by the superb Becky Yamamoto (giving a moving and deftly comic performance), these instances are the most convincing parts of Songs of the Dragons, and hint at the play it possibly wants to be (or, at least, the one I thought it would turn into): a straightforward confessional in which the Korean-American realizes and admits her self-hatred and figures out what to do about it. The opening minutes of Songs of the Dragons—in which the audience is subjected to audio and video footage of playwright Lee herself repeatedly being slapped in the face—underline the point I'm trying to make here, I think.
The production features a terrific cast. In addition to the priceless Yamamoto, Jun Sky Kim, Haerry Kim, and Jennifer Lim make a great comedy team as the three Koreans. Juliana Francis and Brian Bickerstaff are likewise amusing, balancing both the humor and gravity of their scenes very well.
With Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Young Jean Lee proves she's got a firm grasp of smart-alecky humor. But, if she'd also embrace notions like clarity and sincerity in her work (and, I think it's obvious that she can), she'd be able not just to make an audience laugh, but really make us think or cry, too.