Tina Chen and Ji-young Kim in Comfort Women
(Photo © Pavel Antonov)
Tina Chen and Ji-young Kim
in Comfort Women
(Photo © Pavel Antonov)
During World War II, roughly 200,000 Korean girls and young women were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese army. Euphemistically known as "comfort women," they were raped by Japanese soldiers thousands of times and were severely beaten, tortured, or even killed if they showed any signs of resistance. Following the war, those who survived lived in shame and disgrace, shunned by other Koreans for doing what they had no choice but to do. In Chungmi Kim's flawed but earnest play, Comfort Women, some of the experiences that these women endured are brought to light.

The play is set in 1994, in the home of a Korean-American family in New York City. Jina (Ji-young Kim) is a student at NYU. She brings home two former comfort women -- Soonja Park (Jade Wu) and Bohki Lee (Jo Yang) -- who are in New York to participate in protests against Japanese emperor Akhito at the United Nations. Jina's actions shock and anger her grandmother (Tina Chen), who believes that Koreans need to keep quiet and forget that part of the country's past. When confronted by the two strange women, Chen's character becomes extremely agitated and even hostile; she does not want to hear their stories and wants them out of her house as soon as possible. It becomes apparent that her vehement reaction against the comfort women is tied to her own experiences during the war and secrets that she has long kept to herself.

The performances are uneven. Wu infuses her character with a vibrant energy and plucky determination that makes her a pleasure to watch. Chen has her moments, as well, but overall seems to indicate her thoughts and reactions in too broad a manner. Yang is fine for what little she's given to do, but Kim overplays all of her scenes and comes across as incredibly annoying. Rounding out the cast is Haerry Kim, who plays the mother to Chen's character in flashbacks and dream sequences.

Director Frances W. Hill paces the production too slowly and fails to build dramatic tension. The action often seems cramped on Roman Tatarowicz's set, which is attractive visually but does not use the dimensions of the stage space in the most effective manner. Tatarowicz's lighting, on the other hand, is nicely rendered, while Jane Shaw's sound design -- heavily influenced by Asian instrumentation and aesthetics -- makes a memorable contribution to the show.

The script suffers from a tendency toward melodrama and convenient coincidences to move the story forward. The playwright telegraphs her plot twists in an exceedingly obvious manner. The dialogue feels awkward, utilizing an abundance of forthright declarative statements rather than capturing the rhythms of conversational language. The play is most effective when Soonja Park and Bokhi Lee relate their horrifying stories of abuse; the details are almost unimaginable yet based upon historical fact. While Comfort Women is not as compelling as it could be, it does demonstrate the dramatic potential of its subject matter.