Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven — written and directed by the Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee — is a difficult play to categorize. Using vaudeville, multimedia, stand-up comedy, dance, and drama, this eclectic and highly entertaining show purports to be “a warped, humorous look at her heritage” as well as “a love story about white people.” If you are looking for a dramatic through-line, the joke’s on you. But that may not matter, since the show is funny, insightful, and sometimes beautifully written.
The theatrical experience actually begins while one is standing in the waiting area at HERE, which set and lighting designer Eric Dyer has made to resemble the outside of a pagoda with hanging lanterns and painted shoji screens. When curtain time gets closer, an usher announces that one must walk down a gravel path to get to the seats. The Asian kitsch of the surroundings becomes decidedly muted once one enters the performing space, where the stage is a box of unpainted plywood.
Eventually, the lights black out, and we hear the sounds of a woman (Becky Yamamoto), identified in the program as “Korean American,” asking to be repeatedly slapped for a film shoot. The uncomfortable laughter in the audience gives way to concern and discomfort, and we see a video of her being abused projected on the rear wall of the stage. Indeed, self-flagellation is a running theme of the show. When the main part of the play begins, Lee mocks her own ethnic background, sometimes with inflammatory racist language and behavior. She calls Asians “monkeys,” squints her eyes, and has a chorus of women — Korean 1 (Jun Sky Kim), Korean 2 (Haerry Kim), and Korean 3 (Jennifer Lim) — embody every stereotype that one can imagine.
However, Lee also makes a constant point to acknowledge the show’s excesses and pretenses. All of the characters are shamelessly mouthpieces of the playwright. In one scene, they intone, “I write this horrible, racist shit and then try to imply that I’m somehow fighting racism by being racist, and that being racist is a more effective way of fighting racism than actually fighting it.” As a chorus, they deliver a litany of anxieties about the play, refer to its opinions of race and identity as “inane,” and even state that the self-referential style is actually a device to shield the author from criticism. Yet, Lee’s often-enigmatic approach to racial identity belies a simple and salient point — that such issues are complicated and inescapable.
It’s probably no accident that the most developed characters of the piece are the unnamed white people, because they’re not very concerned about their ethnicities. Instead, they’re too busy concentrating on their dysfunctional love affairs, their abuse of drugs and alcohol, their lack of health insurance, and their yearning to escape to exotic locations. But love presents its own identity issues. White Person 2 (Brian Bickerstaff) wants to “negate” himself and become White Person 1 (Juliana Francis), his better half.
In the world of this unusual play, race can be like an abusive relationship. It can be an obsession that steals one’s identity, self-worth, and individuality, and people fall into these arrangements constantly. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is a plea to nurse these relationships back to health.