Language of the Lost

Exploring a dialect of West Africa and hidden Korean history

A few Saturdays ago, I tried to take my son to the Minnesota Children's Museum. It was screaming, crushing, Mall of America packed. Our next cold was helicoptering around, waiting to be sucked in. I'd have braved the crowd, but the line to get in was at least 20 minutes long. My son looked noncommittal. Screw it, I thought. We're going somewhere else. I don't have time to wait in line for 20 fucking minutes.

Americans hate waiting. I believe this is one of those accurate stereotypes, like the one about Presbyterians being great dancers. In 1981, Carlyle Brown came into 3,500 bucks and used half of it to go to West Africa, a trip he recounts in his one-man show The Fula from America. At one point during the tour, he waits three days for a flatbed truck to take him to Freetown, Sierra Leone. At the end of the first day, he starts raving (in English, of course) about customer service. When a child tries to mollify him with a bottle of Coke and a pack of Marlboros, Brown feels ashamed, like an Ugly African-American. So he sits down, lights a cigarette, and has a Coke.

For starters, Fula is great travel writing: funny, pictorial, and reflective. Brown captures his feelings of helplessness and bewilderment in situations both typical and dodgy--language-barrier frustrations and I'm-in-the-middle-of-a-civil-war-and-I'm-going-to-die panics. Brown's play, directed by Louise Smith, is also a wonderful exploration both of identity and African and American culture. Brown cries with a Wolof family after explaining that he'll never know where his ancestors came from; he marvels at his easy decipherment of Krio, a creolized English, recognizing the syntax from the Gullah dialect he'd heard in South Carolina. Captivating and honest, Fula smoothly unites Carl Jung, Marcus Garvey, and the Manhattans' R&B hit "Shining Star," which appears on a Ford van's tape deck like an epiphany. With a little justice, the line at the Center for Independent Artists theater will grow to more than 20 minutes long. Be patient.

 

Theater Mu's Falling Flowers, penned by Jeany Park and directed by Cecilie D. Keenan, has a noble purpose. It seeks to further expose the plight of the girls and women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II. In the play, three young Koreans are dragooned into becoming "comfort women" in Manchuria. There they endure 20, sometimes 40, rapes a day, allegedly to gird the men for battle. The sex acts themselves, depicted in slow acrobatic movements, avoid being exploitative but are nonetheless harrowing.

But unfortunately, the pain and inhumanity of the topic seem to hover over the proceedings rather than emanate from the actors. The present-day material, mostly performed by Maria Cheng as an elderly former comfort woman, is wrenching and alive. But Falling Flowers is mainly told in flashback, and there it struggles. One problem is the script's canned-sounding modern American vernacular. (The characters say things such as "That musta been tough" and "It's a little resort town.") Obviously, telling in English a story that was lived in other languages is a traditional challenge that requires suspension of disbelief. But more should have been done to locate the story in its place and time. One device Park could have used would have been to make the English sound, I don't know, more foreign, more prewar.

For Koreans of an era when female education was discouraged, the younger girls often seem improbably savvy and sophisticated. ("Did it ever occur to you that you might be just a pleasant diversion?" scolds one of the women.) The men, though not one-dimensional, are remote and unreal. Even the play's would-be cathartic moment--when one of the soldiers gets a rare comeuppance--rings strangely hollow. I left the theater knowing more about this dark (and not unique) chapter in human history, and because of that, Park's work is a force of good. But I wish this "good" had more force.

 
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