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A CurtainUp Review

Comfort Women
By Jenny Sandman

We were not whores…we were innocent girls, abducted. ---Soonja Park
Tina Chen and Ji-young Kim
Tina Chen and Ji-young Kim
Chungmi Kim's newest play, Comfort Women, is both an overdue and a timely examination of war atrocities. During WW II, the Japanese abducted thousands of Korean women to be used as sex slaves for their troops, euphemistically called "Comfort Women."

These women were between 14 and 19 and were either lured by deception or kidnapped outright and sold into brothels. They were forced to serve as many as 40 or 50 soldiers a day. If they showed any sign of hesitation or resistance, they were summarily executed. Most died or were ravaged by syphilis.

It was not until after demonstrations at the UN in 1994 that Japan formally apologized and started putting together a reparation program -- albeit one which was much smaller than reparations made to Korean soldiers and their families. When the women finally returned to Korea, they were shunned -- even by their own families. About 100 are still alive today.

The play uses the UN protest to bring together a young Korean NYU student and two surviving "comfort women" The girl brings the women home to talk to her lonely grandmother. This grandmother might herself have been a comfort woman had she not been married off to an old man (the Japanese tended to leave married women alone). While the grandmother avoided the comfort woman's service to the Japanese soldiers, her brother was conscripted into the Japanese army. He was stationed in Hiroshima, and returned home to die. The women brought home to meet the grandmother try to convince her to help both countries confront their pasts, but she wants only to forget, and doesn't want to "beg" for reparations. The But as the women talk, we discover that the grandmother has a deeper involvement in their cause than anyone knew or suspected.

It's a compelling story, but one that becomes a little harried. The performances, especially toward the end, are loud and breathless (the one exception is Haerry Kim as Mother). They are magnetic to a degree but largely one-note, particularly Jade Wu and Jo Yang as the "comfort women." Tina Chen is excellent as Grandma, but her protestations at the beginning give way to a largely unsatisfying denouement. The yelling, singing and the many brutal stories leave no time for the audience to rest or reflect.

Despite this sensory barrage, the overall effect is that of a small quiet play without larger ambitions or message and Urban Stages has given it an expressive production. The abstract, asymmetrical black and red stage has simple furniture and stark lighting, with the scrim adding dreamlike element. Heesoo Kim's costumes are authentic and evocative. Director Frances Hill keeps the action tight and the cast cohesive

The plight of the "comfort women" has become public in Korea only during the last fifteen years or so. With wartime human rights violations becoming rampant in Africa and the Middle East (rape, being foremost among them), this play could be a timely message on the wartime treatment of women. Kim avoids drawing larger parallels between then and now making this an interesting story that fails to feel fully fleshed out.

Written by Chungmi Kim
Directed by Frances W. Hill
With Tina Chen, Haerry Kim, Ji-young Kim, Jade Wu, and Jo Yang
Set and Lighting Design by Roman Tatarowicz
Costume Design by Heesoo Kim
Sound Design by Jane Shaw
Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street; 212-868-4444
10/23/04 to 11/28/04
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm.
All tickets $35
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on October 29th performance
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