By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
If Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet were played by a female Korean American protagonist, what would that play be like?
“Do It For Umma,” a tragi-comedy written by local playwright Seayoung Yim, explores this very idea.
In October 2014, Yim took a playwriting class from esteemed playwright Stephanie Timm, who challenged students to write a revenge tragedy.
Instructions included writing a visitation scene with the victim as a ghost, in addition to creating roles for women since Elizabethan revenge tragedies focus heavily on men.
Yim’s research on the genre led her to a cornerstone of Western drama: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Intrigued by the relationship between Prince Hamlet and his father, Yim superimposed her own experiences of being Korean American onto the “Hamlet” plot, portraying the complex relationship between the Korean American daughter and her immigrant mother.
“I’m inspired by how immigrant moms are required to navigate and balance two completely different cultures,” said Yim.
In her play, Prince Hamlet is the character Hannah, whose recently deceased mother returns to haunt the Korean convenience store she once owned, to shame and cajole her daughter into avenging her suspicious death. Fueled by humor and revenge, Hannah is on a mission to gain her ghost mother’s approval while protecting her family’s honor under the strangest circumstances.
Reframing the Asian and Asian American female narratives
Yim has always been drawn to attractive and powerful female characters, influenced by her own mom’s strong personality and the Korean dramas she watched as a child.
“When you hear ‘badass Asian female,’ most people don’t think of the old, Asian immigrant who doesn’t speak English as being badass,” said Yim. “Society doesn’t view or frame their narrative that way. This play reframes these everyday people.”
In “Do It For Umma,” Hannah’s mom’s story is reframed through her convenience store, which serves as the equivalent of King Hamlet’s kingdom. Hannah’s mom ruled over her store with an iron fist, and the store is the domain that Hannah must protect after her mother’s demise.
After conducting stage readings for “Do It For Umma,” Yim successfully pitched the show to the Annex Theater in Seattle during their annual call for proposals, which brings bold, new productions to the forefront of Seattle’s theater world.
“Do It For Umma” is also a notable selection for this theater, given its predominantly white audience.
“We were initially preoccupied with what white people would think of our show, since the script is filled with Korean words and cultural references,” said Sara Porkalob, the show’s director.
Porkalob, who also acts in and writes her own works, was drawn to the script for its affiliation with Annex Theater and the desire to direct a show with a nuanced understanding of the Asian family dynamic.
“You have an obligation to do a story like this justice, when it reflects on the experiences of your community,” said Porkalob who is of Chinese, Filipino, and Hawaiian descent. Yim and Porkalob were careful to consider the representation of Asian and Asian American characters, using potential stereotypes in the script to inform directing choices or anticipate how the audience may interpret a certain line.
“As an Asian body moving on the stage, it is very difficult to remove your race from the presentation of the characters,” said Porkalob. “But we can’t remove that from who we are. And at some point, you have to ask: How does that matter? Do we need to explain who we are? Do we even care?”
The answer is no. The duo decided to be unapologetic about the source material, with Porkalob urging Yim to add even more Korean words and phrases to the script. The eight-person cast, which consists of just one male and one non-Asian actor, were given voice recordings to properly pronounce Korean phrases or monologues for scenes entirely in Korean.
The presence of ajummas is another way the show has refused to compromise. Although ajumma can be used to respectfully address an older Korean lady, it can sometimes be derogatory toward older, unwed Korean women. As a conscious decision to reclaim the word, a chorus of ajummas are featured in the show and function like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, narrating or relating character reactions to the audience. This reframes ajummas as authoritative women in control, Porkalob explained, while giving the chorus an identity.
Dramatizing mother/daughter dynamics
At the end of the day, “Do It For Umma” is a story that explores the layered identity of being Korean, American, and female, with a mother–daughter relationship at its heart.
“I wanted to make Umma compassionate because she says some horrible things to Hannah that are motivated by love,” said Yim.
Writing this play was an entry point for Yim to analyze her relationship with her mom and to answer questions about her mom’s history, such as examining the circumstantial and political forces that shape immigrant families. Creating complexity around Umma’s character has helped her reframe her mom’s life story and, Yim hopes, the tough love mentality of other Asian immigrant parents.
Humor has also been a primary way to explore the play’s complex issues, ranging from race to gender politics.
“With all the drama and murder sleuthing happening, the stakes are so high for the characters,” said Yim. “I wanted to explore these issues as I see it, but I also wanted it to be true to the Korean American experience and spotlight the highs and lows of a family’s history. And that’s where the comedy shines through.” (end)
“Do It For Umma” runs at the Annex Theatre from Feb. 2–17 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.annextheatre.org/2016-season/off-night/do-it-for-umma.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.