Tonight was the world premiere of Han! by Theatre No Theatre at La MaMa. Written and performed by Hyun Ju Baek, it was directed by Thomas Richards. Richards visited the audience in the lobby before the performance to relay his excitement for the production and describe his provenance as a protegé of Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999). Grotowski was a Polish theatre director and theoretician best known for his influential approach to experimental theatre, emphasizing actors’ physical and emotional training and a deep exploration of the human condition.
As the dimmed lights raised, Baek appeared barefoot on stage in a flowered dress with three large white vertical panels and benches. Over the stage was set a digital display of English subtitles. In this solo show, Baek spoke and sang in Korean.
It’s important to understand that in Korea, “Han” (한) represents a complex cultural concept referring to a feeling of deep and enduring sorrow, bitterness, or resentment arising from experiences of suffering, injustice, and historical trauma. It is a deeply ingrained emotional state frequently associated with the Korean people’s long history of oppression, colonization, and war.
Han is also conceived as a source of strength and resilience, representing the determination of the Korean people to overcome adversity in the face of hardship. Han is also a unifying cultural symbol and a source of national pride, often expressed through art, literature, and music.
From the onset, it was clear that Baek was an intensely accomplished raconteur, dancer, and singer. Although she spoke and sang in Korean as English speakers referred to subtitles, her intensity and commanding artistic prowess were mesmerizing. The eyes and ears of the audience were inexorably drawn to Baek and the chronicle she expressed.
Baek began with a narrative of a man drowning, followed by a song. Through each successive episode in a complex story of a virgin ghost, children left alone out of desperation, suicide, doomed young soldiers, memories of Japanese occupation, profound sadness, and perseverance, she masterfully controlled her every movement, expression, sound, oration, and gesture for maximum communicative impact.
The well-crafted descriptive language in Han! was fundamental to creating vivid and evocative imagery that transported viewers to other times, places, and states of mind. Through rich sensory details, figurative language, dance, movement, and expression, Baek created a virtual, tangible, and perhaps intangible world, drawing the audience into her vision as she invited them to experience it uniquely.
Han’s vision, story, and rich ethos were realized and honored through Hyun Ju Baek’s remarkable performance and Thomas Richards’ direction.
Han! by Theatre No Theatre at La MaMa
Written and Performed by Hyun Ju Baek
Directed by Thomas Richards
Assistant Directors: Cécile Richards, Jessica Losilla-Hébrail
The show is in Korean with English subtitles.
Running time 60 minutes with no intermission