There are pleasanter ways to spend an evening than watching people be kicked, whipped, and shot to death. Nevertheless, some 1,300 people paid $80 a ticket to watch on-stage depictions of these horrors at the U.S. premiere of Yoduk Story, a musical about life in a North Korean concentration camp, at the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
How does one create a musical about the unspeakable? Yoduk director Jung Sung San relied on his own memories of life in a concentration camp to create an intense story of life, death, and love in the gulag.
The musical opens with scenes of North Korean soldiers dancing and singing a boisterous number called “Look at Us!” before a huge golden statue of “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong il. Next comes a number featuring the beautiful star of the Pyongyang Music Troupe, Ryun-Hwa Kang (Yunjung Choi), singing of her loyalty to the Party.The dancers’ brilliant pink and coral costumes and the bright red flags behind them provide a striking contrast with the gray rags worn by prison inmates in the next scene. Ryun, who is abruptly sent to Yoduk Prison over the alleged spying of her father, is now officially in Hell, “A doomed place where people sing and dance in deep sorrow.”
On the day of her arrival, Ryun is raped and impregnated by a drunken guard, Myung-Soo Lee (Jaechong Lim). In what must surely be the most brutal song-and-dance sequence ever choreographed, we see guards flogging, kicking, and even shooting prisoners who crawl, bleeding and moaning, across the stage. This number was also created out of concentration camp memories — those of choreographer Yung Soon Kim, a professional dancer who survived many years in the real Yoduk Prison.
Once Ryun’s baby is born, she and her baby’s father — who has been softened by his feelings for his child — begin to fall in love. But when their relationship is discovered, the guard himself is made a prisoner. The pair attempts to escape by climbing over the camp’s huge, barbed wire fence. The horrific result: The guards machine-gun the entire camp.
Yoduk Story captures the utter arbitrariness of evil — of people, sometimes entire families, locked up because they were caught listening to Western music or converted to Christianity. Mothers cannot dream of their children’s future, because those children will probably not long survive; teenagers, forced to live like animals, go insane; and those whose job it is to guard and kill the prisoners turn into animals themselves.
Ironically, those familiar with life in a concentration camp complain that Yoduk Story doesn’t even come close to the brutal reality. But other escapees are more understanding. On blog sites devoted to Yoduk Story, survivors say the cruelty had to be toned down in order to avoid traumatizing audiences.
Ultimately, Yoduk Story is a story of hope and forgiveness. In the musical’s final scene, Ryun and Lee Myung-Soo’s little boy, who has miraculously survived and escaped from Yoduk Prison, says he does not hate those who killed his mother and father; he forgives them. This message reflects the Christian worldview of playwright/director Jung Sung San, who says the message of forgiveness and love arising from despair and cruelty “came from Jesus Christ. When we can love someone truthfully,” he says, “We can forgive one another truthfully.”
Yoduk Story is performed in Korean, with English subtitles flashed on the wall next to the stage. Despite the difficulty of financing Yoduk Story (a desperate Jung Sung-San offered his own kidney as collateral to loan sharks in order to stage the musical in Seoul), the musical’s sets and costumes have a polished, “no expense spared” look about them. The energy and emotion never flag, and the quality of the singing, especially by the leads, is phenomenal.
There is no pretence that Yoduk Story is just entertainment; everyone involved hopes playgoers will be inspired to join the cause of freeing North Koreans from the most brutal regime on earth. The human rights groups which helped bring the musical to Washington took care to invite high ranking government officials, including President Bush (who sent Jay Lefkowitz, Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, to represent him). A large percentage of those in attendance last night were Korean-Americans, some of whom were openly weeping as the curtain went down.
Yoduk Story will be performed again tonight and Friday at the Strathmore before moving to Los Angeles. If ticket sales are strong, the musical may move to other American venues — which means that, while Kim Jong il’s real victims may be out of sight, for increasing numbers of Americans, they will no longer be out of mind.
– Anne Morse is a senior writer with the Wilberforce Forum.