The Davidsonian

The Creation of New Theatre: A Review of the Powerful Performance of Among the Dead Written by Hansol Jung and Directed by Ariel Chung ‘21

By Clare Harbin ’23 (she/her)

Among the Dead by Hansol Jung is set in three different time periods that interact with each other. Ana Woods, a Korean American, is in Seoul in 1975 to retrieve her father’s ashes. Luke Woods is an American soldier fighting in the jungles of Myanmar in 1944. Number Four, the name of a Korean “comfort woman,” is waiting on the Hangang Bridge (in Seoul in 1950) for the father of her daughter to return. Jesus is the throughline of all of the stories as he moves and mediates with the characters in each setting and at times, all of the settings at once. The audience is introduced to each story, and by the end, we discover the truth: Luke Woods and Number Four are the parents of Ana Woods. Viewers learn the horrors of the war, the devastation of the waiting, and the shock as the daughter learns of it all. While some parts seem unforgivable, and the atrocities of the real history of Korean “Comfort Women” (often left untaught) are unconscionable, Hansol Jung creates and director Ariel Chung ‘21 finds moments of beauty, love, comedy, and tenderness through it all.

I was able to sign up and watch Among The Dead in person as an audience member on opening night. Each night had 12 audience members, with six members spaced out on both sides of the alley-style set design. In addition, there was a sign up link to view the virtual recording of Among the Dead for a four-day period of time. Together, with the small number of audience members, this was this biggest COVID-19 feature of the show — an opportunity to see the performance even if you were not able to make it to the physical theatre building. 

Chung’s direction and the production itself was mesmerizing. Props came from the ceiling; props and costumes changed almost magically on set. It was incredible to see four actors create such vibrant commotion and overwhelming stimulus with just their physicality and voices. I held my breath during high stake moments, cackled at others, and cried at many. As horrific as the story was at times, it was delivered with a nuanced tenderness — a reminder of the humanness of the story and the humanness of the characters — even when their actions were, without a doubt, unconscionable. Though social distancing was observed by both actors and audience members, I felt as though I was within the story, the collective breath in the room moving, gasping, and felt by everyone in the space — actor and audience member alike. 

One element that was particularly powerful was the use of mirrored images within the performance. There were moments when each character, though separated by scenic setting and time period, would interact with the other. For a significant portion of the show, Ana Woods represented her mother, Number Four, as she read her father’s diary. One moment of connection resulted in Jesus and Number Four in 1950 mirroring the actions and words of Luke and Ana (who in that moment was being considered as Number Four in 1944). I find the words as to why this was so impactful and powerful hard to find. Perhaps it was due to the beauty of the moment within the heartbreak of the story. This is just one small example of the incredible work Chung achieved in her direction of this show.

Hannah Cha ‘22 created a captivating and very truthful performance of Ana Woods. She masterfully balanced between two worlds and two roles: as both herself and her mother. Her reactions were truthful and relatable; her character’s confusion as well as moments of deep understanding ebbed and flowed delightfully. She carried the poise and tenacity as her character was handed some remarkably dark truths of her father’s past and served as the catalyst to heal the wounds he inflicted on her mother. It was a job beautifully done.

Spencer Hawkins ‘23 brought to life the depth of Luke Woods. The constant internal conflict was clear: to do what is right or to do what is easy? To stay with the girl or to run home as quickly as possible? To hide away the hurt and to leave behind the past or to own up to his actions and face them? Spencer, without a doubt, brought the tension to his character. Most importantly, he brought the depth to Luke in a manner that I felt nothing but empathy for him, even when his actions seemed to create nothing but betrayal and heartbreak. 

Neil Patel ‘22 truly found the dexterity of Jesus’ role: the chameleon. As the mediator between all three time periods and all three characters, Neil brought a sense of peace, comfort, and at many times, comedy, to the fabric of the show. He created harmony between the worlds and brought the audience to where they needed to go. With incredible physicality, he seemed both grounded and divine, aiding each of the characters as he guided them towards the decisions they must make and the results of those choices they must face. It was truly artful mastery.

Lidan Zhang ‘21 executed the incredibly difficult role of Number Four with extreme grace and emotional depth. As a Korean “comfort woman” who underwent extreme torment, trauma, and violence, Lidan seemed to find a balance between actualizing Number Four’s pain and moving forward with it. It was clear that though she had suffered, she was strong and hope still lived within her. With a stubborn spirit, she was deeply passionate that her faith in others would be greater than anything the world could throw at her, including the explosion of the Hangang Bridge. Lidan created an incredibly powerful and astounding performance. 

This was the first show in a theatre Davidson College has seen since The Cake (directed by Zoe Harrison ‘21) closed last February. While the department has adapted in order to continue creating theatre in the past year with Ubi Orta Pestilentia (the drive-through zombie show directed by Steve Kaliski ‘07) and She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms (the play-turned-film directed by Prof. Mark Sutch), Among the Dead is the first sign of the reemergence of what we knew once before (with all COVID protocols upheld). Engaging in theatre has always been incredibly important. I would argue that engaging in theatre now, during COVID (after nearly a year in this pandemic), is more important than it has ever been. For the actors, it offers an outlet to seek to understand someone’s story and to share it after months of hard, involved, and emotional work — and the shared experience of that work. For the audience, we are offered an opportunity to renew our capacity for emotional empathy (with all that has happened it seems easy to go numb). We have a space in which to cry and laugh, and we get to enjoy art, be inspired to create change, and be moved by the experiences of others. 

Among the Dead without a doubt achieved all of this and more. I tip my hat to every single person who brought this immensely moving and impactful production to life. It was a job incredibly well done. Brava!

Clare Harbin ‘23 (she/her) is a Theatre and Religious Studies double major from Portsmouth, VA. She can be reached for comment at clharbin@davidson.edu.  

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