U-M's "You for Me for You" is a surreal, sensitive take on immigration


You for Me for You cast photo

U-M students Levana Wang (left) as Junhee and Amanda Kuo as Minheein You for Me for You by playwright Mia Chung. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Time, space, and matters of the heart converge in Mia Chung’s surreal drama You for Me for You.

Chung’s 2012 play hits on two red-hot topics -- immigration and the tension between North Korea and the United States -- in a story of two loving sisters who become separated in time and space.

You for Me for You will be presented Feb. 15-18 by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Director Priscilla Lindsay, professor and chair of the Theater and Drama Department, saw the play at the National Theater Conference in New York in 2016. Chung was being given an award at the conference and a scene from her play was presented.

“I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Lindsay said.

The cast members gathered in a semi-circle at a rehearsal studio to discuss the play’s themes and Chung’s unusual approach in telling the story of two North Korean sisters, Junhee and Minhee. The sisters attempt a daring escape from their politically isolated and oppressive country. Junhee makes the leap and finds her way to the United States. Minhee is left behind in a deep well, haunted by surreal visions.

“The show follows two sisters from North Korea, and while they both are separating to different places, they are both discovering the truth of where they are going,” said Sam Hamashima, who plays several roles in the play. “I think Minhee is discovering the truth about North Korea, while Junhee is discovering the truth about America. I think that’s what the whole piece is about.”

Neither the United States nor North Korea is spared Chung’s biting take on the two cultures.

“Juxtaposing the two cultures, they reflect the eccentricities of both,” said Christian Scillian, who has two roles in the play. She said the play is “about embracing people for who they are rather than what country they occupy.”

Minhee’s terror-filled time in the well is full of strange events, surreal moments that reflect the trouble and fear she’s experienced.

“I see Minhee’s journey in the well as reliving her journey in her dreams,” said Amanda Kuo, who plays Minhee. “It’s a journey of knowing the trauma that she hasn’t processed, either on her own emotionally or by the fact that she can’t because she’s been oppressed by her government and society. Minhee’s character, even though she is in a crazy, surrealistic world, full of surreal experiences ... you see this scared, oppressed woman, who has a lot of ideas of the world she’s never seen before.”

Her visions are a wonderland with a talking bear, trees that move and invading, attacking frogs.

“I think what we need as Americans, and this is a generalization, is not to think that North Korea is this fantastical, this bizarre and distant place,” Kuo said.

In the back corner of the studio, large, bright green and yellow frogs hang on puppet strings, part of the otherworld that Minhee experiences. U-M student Sarah McNamara designed all the puppets for the show.

“I am pretty sure that in other productions of this play they dressed actors up as frogs and dressed an actor as a bear,” said Lindsay.

During the university’s bicentennial celebration the drama department told the history of the Huron River, Ann Arbor, and the university with puppets: an undulating blue river, a great blue heron, and a giant frog.

“My prop artisan, Patrick Drone, said how about making smaller frogs and [McNamara] designed 12 small ones on strings as marionettes to go with the large one,” she said.

When the play’s run is over, the puppets will be donated to the Mott Children’s Hospital.

“It’s a play that uses your imagination. We have lots of props that are worn as well as carried on stage and placed. We invite the audience into this world that we are creating, juxtaposing America and North Korea, or a unique version of North Korea,” said Lindsay.

Junhee finds herself in another crazy place, urban America.

Mallory Avnet plays Liz, Junhee’s first “guide” to American culture. Though she plays Liz, she represents a series of different women and she wears her props, representing different aspects of Junhee’s new and confusing home. Chung uses an interesting approach to the language barrier, by letting the audience hear English words from Junhee’s perspective.

“Junhee, obviously, doesn’t know English, so everything that I say is gibberish that Junhee doesn’t understand, “ said Avnet.

As Junhee learns the language, it is no longer gibberish for her or the audience.

“Junhee and Liz are always together and she gets a sense of what America is from my character and she’s getting all these false ideas and once she meets Wade, who is much nicer, they can understand each other and Liz disappears, you don’t see her anymore. She doesn’t need her anymore,” Avnet said.

Miquel Aviles-Elrod plays Wade. The relationship is loving and trusting but not without contentions.

“Junhee meets Wade at a baseball game and she brings preconceived notions about America defined by her politics and what she sees America is doing to other countries, seeing how in a way Americans can be brainwashed in how we view North Koreans,” Aviles-Elrod said. “She offers a very interesting take, where she makes very valid points, but Wade goes back and says I don’t think you understand, and she’s like I do understand, you’re just not listening to me.”

Levana Wang plays Junhee, who escaped to the promise of freedom in America but misses her troubled homeland.

“I think how this works in America and this is how that works in America and I get to find my own discoveries as I develop my own ideas,” Wang said. “As I discover more about this world I kind of feel so empty inside from it, too. I don’t have my sister with me, who has always been there for me and there’s this feeling of that emptiness. I think that though she has so much going for her. She has Wade who treats her like a princess and other outside friends at this point, but she chooses to go back.”

In addition to surreal visions, Chung plays with time and speed.

“Looking back at the scenes that Minhee has in North Korea or in the well and Junhee in America and there is this a comparison of speed and time,” said Amanda Kuo. “Even though Minhee is only in the well for a single day and Junhee is in America for a year, in the end, they are in the same spot where they left off.”

Kuo said the play’s meaning is found in a parable at the beginning of the play.

“This is a beautiful description in the beginning of the play that goes something like this, that if you were a frog stuck in a well and the only thing you see is the circle at the top, then that is the whole world to that frog,” Kuo said. “I think this play is about thinking for yourself beyond what is given to see, questioning you needs, questioning authorities, questioning your beliefs. The thing that grounds this play is family as two sisters push each other to do things beyond what they can imagine and accomplishing and surviving so much and that’s what the immigrant story is: They question, 'Do I want to do more? Do I want to break out of this well?' They are able to discover so much more.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Department of Theatre & Drama’s production of “You for Me for You” by Mia Chung, presented in collaboration with the U-M Nam Center for Korean Studies, plays February 15-18, 2018 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in Ann Arbor. Visit smtd.umich.edu for tickets and more information.