As Sue Jin Song’s one-woman show begins, we are instantly pulled into an eerily lit forest with tall, slender tree trunks. We hear bird and insect sounds. Civilization intrudes with traffic noises and a mix of techno-like beats that swiftly change to what one might assume is traditional Korean music played on a wind instrument. When we meet Sue Jin Song, she channels the first of her show’s many characters, Medea, speaking with an accent, invoking the immigrant, the foreigner, the “other” through this character of the ancient Greek play by Euripides. Called a “barbarian” in her new land, Medea counters: “In my country, I am beautiful.”
Song conjures up Medea’s story to weave it like the thread of the Fates through the lives of two Korean-American sisters, Cynthia and Julianne. Cynthia is a diligent seventeen-year-old on the verge of graduating high school. Julianne, her vivacious sister is only ten, and perplexed by the adult world. The girls’ mother disappeared a few years ago leaving them with an emotionally unavailable, hard-working father. The mother’s disappearance remains shrouded in silence. In fact, silence and stoicism pervade Cynthia’s complicated relationship with her father. She cannot talk to him about anything and so, she tells us, her mind wanders. It travels to places, it turns her into Wonderland characters like Alice, the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, but also into Peter Pan, and of course, Medea, the ultimate dysfunctional mother.
Song switches from character to character with nimble, acrobatic, chameleonic skill: words, accents, intonation, body language, and gestures play out like a finely tuned chamber orchestra that highlights each of its instruments’ capabilities with clarity and agility. The lighting and sound design changes accompanying Song’s metamorphoses deserve praise for their impeccable timing and coordination with each transformation of character, idea, and imaginary—or real—universe.
At the center of it all is the writing itself. Song’s performance can take our breath away but let us not forget that she is also the playwright of this 75-minute monologue. Her use of language is extraordinary, colored by idiomatic expressions, accents, dialects, and age-specific talk. She gets the ancient Medea to sound like a contemporary woman without transforming her into a caricature. It is easy to condemn Medea for her crimes, yet Song’s words draw us in to sympathize with her situation. After giving everything to the man who deceived her, Medea ponders how she is scorned for wanting to be an independent woman, not defined by men. Which is how Euripides portrayed her. In the ancient play, Medea’s initial monologue reveals a wise and realistic being who fully understands the conditions of being a woman, and a foreigner, attached to a husband who has abandoned her. Still, Song’s mission for her Medea isn’t solely to communicate the betrayed-woman situation. It’s to transmit the feelings of being treated like an outsider, which would resonate with any immigrant today.
This is how Song builds bridges between the ancient and the modern, between fairy tale and reality. She glides back and forth across boundaries between fiction and truth: from Medea and Alice to the real-life challenges that immigrants face. She tackles the anxieties that immigrant children have to deal with as they are catapulted into a maze of standardized academic tests and encouraged to fit into predominantly white expectations of behavior. “You will conform,” Cynthia is told, and she and her alter egos share it all with us, injecting humor throughout. The Alice in Wonderland inside her is growing up fast and notices herself disappearing. But it is Cynthia’s inner child, once loved and nurtured by a mother, who is, in fact, disappearing. She is mutating into another being, struggling to leave the Wonderland wanderings behind as they often collide with her fears and her wounds, and become nightmarish.
The two sisters’ relationship, at once tender and argumentative, is shared with us mainly through Julianne’s eyes. Julianne is puzzled by the daytime serious Cynthia and likes her most at night when she gets playful. The dynamics between the two sisters take us on an emotional roller coaster ride that culminates in evoking a powerful past interaction between Cynthia and their mother, in which the roles of the protector and the terrorized are reversed. This particular interaction pulls at the heartstrings, and even more so when it reoccurs between the two sisters at the end. And, oh, does the ending pack a punch! No spoilers here. Which is why I will simply conclude with an enthusiastic recommendation to check out Sue Jin Song’s riveting theatrical feat, directed with precision and fluidity by Allison Arkell Stockman.
Constellation Theatre presents Children of Medea, written and performed by Sue Jin Song, filmed at CulturalDC’s Source Theatre on April 17, 2021.
On-Demand Streaming on the Constellation Theatre website available April 27 – May 16
Photos of Sue Jin Song in “Children of Medea” by DJ Corey Photography