The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Sister Mok-rahn, written by Eunsung Kim and translated by Dayoung Jeong, the first full English-language production of this acclaimed, contemporary play from Korea. The play is a story of separation, like the divided North and South Koreas, through the perspective of a North Korean defector. The production is directed by visiting artist Seonjae Kim with visiting costume designer Hahnji Jang and visiting sound designer Fan Zhang. The production is the collaborative senior project of Jenny Kim, who is designing the set and lighting and serving as dramaturg; Carol Lee, who is featured in the lead role; and Hannah Semmelhack, who is stage manager, and is co-produced with the student group East West Theater. Performances are on February 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22 at 8:00 p.m. in the Wallace Theater at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton University campus. An exhibition and talkback conversations are scheduled in conjunction with the production. The production coincides and is in collaboration with the annual intercollegiate Princeton for North Korean Human Rights (PNKHR) conference being held on the Princeton campus on February 22.
Sister Mok-rahn follows the ordeals and relationships of North Korean defector Jo Mok-rahn, an accomplished accordion player from a wealthy family in Pyongyang. She seeks to return to North Korea to reunite with her parents. To raise funds for this trip, Mok-rahn becomes a caretaker for Huh Tae-sahn, an unemployed history scholar, who is suffering from depression over his recent romantic breakup. In addition to Tae-sahn, Mok-rahn becomes entangled with his mother Jo Dae-jah, who runs a brothel to earn money to raise her children; his younger brother Huh Tae-gahng, a philosophy professor facing the imminent loss of his job; and his sister Huh Tae-yang, a novelist-turned-film writer. As Mok-rahn tries to navigate her way through South Korean culture and capitalism, a romance develops under unexpected circumstances, and desires and ideologies clash.
The play premiered at Doosan Art Center Space111 in Seoul, Korea on March 9, 2012, and has been produced a number of times in South Korea. In May 2017, the English translation by Jeong was given a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City as part of the PEN World Voices: International Play Festival.
Princeton seniors Jenny Kim, Carol Lee, and Hannah Semmelhack proposed the production as their senior thesis in Princeton’s Program in Theater and in collaboration with East West Theater.
Kim, who is from Daejeon, South Korea, is majoring in comparative literature while pursuing certificates in theater, music theater, East Asian studies, and computer science. She had been interested in theater and had attended a lot of theater before coming to Princeton, but did not have the opportunity to participate in theater-making in the small international high school she attended. She knew she wanted to pursue the behind-the-scenes aspects of theater in college and found those opportunities upon arriving at Princeton. Initially she worked with the student groups Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players, where a robust group of designers inspired her to further pursue theatrical design. She took a lighting design class with Jane Cox, Director of the Program in Theater and a professional lighting designer. Kim has done sound design for Lewis Center productions of Intimate Apparel, Fun Home, and Next to Normal, lighting design for The Odyssey, Turning Inward, and Water Play, was assistant lighting designer for the first production of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gurls, served as assistant stage manager and audio engineer for Trailing Rhiannon, and worked as sound crew for Mad Dreams and We Were Everywhere. Sister Mok-rahn is her first endeavor into set design and dramaturgy.
Lee, a psychology major and theater certificate student from Los Angeles, had not participated in theater before coming to Princeton. During her first year, a friend who was passionate about the representation of Asian Americans on stage and was involved with East West Theater, asked her to participate in a casual reading of a Princeton alumnus’ new work, where a Theatre Intime member in the audience encouraged her to go further and audition for the Student Playwrights Festival. The Festival was Lee’s first experience with theater performance and, coincidentally, Kim’s first experience as a lighting designer. Through this foray, Lee found a love for theater and a would-be collaborator. In addition to other shows with Theatre Intime, where she has also served on the board, Lee has performed in various productions with the Lewis Center, Princeton University Players, East West Theater, Princeton Summer Theater, and indie film projects, and now regularly performs on campus in a number of shows each year.
Kim discovered the translated script of Sister Mok-rahn through a course assignment writing about Korean theater and representations of Korean people and culture in America, finding that there was little literature written in Korean and translated to English. She found the story of Sister Mok-rahn compelling with its female protagonist, the multi-dimensional presentation of the characters, and the issues particular to the Korean Peninsula addressed in the plot. She thought it would make a good proposal for her senior thesis work in both the Program in Theater and in the Department of Comparative Literature.
Kim and Lee had shared the experience of seeing the Lewis Center’s production of Lloyd Suh’s play Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery as first-year students, and both were gratified by the very authentic, non-stereotypical Asian identity represented on stage. Kim immediately thought about Lee performing the lead role in her proposal to produce Sister Mok-rahn, also recalling how the two had shared the experience during their sophomore year of watching livestream coverage of North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shaking hands during the April 2018 inter-Korea summit. In August, Kim traveled to Seoul with a few other Princeton students and conducted research for the production.
Semmelhack, a major in the Department of Classics and pursuing certificates in theater and music theater, joined the project. She has stage managed a number of Lewis Center productions, including The Odyssey, Intimate Apparel and Trailing Rhiannon, and served as a mentor to rising student stage managers. She has also designed lighting for a production of Letters and Dreams. Semmelhack has served as a production manager for the student group Theatre Intime, stage managed productions with the student theater and dance groups Princeton Shakespeare Company, Princeton University Players, Theatre Intime, and BodyHype, and served as executive director of the pre-professional Princeton Summer Theater in 2018 and 2019.
It was important for the seniors, as well as Cox, to involve other female Asian artists in leading this production. Professional theater director Seonjae Kim was invited to direct; she had directed the reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Guest artists Hahnji Jang and Fan Zhang were engaged as costume designer and sound designer, respectively. The script that the cast and production team have been working with presents the play with the Korean text alongside Jeong’s translated English text. Jeong has continued to refine the translation throughout the Lewis Center production’s rehearsal process.
Focusing a spotlight on translation is an important goal of bringing Sister Mok-rahn to the stage, and is a central aspect of an exhibition that will be on display from February 10 through 22 in the CoLab at the Lewis Arts complex. Entitled Paintings of the Tongue: Picturing Reality in North Korea through the Stories of Defectors, the exhibition provides a brief introduction to the intricate histories and current states of North and South Korea, illustrates the limitations of linguistic translation, and features the voices of North Korea defectors. The exhibition seeks to provide a multi-sensory experience for viewers through mixed-media installations, and features photography by Princeton students. The exhibition is curated by sophomore Cameron Lee with associate curator junior Anoushka Mariwala and exhibition coordinator Jenny Kim. The exhibition will be open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
The project team is also interested in generating dialogue around the themes of the production, and talkback discussions will follow three of the performances moderated by East West Theater: on February 15 with director Seonjae Kim and translator Dayoung Jeong; on February 20 with the director, Jenny Kim and Carol Lee; and on February 21 with Dan Chung, senior analyst and founder of Crossing Borders, an organization that helps North Korean refugees and their children living in China, and Ken Eom, a North Korean defector, both of whom are speakers the following day at the PNKHR conference. On February 15, Jeong will provide a workshop for Princeton students, “Portraying the Other on Stage Through Translation,” sharing some of the challenges that she faced in translating Sister Mok-rahn. The talkbacks and workshop are cosponsored by Princeton’s Campus Conversations on Identities (CCI) Fund.
The PNKHR conference convenes each year at Princeton, attracting attendees from colleges throughout the U.S. This year’s conference is entitled “Façade: Unmasking the North Korean Story.” Other speakers scheduled to appear are Evans Revere, an American diplomat and a top State Department Asia expert with extensive experience in negotiations with North Korea, and David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International.
The rest of the student cast of Sister Mok-rahn includes senior Carl Sun; juniors Minjae Kim, who is also assistant fight choreographer, Jason Kong, and Hannah Wang; sophomores Megan Pan, Jonathan Som, and Grace Zhao, who also serves as music director; and first-year student Ryuki Nakayama. Professional artist Rocio Mendez serves as fight and intimacy choreographer. Other students on the production team include sophomore Kaylin Xu as props manager, first-year students Rakesh Potluri as assistant lighting designer and Angelica Qin as assistant stage manager.
A number of faculty and guest artists are serving as advisors on the project, including Michael Cadden as dramaturgy advisor, Brian Herrera as literary advisor, Tess James as lighting advisor, Peter Kim as acting advisor, Lawrence Moten as scenic advisor, and Alex Volckhausen as project consultant.
The Wallace Theater is an accessible venue with details available at https://arts.princeton.edu/about/contact/accessibility/. Assistive listening devices are available upon request when attending a performance. Patrons in need of other access accommodations are invited to contact the Lewis Center at 609-258-5262 or LewisCtr-Comm@princeton.edu for assistance at least two weeks prior to the selected performance.
Tickets are $12 in advance of show dates, $10 for students; $17 purchased the day of performances, and are available through University Ticketing at tickets.princeton.edu. Advance ticket reservations are recommended.
To learn more about this event, the Program in Theater, and the over 100 performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts, and lectures presented each year at the Lewis Center, most of them free, visit arts.princeton.edu.