The Poetry of the DMZ


Pojagi—rectangular pieces of cloth used to wrap and carry things—are first mentioned in Ping Chong’s lyrical meditation on Korea in a passage referring to the Japanese invasion of 1592. Women, we’re told, filled pojagi with stones “and threw them off cliffs at the enemy.”

Like much in the elegant hour-long performance, the image echoes ideas that have already been established and foreshadows others that are to come, quietly turning them in complicated new directions. When we see a woman walking silently in upstage shadows, hauling a large bundle atop her head, we can hardly write her off as a sentimental icon of peasant simplicity nor deride her as an Orientalist emblem of feminine passivity—stereotypes that the performance both wryly engages and smartly rejects. That bulging bundle, after all, might very well contain the weapons of resistance.

The fourth installment in Chong’s series exploring relations between East and West (earlier works considered Japan, China, and Vietnam), Pojagi combines found text, traditional Korean and minimalist choreography, and a thrilling wraparound sound score by Brian Hallas in an impressionistic journey through Korean history. Though it proceeds chronologically, from sea-tossed Europeans lighting on the “desert island” and encountering men “clad after the Chinese fashion,” to recent recollections of elderly South Koreans reuniting with relatives from the North, Pojagi is more prismatic than narrative, presenting facets of the peninsula’s life from a range of shifting perspectives.

The elegant setting (designed by Watoku Ueno) features a long, transparent box of a table along the downstage edge of the playing space. Like the Pacific Ocean dividing East from West, and, later, like the DMZ dividing North from South, it separates the two central performers, Esther K. Chae and C.S. Lee. Sitting on either side, these astonishingly synchronized actors recite documentary text and enact gorgeous dances of fluid but angular gestures to depict symbolic and historic events: the legendary she-bear transforming into a woman; the 1895 assassination of Queen Min during the Japanese annexation; the arrogant claims of Korea’s slave-owning, pipe-sucking Yangban class; the 19th-century decree by the U.S. Navy declaring the Pacific the “ocean bride of America.”

Meanwhile, a third performer, Shin Young Lee, paces gracefully in distant chiaroscuro, sometimes chanting ethereally, sometimes venturing down to the table, where she arranges plastic triangles atop the luminescent surface: She makes refashioning a mountainous landscape look as arbitrary as declaring the 38th Parallel a national border.

By performance’s end, that surface comes to represent all the bizarre and tragic contradictions of separation. Though named the Demilitarized Zone, the belt of land dividing the two Koreas couldn’t be more militarized, with its 1.5 million troops. Yet, as rapturous text describes, the ban on civilian habitation of the area has turned it into one of the world’s most verdant wildlife sanctuaries. At the same time, the border village of Panmunjon has opened as a creepy Cold War theme park where visitors are reminded both to desist from snapping photos and to take cover in the event of attack.

The stark elegance of Chong’s staging, along with plenty of self-conscious humor, keeps Pojagi far from the flatness of a history lesson or from the righteousness of an elegiac pageant. He fashions a poetic vision of the past’s pull on the present that doesn’t try to offer scholarly explanations or analyses, but that beautifully awakens an open-hearted and, indeed, intellectual concern.

West encounters East with considerably less reward in Israela Margalit’s clichéd melodrama Night Blooming Jasmine. The hackneyed plot follows the burgeoning romance between a Jewish Israeli man and a Palestinian Israeli woman. It doesn’t work out.

Shifting between scenes among the man’s family in the Jewish settlement of Kadima and among the woman’s family in the nearby Arab town of El Riyad (both families are performed by the same group of actors), the play mechanically sets forth stereotypical exemplars of a range of local political views: On the Jewish side, there’s the dismissible old hard-liner who wants to wipe ’em all out, the pro-compromise folks whose professed respect for Arabs vanishes when their son wants to marry one, the young apolitical draftees who become bellicose when they have Uzis in hand, and the Moroccan youth who holds forth about the second-class status of Israel’s mizrachi Jews.

The Arab family is even less complex: The father is peace-loving and almost modern, the lovestruck daughter independent, and the son, of course, a terrorist.

Gamely directed by Jeremy Dobrish, an excellent cast—featuring Ian Kahn, Frances Aronson, Thom Christopher, and Pierre Epstein—is wasted on the material. The play trundles like a bus on one of Israel’s pitted highways through clumsy exposition, bad jokes, and obvious plot twists. Sure, the point of view offered is the most self-aggrandizing sort of liberal Zionism. But Night Blooming Jasmine‘s less forgivable sins are dramaturgical.

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