Francis Turnly Revives North Korean & Japanese Betrayals
by Barry David Horwitz
Like the Greeks and Elizabethans, modern playwrights have found a voice to examine national secrets through story-telling. “The Great Wave” breaks the news of historical betrayals that our “leaders” kept hidden from us.
Governments rise and fall but their Big Lies can surface in dramas, later. At last, we can see how North Korea abducted innocent Japanese people and Japanese officials dodged the facts for years.
Starting in 1979, North Korean soldiers began secretly kidnapping Japanese citizens from the Northern coast of Japan. At night, North Korean military landed and grabbed women, men, couples—anyone they found along hundreds of miles of coast, for years. Their disappearance was a great mystery in Japan.
All of the victims’ struggles, suffering, and isolation are packed into director Mark Wing-Davey’s spectacular production of Francis Turnly’s historical drama with style and flair. The shocking story of a mother, Etsuko (gripping Sharon Omi), who loses one of her daughters, is told in alternating scenes between her modest apt in a Japanese coastal town, and the torture and re-training of Hanoko (multi-talented Jo Mei) in a North Korean prison.
While Hanako is trapped in North Korea, across the sea, her mother, Etsuko, keeps looking for her over decades. Quiet Etsuko sends off bottles with messages and sends lanterns aloft, to find her missing teenage daughter. Director Wing-Davey unifies spectacular visual effects with a restrained acting style, combining spectacle with understated emotion. Video Designer Tara Knight has created giant moving artworks, with falling water drops and heart-stirring waves that flood over us.
In North Korea, captured Hanako is forced to train a spy, Jung Sun (inventive Cindy Im), to pass as Japanese. Under the sharp tutelage of Korean spymaster Jiro (irreverent Paul Nakauchi), the Japanese prisoner trains the Korean double-agent. It’s fascinating to watch Hanako’s adaptation to the absolute dictatorship of Kim-Il sung.
Hunako’s studious older sister Reiko (engaging, witty Yurié Collins) blames herself for losing her sister. And her boyfriend Tetsuo (crafty, versatile Julian Cihi) who was there that night, also takes on blame. Tetsuo’s family loses their livelihood under the police accusations. But disgraced Tetsuo does something about it—he researches disappearances from Japanese beaches, until he uncovers the deeply hidden secrets. After fighting his way back into the estranged family, Tetsuo, Etsuko, and Reiko become an inspiring investigative team.
They go up against an up-tight Japanese diplomat (elegant Paul Huhn), who trims the bonzai on his desk while he coolly dismisses their pleas. But some Japanese families do remember. They fight their own government for years to expose the North Korean kidnappings.
Their story only comes out decades later—if we remember these people at all. Now, Turnly and Wing-Davey have given us the complete history onstage. We see how two nations have played with individual lives as mere pawns. “The Great Wave” is a history play that reveals secrets about spies, diplomats, and manipulation—in the persistence the mother, the sisters, and the young journalist.
While the subdued acting style, contrasting with epic staging, may seem odd to Western tastes, something special is happening at Berkeley Rep. By the end, emotion swells, the wave recedes, and we are profoundly moved. “The Great Wave” leaves a symphony of art, thrills, and history, beautifully realized in a unique spectacular style. We are transported to lost times and places, putting us on guard against Big Lies.
“The Great Wave” by Francis Turnly, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, through Sunday, October 27, 2019. Info: berkeleyrep.org
Cast: Julian Cihi, Yurié Collins, Stephen Hu, Cindy Im, Paul Juhn, Jo Mei, Paul Nakauchi, Grace Chan Ng, Sharon Omi, and David Shih.
Banner photo: Paul Juhn (Official), Cindy Im (Soldier Two), and Jo Mei (Hanako).