Over 200,000 women from across Asia were conscripted into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in WW2. They were euphemistically described as “comfort women”. In 2009 playwright Diana Tso met some of the survivors, heard their stories and wrote a play based on their testimony. The result was Comfort, currently playing at the Aki Studio in a production directed by William Yong with music by Constantin Caravassilis.
It’s a play of two halves. The first half sets up the story of Li Dan Feng who is in rebellion against her bourgeois parents’ wishes to set her up in a respectable arranged marriage. She wants to fight the Japanese and eventually runs away to Shanghai pursued by her would be lover the fisherman Zhou Ping Yang. The ostensibly simple story is enhanced by the interventions, in magic realist style of Zhou Ping Yang’s cormorant, brilliantly played by Oliver Koomsatira. There are also important musical contributions by Vania Chan, playing an opera singer.
The second half is set in a Japanese army brothel. Far from fighting the Japanese Li Dan Feng has been conscripted as a comfort woman. Her story, that of two other girls and the old woman who runs the house are told against a back drop of extreme brutality. Zhou Ping Yang shows up as a servant. Timothy Ng has morphed from Li Dan Feng’s father to a callously sadistic Japanese officer. It’s not easy watching. There is little light in the darkness, though the ending hints at some sort of redemption. It’s also perhaps a bit long. Tso wants to tell the stories of course but there is only so much unrelieved horror one can sit through without becoming a bit mentally numb.
Sets and lighting are simple but effective. The story telling is direct and largely unembellished and the cast respect that. It’s a strong ensemble with excellent performances from Vicki Kim and Jeff Yung as the lovers. Vania Chan is very effective as the Old Woman; a role so different from the sort of operetta roles I’ve seen her in before. Jen Hum and Phoebe Hu are the two other girls. Koomsatira reappears as a downtrodden soldier foil to Ng’s strutting officer. Caravassilis’ music is atmospheric and evocatively played by a trio of Patty Chan on erhu, Cathy Nosaty on accordion and piano and percussionist Brandon Valdivia.
So, it’s an important story. The horrors of Japan’s Asian war are too little known in the West, being largely buried in popular culture under derring do versions of the US role in the Pacific. The comfort women are an important part of that story and one that successive post-war Japanese governments have tried to suppress. Tso deserves great credit for shining some light into a dark place. Comfort isn’t a fun evening but it’s well worth seeing. It runs at the Aki Studio until December 10th.