Walking along 46th Street on Manhattan’s West Side between 9th and 10th Avenue a sign catches the eye. It says “Comfort Women”. The sign is displayed by the St. Clement’s Episcopal Church which houses what is called an Off Broadway theater, the Theatre at St. Clement’s. The theater for two weeks only, from July 31 through August 9, is presenting “Comfort Women: A New Musical”, created, directed and produced by Dimo Hyun Jun Kim.
Once inside the lobby of the Church there’s a video playing while audience members wait for the theater, which is up a flight of stairs, to open for the performance. The video is of a musical performance presented at the 54 Below Super Club on March 6 to celebrate Korean Independence Day. Cast members sang some of the many vocal numbers from the play.
Finally the theater opens and the audience files in. The top of the stage is framed with different newspapers and articles.
The plot of the musical is straight forward. The play opens in Korea during WWII. This is before Korea is divided. Korea is occupied by the Japanese. In the play, young women are lured with promises of well-paying factory work to sign contracts to take them to supposed factories in Japan. They sign, sad to be leaving home, but hopeful that there will be fame and fortune, or at least well paid factory work, so they can send money back to their families.
The ship they board, however, doesn’t go to Japan. It goes to Indonesia. And its not factory work that awaits the young women but the horror of becoming sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers stationed there. The term “comfort women” was used to mask the terror inflicted on these women.
In the play there is also a Korean soldier in the Japanese regiment. The Korean soldier is abused by one of his Japanese commanders, introducing the issue of Koreans who were made to serve in the Japanese military. The wretched conditions of the women are set against their heroic efforts to care for each other and eventually to try to escape.
One of the comfort women is Dutch, highlighting the fact that the Japanese army also took Dutch prisoners and that there were Dutch women treated to the same gruesome conditions and abuse as were the Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.
The play is a musical, but the subject matter is the sharing of the pain of some of the victims of Japan’s colonial and military past.
The cast does their audience a service presenting this horrific past in a way that recognizes the will of the women to stay human despite the degradation they are subjected to.
As members of the audience leave the theater, they receive a copy of the book, “Can You Hear Us? The Untold Narratives of Comfort Women.” The book contains recent interviews with several women sharing the hard experience they endured during WWII as “comfort women”.
The Director and members of the cast have stressed that they are proud to be presenting this play which endeavors to spread an understanding of and knowledge about this brutal practice of the Japanese military during WWII.
The performance has some weaknesses. But any such problems are secondary to the success of the Director and cast in portraying the horrors of war and the spirit of the women and contributing to the fight for justice for these women.