Toilet People: Representing Struggles of North Korean Refugees on Stage

I found the flyer by chance (after a meeting for our then upcoming symposium “Pansori in Europe”) at the Korean Culture Center in Berlin. Playwright Lee Yeo-Jin (이여진) would present and talk about her recent work Toilet People (토일릿 피플, 2015).

I hadn’t seen anything from her, but the announcement by Dr. Holmer Brochlos (my first Korean teacher at Freie Universität), who hosted the evening, sounded promising: In her works, Lee Yeo-Jin combines satirical and phantastic elements to address current issues in Korea.

Toilet People is about a group of refugees from North Korea, now resettled in the South. The play focuses on continuing discussions between the head-doctor of a counselling center for traumatised refugees and a politician, the former applying for government funding for what seems to be a good cause. At the Cultural Center, several students of FU, scattered around the auditorium (filled to the last seat!), presented a reading of the first scenes. With the doctor and the politician interpreting, questioning, and finally denying the stories told by the refugees (who pop up and re-tell their tales), it soon becomes clear that the refugees – all called “Hann” (한결, i.e. “united as one” in the original) – are pawns in larger games but also have their own agenda.

Premiere of Toilet People (Arko Arts Theater, February–March 2016)

Opening the following debate, Lee Yeo-jin expressed her intentions to shine a light on the ambivalent reactions in South Korean society to the increasing number of refugees from the North of the peninsula. Nominally members of the same people, the variety of terms (e.g. 탈민자, 새토민, 피난자), each with their own connotations, show the ambivalent reception of the “Brothers and Sisters in the North” (thus the title of Cho Sung-Hyung’s (조성형, homepage) latest documentary film that is well aware of the ambiguity in these inter-Korean family relations).

In the course of the Q&A it became clear that Lee had not conducted interviews with refugees herself. Nevertheless, her work seems to be research-based. She directly references, among others, German doctor and refugee activist Dr. Flaschen, who suggests in a Wall Street Journal-article to send radios to the North in order to provoke collective rebellion through education. In the play, multifunctional lavatories serve a similar function, a technological means to “safe” North Koreans. (I couldn’t find any reference to Dr. Flaschen, though.)

A lively discussion followed Lee’s explanations, ranging from comparisons with East-West-German relations (Brochlos noted that communication across the “wall” was much easier), the universal fact of refugees being used for others’ causes, and the perspective of young Koreans vis-à-vis North Koreans at their school or university. One attendant brought up her unease and wondered whether she should treat North Korean refugees like children of “multicultural families” (다문화 가정, usually referring to Korean men who married women from South-East-Asian countries).

Lee Yeo-jin also compared the struggles of North Korean refugees in South Korean society with the challenges on the competitive job market that all young Koreans face, suggesting that the situation of refugees may serve as a metaphor for the general precarity of Koreans today. But wouldn’t that reading amount to an exploitation of refugees’ suffering, once again for a seemingly “good cause”, to make a point on stage?

Revival of Toilet People (Sogang University, Mary Hall, June–July 2017)

Another interesting question concerned casting choices: Were “real” North Koreans considered as actors? Toilet People is right now on show in Seoul. In the production by ensemble “Little Legend” (극단 작은신화, on Facebook) that premiered last year at ARKO Arts Theater (2016.2.25–3.13) and is shown again at Sogang University’s Mary Hall (“currently” at the time of writing, 2017.6.29–7.9), the refugee roles are played by (South Korean) actors who have practiced “North Korean dialect” (Lee wasn’t sure if she could say it like that, but I suppose she meant dialects of provinces located in the North).

Of course, the mere fact of putting (fictional) refugees on stage implies problems of representation, which are also tackled, for example, by German theatre productions that are about and/or involve refugees. (See the short bibliography below.)

Looking forward to see Lee Yeo-jin’s Toilet People on stage, whether in Korea or in Germany, where an English-language reading took place at art space Non Berlin earlier this month… A full-fledged production in German might be a timely intervention into one of the most daring problems German society is dealing with right now.

As a preview, the following video trailer from 2016 must sufffice:

— 5 July 2017 (수)

Further reading on theatre facing the current “refugee crisis” in Germany, in chronological order:

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About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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