“Do It For Umma” reinvents Hamlet as a young, Korean-American heroine

Ina Chang (Umma) and Skye Stephenson (Hannah) star in "Do It For Umma." (Photo by Ian Johnston of Dangerpants Photography)
Ina Chang (Umma) and Skye Stephenson (Hannah) star in “Do It For Umma.” (Photo by Ian Johnston/Dangerpants Photography)

If you love Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and love Korean dramas, “Do It For Umma” —  a tragicomedy by Seayoung Yim — will fulfill all of your murder mystery, familial clashing and scandalous love cravings. The play debuts tonight at The Annex Theatre. 

In October 2014, Yim was inspired to put a new spin on “Hamlet” after a playwriting class with Seattle-based playwright Stephanie Timm. Timm encouraged Yim to step away from traditional, male-dominant, Elizabethan plays to write an original revenge tragedy with female roles. Her prompt was the perfect hook for Yim to combine modern feminist ideas with her desire to write more about Korean people.

Taking place at a suburban strip mall, “Do it for Umma” is a play based on protagonist Hannah, a 20-something-year-old, Korean-American female version of Hamlet.

The ghost of Hannah’s recently deceased mother, Umma, returns to haunt the Korean convenience store she once ran and deemed her kingdom. Hannah strives to gain her mother’s approval by taking on the responsibility of piecing together clues to have “bok soo” (or revenge) on her Umma’s murderer.

Even though Umma constantly shames and cajoles her daughter, and Hannah resents her for this, all Hannah really  desires is her mother’s approval. This is the Korean-American daughter in her that really sets her apart from Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s character. 

Maggie Lee (Mrs. Yi) and Jason (Christian Ver) behind the screen during a weekend dress rehearsal at The Annex Theatre a few days before the "Do It For Umma" premiere.
Maggie Lee (Mrs. Yi) and Jason (Christian Ver) behind the screen during a weekend dress rehearsal at The Annex Theatre a few days before the “Do It For Umma” premiere. (Photo by Esther Yun)

The dynamics between each character — mother and daughter, mother and son, sister and brother, mother and neighbor — were spot-on and placed perfectly on the hierarchy of Korean culture.

Umma is the typical Asian parent who nags her daughter about studying and dieting, while constantly bringing up how difficult and traumatic her childhood was. She works seven days a week at her convenience store and expresses her love through self-sacrifice.

Meanwhile, her daughter Hannah is bitter from her seemingly wasted efforts of trying to make her mom proud, and believes her mom loves her older brother more just because he is a boy and went to college.

Yim drew on her personal experiences of growing up as a Korean American through the difficulties, misunderstandings and pressures portrayed in the relationship between a second-generation daughter and first-generation mom.

“The norm in Korea is different from what you experience in America,” said Yim. “As a child, you still have some degree of power because you know the language of the mainstream culture, while your parents don’t.”

The Korean customs of respecting and obeying elders without any questions become blurred when living in America: a context in which your immigrant parents depend on you to assist and translate for them starting from a young age.

From left to right in the background, Laura Dux, Corrinne Magin, and Anna Saephan as the chorus of "ajummas." Holding hands in the foreground from left to right are Maggie Lee (Mrs. Yi) and Christian Ver (Jason). (Photo by Ian Johnston/Dangerpants Photography)
From left to right in the background, Laura Dux, Corrinne Magin, and Anna Saephan as the chorus of “ajummas.” Holding hands in the foreground from left to right are Maggie Lee (Mrs. Yi) and Christian Ver (Jason). (Photo by Esther Yun)

Sara Porkalob, the show’s director, said she had good chemistry working with Yim because of their shared experiences being Asian women with immigrant mothers. 

Porkalob said her biggest takeaway from directing this play came from being able to perform for people of color, women of color and other minorities.

Doing a culturally-specific play like this doesn’t mean that it’s not an American play, so the way I present it with the mostly American audience means that I don’t need to apologize, or I don’t have to explain the Asianness or the Koreanness behind this show,” said Porkalob. “I don’t have to compensate in that way to my audience. I can be unapologetic to the choices I make to cultural specificity.

This play also comically weaves in the Korean language,  as well as stereotypes, traditions, myths and values. Ignoring the fact the non-Korean speaking American audience won’t understand many of the Korean words adds distinguishing value to this Korean-American, female narrative.

Throughout the play, it seems impossible for Hannah to find common ground with her first-generation mother. However, as she continues to converse with the ghost of Umma and shares her true feelings, she is able to realize the importance of family and how her mother’s expression of love was different from hers. And it was only after Umma verbally expressed her feelings, Hannah was able to understand her mother’s true heart.

“There’s so many different ways to show love. We only see one way if we grow up here [in America]: You talk about it or you say it,” Yim explained. “That’s what I touch on in the play: Umma doesn’t have to say ‘I love you,’ but her way of expressing it is, ‘I sacrificed my life for you.’ That’s love.

“Do It For Umma” will be shown at Annex Theatre from Feb. 2 through Feb. 17 (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) at 7:30 p.m. Learn more and buy tickets at www.annextheatre.org.  

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