Datebook: 'Yellow Inn' Offers Universality Beneath The Laughs | WGLT

Datebook: 'Yellow Inn' Offers Universality Beneath The Laughs

Sep 20, 2019

When guests check into the Yellow Inn, they get something other than a bed for the night. They get class warfare and murderous mayhem. 

Illinois State University’s School of Theatre and Dance presents a new translation of the acclaimed South Korean dark comedy, “Yellow Inn.” The play is an allegory about how contemporary society has become too divided. “Yellow Inn” opens Sept. 25 and runs through the 29th at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts. 

The show is directed by Myeongsik Json Jang, a master’s candidate in the School of Theatre and Dance. He invited ISU theatre professor Kee-Yoon Nahm to translate the script by Lee Kang-baek. The timeliness of the play’s theme appealed to Jang. 

“We have so many political problems about race and gender,” Jang said. “But we never thought about our human issues before we started talking about our political issues.” 

Jang admitted that with his initial reading of the play, he found it to be quite funny.  Then he reflected more on it and found a powerful core underneath the dark humor. “That was my directorial idea, to put in the comedy, but there is a strong message that will make people think about our human problems and political problems.” 

And some of those human elements can catch you by surprise, said translator Kee-Yoon Nahm. 

“The play really foregrounds the comedy. It feels like a very funny play that relies a lot on stock character types and ridiculous situations. But then the social issues underlying the play start to show through.” 

In “The Yellow Inn,” the characters repeat a grisly cycle of class warfare every night. By sunrise, everyone ends up dead. But one kind-hearted young woman is determined to break the cycle of bloodshed between the haves and the have-nots. 

When Jang contacted Nahm about working on the play, he told the translator that he was interested in exploring human stupidity. 

“Everyone laughs when they hear that,” Nahm said. “But as we work on the play, we start to see the tragic side of being stuck in this cycle that you can’t break out of, which can seem ridiculous and absurd from the outside, but for the characters who live that reality, it can be terrifying and devastating.”  

“Lee Kang-baek, the playwright, is known in South Korea for writing these allegorical plays that aren’t specifically set in an actual location, which makes them easier to translate because they exist in this kind of abstract no-man's land. But because of that, the situation that these characters feel trapped in feel very symbolic.” 

The play does have a Korean sensibility and there are references to Korean culture, but the subject matter is universal, said Jang.  

“The setting of this play can be South Korea, it can be U.S.A, it can be Africa. When I picked this play, I was kind of worried about how the audience could get the message through another country’s play. They would expect some South Korean cultural things, but when they start to watch the show, they’ll think the message is for all countries.” 

There is one direct cultural reference – the title of the play. 

“The title does refer to something that might be specific to Korea,” Nahm sad. “The title refers to ‘yellow dust,’ which is sometimes called Asian dust. It’s the dust and air pollution from western China and across China, through Korea and through Japan. And this used to be an issue mostly in the spring.  The air used to be much dirtier and dustier in the spring, so that’s where the term comes from.” 

“In this play, the yellow dust can be a symbol for time and for how long these cycles of conflict have gone on. It’s more of an allegory of what dust can mean, rather than something that’s specific to Korea.” 

In translating the play, Nahm tweaked a few things, such as the genders of the characters in order to achieve gender parity in the cast.  

“There are quite a few characters who are male in the original Korean. As I was translating, I felt that I was just translating the words and not necessarily a character.  So, I had to come up with a concept for myself of who this new character would be.” 

“In the original Korean, it’s a married couple who own the inn and the wife’s sister, who is in charge of housekeeping. Jason and I spoke about changing it into three sisters.  What’s interesting is that we get this fairy tale situation of the two older sister who are wicked and greedy, and the younger sister who is the only kind-hearted one – a kind of Cinderella story.” 

And that’s where Nahm suddenly thought of “King Lear” and the three sisters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. 

“When you come to see the show, you’ll notice the connection to “King Lear.” We had a little fun with that.  There’s a new scene that we wrote, with the permission of the playwright, that is a kind of play-within-a-play version of “King Lear” within “Yellow Inn.” And that’s something that only exists in our English language version of the play.” 

Jang is hopeful that audiences will appreciate “Yellow Inn.” 

“I think they will love it because they will think about their lives. They are going to laugh so hard when they’re watching the show, but they will also think about how we could solve our social and political problems.”

“Yellow Inn” opens Sept. 25 and runs through the 29th at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts.



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