by STEVE HAN
photos by AMY TEXTER
It is 1950, and U.S. Army Lt. Hah Nah Song finds her Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit has set up its medical camp in her father’s hometown of Kaesong, in what is now North Korea. Five years earlier, in the wake of Korea’s liberation from Japan, her father had returned to Korea seeking to reclaim his lost land when he disappeared. Set against the backdrop of a brutal Korean winter, Hah Nah finds herself torn between trying to find her father and her duties as a battalion nurse.
So goes the premise of Hah Nah, a new play written by and starring Korean American Joy Cha.
Hah Nah (which means “one” in Korean) represents a passion project for Cha, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea at age 11 and, while studying fine arts at UCLA, co-founded the Actors Troop, for whom she wrote, directed and starred in numerous plays. She originally wrote her Korean War drama in 2005 as an epic screenplay, featuring nine main characters in a plot that blended politics and love against the backdrop of the Korean War. Upon the advice of her then-acting/writing teacher who found the story too big, however, she would spend the next several years working on recrafting the story into a one-woman play centering on the Korean American protagonist Hah Nah to help enhance the intimacy of the storytelling.
Seven years after its first draft was penned, Cha gets to share the story with a live audience. Hah Nah opens Friday at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles, with weekend performances running through Nov. 25. Cha spoke to KoreAm about what inspired her to write Hah Nah and why, in a sense, this has been a story in the making since she was in fifth grade.
What prompted you to make Hah Nah?
When I was a kid in Korea, my fifth-grade teacher asked me to write a play because she felt I had a knack for it. So I wrote a play about the Korean War and performed it in front of all the fifth graders. That always stuck with me. Also, my grandfather was a surgeon. We have a lot of doctors in this family, and that got me interested in the medical issues of the Korean War. I felt compelled to get it done.
Hah Nah is obviously a culturally significant play. Are you looking to target Korean Americans and convey a certain message with it?
I would love to have those early Korean immigrants come in and watch because Hah Nah is them. She’s the daughter of the very first Korean immigrant. I don’t know what kind of response I’ll get, but if the play can be something, they can tell their descendents about, that would be encouraging for me. The play itself is very informative, not just on Korean American issues, but also how Korea struggled to gain independence and how we struggled with the turmoil called the Korean War. Hopefully, the play can be enriching for people who watch it.
Do you have any personal connections to the story of Hah Nah?
No, but you can’t write something unless it’s relevant to you. At the core of the story is a girl looking for her father who has gone missing. It’s ultimately about a girl trying to reconcile her relationship with her dad while he’s obsessed getting his house back. The story is about Hah Nah chasing her dad. In some ways, that might be applicable to me. My dad is a typical Asian dad who didn’t talk much, as long as I got good grades in school.
Will this play help Korean Americans who may not be so familiar with Korean history to be more conscious?
I hope so, but it’s hard to guess. I can tell you my revelation. I learned a lot about Korean American history, and that’s definitely shown throughout the play, especially about what went on in MASH. There’s this surgical aspect of it that they implement without any permission from the government. That’s a big issue. I managed to put that into the plot, so that’s something that will make people say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” I also think Korean Americans will definitely have more appreciation for early Korean Americans.
What kind of reaction are you expecting from a general American audience?
There are several Hollywood films about the Korean War, but the ones I’ve seen so far are more catered towards the blockbuster element of it. Hah Nah actually has a story. In the end, it’s about a family. I hope it’s enlightening and revealing for everyone. And hopefully, people are more interested in what’s going on in Korea with new information on their minds. I think I might even get better reception from average Americans because they’re less sensitive about issues regarding the Korean War.
You came to the States at such a young age. What motivated you to be so culturally aware of Korea’s history?
It’s the 11 years I spent in Korea and the education I received there. I was blessed with really cool teachers, and I really loved life in Korea. There’s so much that never left me, and it’s a surprise that I can still recite some of the old poetry I learned there. I think my education in Korea made me love Korea. It never left me.
For more information on the play, visit HahNah.com.