One of the big themes of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is the limbic space, that in-between realm that is neither here nor there. Both Hannah and her brother, Dang, feel this by being Korean-American; they don’t feel they entirely belong in either America or Korea, because they don’t speak Korean. Similarly, when Mother is in a coma, she is suspended in a space between living and dying, which her mind sees as the Demilitarized Zone.
It’s also a metaphor for South Korea itself, which continues to live in a state of uncertainty. Because North and South Korea never signed a peace treaty, the two countries remain technically at war. Similar to the way the characters in Hannah and the Dread Gazebo exist in a space of uncertainty, both Koreas exist in a kind of limbo.
In the play, Dang compares his family’s plight to South Korea, saying, “This has been going on 50, 60 years? Everyone waiting for something to happen. . . . They’re like us—stuck. Waiting.”
This liminality is also why Jiehae Park set Hannah and the Dread Gazebo specifically during the time that Kim Jong-il died. The son of Kim Il-sung, he inherited leadership of North Korea when the latter died in 1994.
Park was living in New York City when she heard about King Jong-il’s death (she remembered calling her parents immediately upon hearing the news). “Are things going to change now?” she recalled thinking. “And I also thought, ‘It’s also really dangerous. Something bad could happen. Things are unstable.’” That uncertainty was the point of interest for Park, and is what propels the play. (And Kim Jong-il does make a cameo in the play, in the form of a ghost wandering the DMZ.)
Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, is now the Supreme Leader of North Korea, and political conditions remain relatively stable, despite the increase in nuclear tests in North Korea. Reunification continues to be a goal for the North and South Korean governments. Meanwhile, the two countries continue to exist in limbo, neither fully at war nor completely at peace.
Reprinted with permission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 season guide to the plays, Illuminations.