Theater Mu, St. Paul’s premier Asian American arts organization and second-largest such organization in the country, has officially returned to live performances. Given the apprehension that lingers still around in-person events, some companies might have thought to tread lightly, maybe just stick a toe into the water with something “safe” after being stuck for so long in a virtual world.
Not here. Theater Mu came out full strength with Man of God.
Synopsis: During a mission trip to Bangkok, the four members of a Korean Christian girls’ youth group discover that their revered pastor has hidden a camera in their hotel bathroom. Their communal rage and disillusionment fuel violent revenge fantasies amid the neon bubblegum sex-tourism epicenter of Bangkok. Anna Ouyang Moench delves into that moment when girls recognize the male gaze and decide they’re definitely gonna do something about it.
The show starts immediately with the discovery of the camera, and quickly moves on to tackle important issues – eating disorders, rape, the failure of religion and of parents and adults in general – beyond the specific instance of sexual abuse, paedophilia and invasion of privacy around which the story is centered.
The noted lack of adult guidance is central to the show, as is the pervasive “boys will be boys” mantra that has for so long dismissed heinous behavior by men. This leaves the four young women to fend for themselves, forced to deal with both the actual invasion of privacy as well as their conflicted feelings about what to do about it. The show does an excellent job portraying how truly powerless the girls feel in this situation, both emotionally (inward) but also literally: They are all alone (with only the paedophilic Pastor for support) in the middle of the red light district of Bangkok.
The pressure causes them to initially turn on each other – seeking power, and an outlet for the anger, frustration and disgust they feel, on the only avenue available to them. Kyung-Hwa (Janet Scanlon) physically attacks Mimi (Dexieng “Dae” Yang) at one point after a particularly brutal spat regarding the insecurities (the result of previous assault at the hands of a family member) that led to her bulimia.
The show operates at high-energy – until it slows down for moments of genuine, honest pain from the characters, moments that help to flesh out their personalities and allow the audience to understand how the invasive, abusive actions of man they trusted (more than trusted) truly affects them on multiple levels. This is where the show excels. Be warned, however – the power and honesty in these scenes might be triggering for anyone who has experienced similar trauma, or know someone who has.
Because this story is, unfortunately, not a new one. And not one limited to stage or page. Man of God is a vehicle for these stories, with both universality and individuality, to be explored in depth. The setting and characters are unique here and certainly memorable, but these are issues experienced daily by women across the world, familiar in headlines and personal stories alike, from catcalling on the street or inappropriate remarks in school or the workplace or the “safety” of home, to the most terrible of instances of violence all-too prevalent in the world today –
As acknowledged by Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal at the end of the show, the rise in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes, 70% of which are perpetrated against Asian women, including the recent the murder of Christina Yuna Lee, make this all too clear – and make the show hit all the harder. This reality remains at the forefront throughout the play.
This is not to say, however, that there is no fun to be had; while the subject matter is certainly heavy, the show is often light-hearted, balancing those themes with more than a few laughs. The pop culture references the girls employ in their individual revenge fantasies – from a beautifully executed martial arts scene to Law and Order reenactment – were both creative and hilarious. Dark as it may be, the show is still framed as a comedy. It is from the perspective of teenagers after all, who ultimately wanted nothing more than an exciting trip, what might have been an escape from the number of problems – parental pressure, eating disorders, burgeoning feelings of love and physicality and good old fashioned teenage angst – they were dealing with already.
Important to note: The prevalent theme of sexual abuse brings to mind larger platforms, like the popular HBO show Euphoria: Similar to that show, we get the story from the point-of-view of abused main characters. Unlike Euphoria, however, they are never sexualized, avoiding the “sexy schoolgirl” trope. While the girls of Man of God are powerless within the context of the play – underage, far from home, and with language and financial barriers – the play gives them power and agency from the audience’s perspective, especially in scenes featuring Pastor. They have been sexualized, betrayed, and subsequently abused by Pastor, yes – but for his pleasure alone, i.e., this pleasure does not travel beyond his unseen fantasies, made physical only by the camera in the bathroom. In Euphoria and too many other examples of similar subject matter, the underage girls are offered up to the male perspective, titivated in a way that sexualizes them for the pleasure of the audience. Man of God, to its great success, gives this agency solely to its stars, and has no need of creating scandal in this manner for the sake of (at best) being edgy, refusing the frame of the very patriarchal systems it is trying to address and ultimately undo.
Full disclosure – I watch Euphoria and think it is incredibly well done overall. The over-sexualization of teenagers often distracts from any sort of greater message both within and without the context of the show.
The show’s finale and conclusion might divide audiences – it is hard not to root for one outcome over another, and feel, on some level, just as conflicted as the characters do about what action to take. But – the moral of the play is ultimately not one of revenge, but whether making victims become a monster to destroy a monster is not the worst offense these abusers can commit. No one should be forced to live their lives angry and/or bitter, or become someone they were not before. They should be allowed for themselves to decide who they are, and how they will address the trauma they have experienced together.
Perhaps the greatest strength then comes from the fact that the play does not ask Jen, Samantha, Kyung-Hwa, and Mimi to be anything else but who they are: There is certainly much growth that occurs throughout the story, but that growth comes solely from them, from within; it is not change forced upon them by the abusive Pastor.
Forced to contend with a world still dominated by domestic abuse, cat-calling, sexism and male violence, what has been asked of girls as young as them (and younger still) is not simply that they be strong, but to somehow maintain faith in humanity, and hope for a society that far too often ignores them and their stories. Through it all, the show ends with a glimmer of hope that the future might look brighter than the past.