By Austin Yang
Recent years in Off-Broadway, giving voice to inclusiveness and intersectionality, have seen a welcome surge in quirkily heightened, deeply personal identity pieces from queer artists of color. At the crossroads of many labels, emerging auteurs like Michael R. Jackson and Haruna Lee embody “the more personal, the more universal” with provocative explorations of their own psyches that heighten the universality of their experiences. These are presented refreshingly often in hybrid styles that reflect the creators’ accrued perspectives.
Suicide Forest is Haruna Lee’s nightmarish fever dream, navigating through intergenerational trauma, immigration, and the ownership of one’s identity. The way Lee structures this journey, however, defies description. Their agency as Azusa is pieced together in surrealist vignettes, almost as in the aftermath of an explosive awakening. And yet, Lee, with the aid of Aya Ogawa’s keen direction, is unflinchingly transparent in constructing the clever metaphors that manifest the cultural barriers which began their inquiry, through heightened satire to blunt statements to a very unique and intimate fourth-wall break in the last chapter.
For Suicide Forest’s frightening scope and ambition, it works because of its masterful creative shepherding. The depth of Lee’s collaboration with Ogawa has effectively teased out many of the beats in Lee’s script that make it so original. Behind these invisible forces is also, of course, the immense and nuanced contributions of designers Jian Jung, Alice Tavener, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and Fan Zhang.
Moreover, Suicide Forest’s nightmare of masochism, misogyny, and violent self-erasure is inherently Japanese, and though intended for an English-speaking audience, its deliberate portrayal of Japanese culture and identity politics wouldn’t be remotely possible without its stellar cast of Japanese heavy-hitters, all of whom are in top form. Aoi Lee, a living masterclass in stage movement, is the perfect ubiquitous presence as Mad Mad, a haunting omen of death.
“I wanted to run from this play,” writes Ogawa in her director’s note. Her production, thankfully, does anything but. The way the divided parts of Lee haunt them will resonate with all audiences.
“I guess I have a question, which is…How do I face this pain, or demon, or ghost, or god?” Lee asks towards the end.
Their answer, and your interpretation, might surprise you.
Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company