Interview with Bi Jean Ngo

Wed, 04/24/2019

Interview with Among the Dead actor Bi Jean Ngo

1. Unlike most plays, the role of Jesus in this production is very ambiguous and transformative. Why do you think the writer decided to make that choice?

I think that many people take comfort and hope in believing in a force that's bigger than our terrestrial selves. We don't all call that bigger force the same thing or see it with the same perspective. So, by making Jesus transformative, I think the playwright is inviting us to think about Jesus as a positive, hopeful force that is accessible to us all in the specific way each of us calls upon or is in need of Jesus. I think the bigger thing to think about with Jesus and transforming, is that Jesus was the biggest advocate of change, of being able to change who we are and who we want to be. Jesus preached and practiced radical love. Jesus wanted to help some of the most damaged, sinful people in society change their lives. That's what we see in this play, too. At least for Ana, Jesus serves as an agent of transformation for her to reconcile her painful past and move froward with a strong sense of her true identity. 

2. What do you hope audiences will take away from your production of Among the Dead?

I hope that audiences learn more about the plight and pain of the Korean comfort women and the generations of trauma that followed them and their kin. I hope that audiences gain a deeper insight into a part of WWll that's largely ignored or outright erased from both Western and Japanese history. War is complicated, and in this country, there's a lot of misinformation about the civilians that were affected in Asian countries that served as major war fronts from the 40s through the 70s -- Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. For many years, Miss Saigon was the Asian war story that American theatre audiences got, but it was romanticized and kind of racist. So, I'm glad a story like Among the Dead has emerged about another Asian war story that celebrates the strength and resilience of these women, and doesn't romanticize the brutality and trauma they experienced. The ultimate savor in this story isn't the American soldier, nor is it Jesus. The women find salvation in their familial connection and knowing that the other exists. 

3. Do you think there needs to be a larger shift towards diversity in regards to the types of plays that Philadelphia theater's produce?

The answer is 100%, absolutely, yes. How can we live in a city that is predominantly Black American, with a significant population of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Hmong immigrants (much of whom are in South Philly), many Ethiopian and West African families in West Philly, a huge LatinX community, and three major universities that represent an international diaspora, and not seek a diversity of narratives that reflect these populations? How can we live in a city that has a poverty level of 26% and not include narratives that speak to this crisis? We are one of the most diverse cities in America, yet we're one of the most racially and economically segregated. How do we shift this and become more integrated and equitable? Theatre is not the answer, but it's part of it. Aside from school funding, sustainable housing, and livable wages, and all the practical things that are part of this answer, there's the invaluable importance of art that shapes attitude, opinion, therefore culture. 

4. How does this play and role differ from other productions you'v been in?

Ths play is dynamic in how it breaks so many rules of theatre. I love that I become another character, while I'm still my own character, and how we're playing with space and time. It's wild. 

5. What has been the biggest challenge in putting together this production?

Everything! This play is a dramaturgical workout. There's actual history to consider, character relationships, spatial relationships, just so many things to consider at every moment in this play. It really doesn't let any of us off the hook.