Theater for children doesn’t have to be saccharine. Kids have the capacity to grapple with a lot more than adults give them credit for. In “Bina’s Six Apples,” presented at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis (2400 3rd Ave. S.), playwright Lloyd Suh and director Eric Ting asks the play’s young audience (with a recommended age of nine and up) to follow a young girl named Bina (played by Olivia Lampert) as she journeys through the violence and horror of war. Throughout, Bina stays true to her heart, her character and her strong love for her family.
The story takes place in 1950, and begins in the city of Geochang, in the South Gyeongsang Province of what is now South Korea. The area is known for its delicious apples.
The Korean War forces a family that makes its living from an orchard to flee 70 miles to Busan, on the Southeast coast of Korea, downstream from the Nakdong River. Bina, the young girl, packs six apples for the six members of her family to eat on their journey. But a dramatic event near the beginning of the play creates a situation where Bina must make her journey alone as she tries to find her loved ones, with her six apples as her only resource.
For actor Sun Mee Chomet, one of the adult actors in the play, the story at the heart of “Bina’s Six Apples” is one that is close to her heart, in that, as an international adoptee from Korea, her life was immeasurably impacted by the Korean War, even though it took place before she was born.
Chomet said the Korean War has impacted every Korean-American person alive today.
“Whether you’re a Korean adoptee or whether you’re first or second generation or third generation Korean-American, the Korean War affected every Korean person’s life,” said the performer. “The reason international adoption started in Korea was because of the war.”
Chomet has met her birth family and wrote a play about her experiences, called “How to be a Korean Woman,” and she’s also served on panels about the topic of international adoption.
Chomet said up until about 10 years ago, there weren’t many stories about adoption that were written from the perspective of Korean adoptees. Instead the narrative was mostly dominated by white people or adoptive parents.
The same issue arises when looking at historical narratives about the Korean War.
“If you look up the Korean War on any website, the first thing that comes up is the experience of Americans. It’s so rare to have a story told from the perspective of the Korean people,” Chomet said. “It’s telling the perspective of the people who are out of that country, and the impact of what that displacement did.”
Chomet plays two characters in the play. First she plays Bina’s mother, a stoic character with equal parts strength and elegance (Chomet’s skill in balancing heavy items on her head as the family takes their flight is quite impressive). The mother experienced forced migration even before the war, in both the Japanese occupation and the resistance in 1919, when 7,000 civilians were killed. Chomet plays the character with a regal and yet worn down grace.
“She’s putting on her best face for her daughter to stay resilient,” Chomet said.
She also plays the comical merchant character, who Bina haggles with as she makes her way on her journey.
The actor based the character somewhat on her encounters with sellers at Asian markets when she’s visited Korea.
“I think it’s very endearing when these merchants that can be very tough as they get the most of their money, but then also really willing to bargain,” Chomet said. “It’s a funny personality when you’re trying to haggle and you walk away, and suddenly the price drops. So I wanted to show the beauty in that and also the humor.”
One of Chomet’s favorite parts of performing in the show is getting to know the two young Korean-American actors in the play — Olivia Lampert, who plays Bina, and Jayden Ham, who plays a young boy who also has lost contact with his family.
Lampert, like Chomet, is an adoptee.
“She’s just a spitfire. She’s so special; phenomenally talented,” Chomet said. “I know how much it means to me as an adult to see myself reflected on stage and just for her to be surrounded by that and Jayden, also. It’s just really special and it’s rare. It’s rare you get to be in a room with not only Asian American actors, but Asian American designers.”
Chomet said at times, working with an all-Asian American cast with a production team filled with Asian American designers and talent, created a kind of shorthand way of communicating. Sometimes that happened almost subconsciously, she said. For example, as the merchant character, Chomet began tucking her pants into her socks. She later learned that the style was often used in Korean traditional clothes. Having a Korean American costume designer — Junghyun Georgia Lee — allowed for that knowledge to be in the room.
During opening weekend, there was one young person in the audience that couldn’t quite make it through one of the scary parts, and had to be escorted out by their parents. Aside from that, it was impressive how well the kids watching stuck with the play through the intensity of its circumstances. Ting’s direction kept Suh’s script from ever feeling too hopeless. The horrors that occur are handled with a degree of abstraction, aided by buoyant and almost fantastical movement direction by Marcela Lorca.
“Bina’s Six Apples” runs through Feb. 13 at the Children’s Theatre Company ($15-53). More information here.