I have lived on the island of Jeju in South Korea for the past 6 years but am originally from the UK. I came to write this show whilst living here because of a request from my spouse, La, for a play that could be relevant and meaningful to their senior students (a theatre class in an international school on the island) and deal with the theme of female empowerment. If there had been funding for a commision I’m sure that the request would have gone out to the professional theatre community, but as there wasn’t I accepted the challenge with a great deal of humility, having attempted something similar only once.
My aim has been to write an international play for an international audience as that is the audience that the students would play to at their school. However it seemed incorrect to impose an entirely foreign storyline on the students who were all East Asian (and all but one Korean) and I therefore proposed that we create a story inspired by the life of a little known Korean heroine from the island we were all living on.
I suggested that Kim Man Deok could be a figure around whom a culturally relevant story about ‘empowering women’ could be created, the difficulty being that as a non-Korean I didn’t feel entitled, or able, to create a historically and culturally accurate story solely about Jeju’s greatest national heroine. In any case La requested that the script include a modern day storyline to better engage their 21st century students. The solution therefore became a double storyline in which Man Deok’s life gives inspiration to international young women from the present day. This was a story that I felt more comfortable to tell, as it echoed my own.
I am a survivor of extreme trauma and live with DID and C-PTSD. Every day is a journey to recovery, and on that journey I am constantly seeking inspiration from humans who have endured and overcome. If you live on Jeju you don’t have to look far to find examples of such humans. The island has known extreme suffering during the Japanese occupation throughout the first half of last century, and the Jeju uprising in 1948/49 when an estimated 10% of the population were massacred. Every one of the elders here is a survivor and the women in particular are famed for their strength and resilience. It was at a visit to Jeju’s Peace Museum where I went to learn more about the above, that I first saw a picture a Jeju ‘strong woman’ from further back in history.
I had just completed the exhibits that outlined the atrocities of the occupation and uprising when I came upon the very powerful national portrait of Kim Man Deok and was entranced by it. Somehow the image felt healing after the pain I had just witnessed. Something about a being just unapologetically ‘being’. In it a woman of middle age stands alone in her own space, straight and strong, facing forwards, her gaze directly meeting ours. It seemed to me a very particular and unusual depiction of a woman in art and I determined to find out what I could about this compelling character.
Fortunately many women had gone before me on that journey and I am indebted to the women of this island and further afield who have been similarly captivated by the figure of Kim Man Deok and have put years of work into ensuring that her life and legacy is honoured and recorded. I have been fortunate to meet some of these women during the research and development of the show and I am grateful for sharing with me their individual insight into this woman and her unique position in Jeju’s socio-cultural history.
In September 2017 we took the students on a Mandeok research day, we visited the Mandeok Memorial Hall, the site of Mandeok’s merchant house and Mandeok’s memorial in Sarabong Park. After this we led a workshop with the girls where we mapped out together the key events of Mandeok’s life and began to gather ideas for a possible contemporary storyline.
I came back to the group a little while later with a proposal for a modern day story which I thought contained the right amount of catastrophe, drama and sacrifice to echo Mandeok’s own life. The students did not approve (objecting to some of the stories more dramatic elements on moral grounds) and I was sent away to think again. In the intervening period the students gave a feedback performance of short scenes based on their own responses to our Kim Mandeok research day. These performances were physically powerful and politically engaged, and it was immediately apparent from these sketches that I needed to increase the political and intellectual content of the storyline to meet their interests and maturity.
I hope that the result is a story that has a future in the world, with real relevance and meaning for all of our young women hoping and dreaming of an empowered life in the 21st century. The story is now due for a second phase of existence and I am searching for collaborators and interested parties for this new phase. I am indebted so far to my co-composers, Emma J Ashton and Angela Lau without whom the original compositions would never have come to life. I am equally grateful to La Mór whose questions, suggestions and direction shaped the script into something altogether more sophisticated. Thank you finally to the students of Branksome Hall Asia’s theatre class, without whom this story wouldn’t exist. You are our future and we believe in you.
Jessica Mór, 2018