“Letters from Home” Discovers A World

Every now and then, a work comes along that redefines a genre.
It opens our eyes — and imaginations — to a wider vision of what a particular art form can do. I’ve been privileged to watch this happen to the solo show, twice in the last year.

At the 2017 Hollywood Fringe, Arianna Veronesi distilled her story (not her own life, but Janis Joplin’s) to a mere 30 minutes, half of it with no words, all of it with no singing — yet she overwhelmed us with the essence of the late great blues singer. What she did with severe minimalism, Kalean Ung is doing with astonishing opulence.

Kalean Ung (photo: Grettel Cortes)

In Letters from Home, Ung speaks, sings (accompanying herself on the crotales), and dances for the better part of two hours. Holding us spellbound, she weaves an ever-larger web of intense connections among people torn apart by genocide.

You see, her father, Chinary Ung, is one of the world’s most famous composers. In 1975, as he’s studying in the US, the Khmer Rouge seizes Cambodia, his home country. Like today’s ISIS, they set about to eliminate thousands of years of culture — art. music, literature, and architecture — and more than two million people.

The young composer, his home and family suddenly gone, sets aside  his music; yet after 10 years, he releases his first master work, Inner Voices.  At about the same time, Kalean is born. Gifted in many arts, she takes degrees in vocal performance and acting.

Eventually, Kalean decides to create a one-person show. That’s  when she first learns of the letters — desperate appeals from family members in refugee camps. For the last forty years, they’ve been in a box in her father’s closet.

As the texts are translated, a story emerges — of a young couple in New York begging, borrowing, running up credit cards to pay for guides and for passage to America for everyone they can. Each letter also bears the story of another group of relatives — enduring slavery, somehow escaping, losing loved ones, yet holding on to hope.

Letters from Home unspools these long-hidden stories in a fast-paced, complex mystery tale (far more material than you’d think a one-person show could contain). At the same time, it weaves together all that this second-generation daughter is learning about who she is, and where she comes from — her “home.”

I’ve spoken of the individual stories as if they’re the center of the work. But they’re not — nor is their common tragedy, pitiful and terrifying as it is. For beyond pity and terror, this is a tale of the unveiling of love. Love long hidden, because loved ones’ sufferings are too painful to recall. Love that spares nothing in reaching for the other, love that affirms and reweaves a shattered family, and a nearly lost culture. Love that makes life worth living.

The beauty and richness of this emerging love are expressed not only in the score (by  Kalean’s father, of course), and the many movements and styles of dress she flows through,  but also in the breathtakingly elegant stage set. Hanging screens bear abstract images reminiscent of scroll paintings; history and its horrors are projected upon them (in black and white), but cannot stain them.

Letters from Home is a magnificent production of a truly remarkable piece of writing (and workshopping and rewriting — kudos to Marina McClure’s eye and ear, and her boldness with structure). It evokes a world we’re not familiar with, yet soon has us living comfortably in it — not in its surface details, but in its vibrant heart, the passionate connections that bind us together.

This is art we desperately need, art that makes the life and suffering of an immigrant community real for us — not by lecturing, but by letting us share a voyage of astonishing discovery. As we feel this family’s living bonds re-knitting, they become our own. And we become unable to separate, look down on, cast out.

You do not want to miss Letters from Home. Kalean Ung and her collaborators have created something far richer and more complex, more rewarding, and more necessary than the phrase “solo show” brings to mind. (And now that they’ve done it, who’s next?)
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Letters from Home, by Kalean Ung, directed by Marina McClure.
Presented by the Independent Shakespeare Company, at the ISC Studio Theatre, 3191 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30,
Sundays at 3:00
through Nov. 18.

Tickets: <www.iscla.org>