The audience sings along with the wandering beggar, who makes fun of his annual return to the village. This is part of the long-running monodrama “Pumba.” The beggar’s voice is melancholy yet full of vigor, captivating the audience’s attention.
The play “Pumba” is based on a folk song usually sung by panhandlers. It is a monodrama that combined the formats of Korean traditional outdoor play and western-style stage play. Since its debut in 1981, the play has enjoyed steady popularity for 32 years. Such long-standing fame of “Pumba” stems from its unique beginning. Here’s Ms. Park Jeong-jae, CEO of KT&G SangSang Art Hall, for more explanation.
At the time of “Pumba”’s debut performance, in 1981, Korean society was in despair. It was right after the bloody 1980 democratic movement in Gwangju and the “Pumba” playwright realized how powerful stage plays were and wanted to console all Koreans through the play. In a way it was the start of a human rights movement on stage. “Pumba” wanted to champion the rights of the vulnerable and bring justice for the lowest class of people. The play by nature was very dark and morose.
At the time of its inaugural performance Korea was in turmoil. In the months following the death of President Park Chung-hee, many Koreans lost their lives in the civic uprising in Gwangju in southwestern Korea and the entire country was fractured along the regional and ideological divide. The nationwide resolve to live a good life, under the banner of the New Community Movement, dissipated. Corruption was rampant and ordinary Koreans were powerless to stop the social chaos and decline. That’s when “Pumba” debuted. Here’s Ms. Park Jeong-jae, CEO of KT&G SangSang Art Hall, again.
In 1981 political instability and oppression prevailed throughout the country. The audience dried their hearts out at the debut performance, because people still remembered the painful past of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. And we were so desperately poor back then. All these powerful emotions were released when people saw “Pumba.”
For its emotional impact people were drawn to “Pumba” when times were hard. People sang and laughed and cried along with the impoverished yet spirited beggar. They saw themselves in his plight.
I’ve watched “Pumba” for more than 25 years and realized that the play drew the most number of people when the economy is bad or when it was politically unstable. Times were really hard during the 1998 financial crisis, but that’s when we saw the highest ticket sales. That means people wanted an outlet where they could release their stress and frustration.
Pumba originated from Garujigi Song, one of pansori pieces composed by the late Joseon-era pansori scholar Shin Jae-hyo. The term pumba initially referred to a song or sounds of encouragement, not a person. But with the passing of time the meaning of pumba changed to mean beggars who wander around markets or streets and beg for food. Being the lowest members of the lowest social class, the life of a panhandler is definitely hard and barren, but there are still some genuine goodwill and innocence in his life that move people’s hearts. “Pumba” is a medium through which the similarly deprived people communicate with the world.
Twenty-two actors played the role of Pumba over the 32-year run. One actor and one drummer are all there is to this monodrama. One person has to play at least 15 roles, including a Japanese policeman, a father, a fellow beggar, and even a maid. The leading character of the play is named Cheon Jang-geun, an actual person who lived during the Japanese colonial era in the early 1900s. There is even a stone monument erected in Muan County in South Jeolla Province, which claims to be the birthplace of Pumba. Here’s actor Kim Wang-geun who currently plays the leading role.
Pumba is a beggar, but not just any old beggar. His name is Cheon Jang-geun and he used to work as a dockworker in Mokpo during the early twentieth century. But when the Japanese colonial government demanded rice quota from Koreans, he incited fellow dock workers and started a strike and independence movement. He was oppressed by the Japanese colonizers and lost his wife during the Korean War. The play “Pumba” is a story of his eventful life.
When Mokpo Port was opened in the 1930s unemployed men flocked to the southwestern port to seek work as dockhands. Cheon Jang-geun was one of those dockworkers. When he happened to see a shipment of rice quota to Japan, he led a strike and as a result was put on a wanted list. He hid in Illo Village in South Jeolla Province, but during the Korean War the communists tormented him for not joining their cause and he eventually lost his wife. After the war he organized a civic group with some 100 members to rule over a small community, which led him to be called the righteous outlaw Hong Gil-dong of modern times. His eventful life and conscientious personality served as a model for the character Pumba.
The first scene of the play takes place in the middle of winter. The story begins with the beggar lamenting that a barren heart makes him cold all year round.
Cheon sets out to beg for food again. He knocks on the door of a rich man, but gets turned away. But rejection does not deter the king of panhandlers. Instead of becoming dejected and giving up, he talks and sings his way into the rich man’s kitchen and gains a bowl of hot rice.
Although desperately poor, Cheon is nevertheless proud. There is no one as pitiful and powerless as a beggar, but Pumba is different. His constant cheerfulness is the source of comfort for many audience members.
Cheon then meets the love of his life.
The role of his wife is played by an audience member. Other members of the audience applaud the union and wish the couple eternal happiness. The audience member suddenly recruited to play Pumba’s wife is so embarrassed that she can’t even face her play husband. But soon she casts away her shyness and belts out a song to the encouragement of the audience.
But the happy moment is short-lived. Nobody deserves a happy life with a loving wife and family like Pumba, but life does not work out that way. When it rains, it pours for Pumba, and his wife ends up dead during the Korean war.
Although despondent after his wife’s death, Pumba never gives up on life. Rather, he starts looking after war orphans and refugees and establishes a village called Angel Town. He teaches the villagers how to beg for money and food and how to survive in the tough world.
The world may be corrupt and injustice may seem to be rampant, Angel Town founded by Pumba Cheon Jang-geun is run by the rule of law. Everyone follows the town rules, regardless of their lot in life and regardless of their status within the town. So the scene in which a beggar who raped and buried a woman stands trial counts as one of the best scenes in the play.
Pumba Cheon Jang-geun may be a lowborn beggar, but he always tried to realize justice for his fellow disadvantaged people.
Pumba’s sad song brings tears to people’s eyes, because the lyrics describing the injustice and sadness of the time seem to be singing about today’s world. Pumba speaks of the justice of beggars as thus. Here’s actor Kim Wang-geun.
My last line goes like this. We are not beggars because we are starving or pitiful. We are not beggars because we are powerless. Look at other people. Beggars bow their heads and fawn over other people to get something to eat for free. People say there are no longer any beggars now, but there are even worse beggars who suck up to those in power for some free lunches. We, the ordinary beggars, came to teach those real, despicable beggars a thing or two. The play ends with me singing the song about how Pumba came back again this year.
There was a time when power trumped human rights. The voice of the ordinary people is silenced by a single shout of the powerful. The weak dare not dream of reform and are left to live their lives in despair and sorrow, feeling futile at any attempt to change their lives. Having experienced so many frustrations and failures, the powerless have come to resignedly accept their fate. This is why Pumba, who dreamed of a just and ideal society, is winning sympathy and understanding. Here’s actor Kim Wang-geun again.
There are so many self-important people in this world preaching to others. But Pumba speaks on behalf of the lowly people. It is more inspiring when someone ordinary like you and me speaks for the meek. Pumba speaks in the voice of inspiration. When the times are troubling, Pumba represents a voice of reason and an ideal community. He talks about sharing and loving others, and people tend to listen to that.
Over the past 32 years the play “Pumba” underwent several changes. For instance, modern scenes were inserted at the beginning and the end. In those scenes, a homeless man is commenting on the political, economic, and social issues reported in a newspaper. The audience is amazed by how insightful his comments are. The scene goes to show that people, whether they are vagrants or executives, tend to think in the same way. “Pumba” sheds light to the trials and tribulations of common people and provides deep satisfaction, albeit temporary. This long-running and popular monodrama makes us think about the relationship between myself and this society, and encourage us to dream of a hopeful future. This is what has driven “Pumba” to last 32 years.
- Watching Pumba talk about the events and periods he lived through made me reminisce about my almost forgotten past. I vowed to live for the underprivileged, just like Pumba did.
- Korean history is at times exciting and sad. The play was full of teaching moments. I had a great time.
- It was great. It’s a satire of our lives today. It almost made me tear up, even when I was laughing. Although there were only two people on the stage, the actor and the drummer, it was really entertaining, unlike some classical stage plays. Since the times are so hard now, the play gave me something to think over and empathize.