Abu Dhabi Festival’s embrace of all aspects of performance continues this year with its first major comedy offering.
Its annual Festival in the Park weekend series of free shows, held at Umm Al Emarat Park on Thursday and Friday, will take on a funny twist with comic Wonho Chung as a headline act.
Thursday's programme is a family-friendly affair, with activities ranging from musical performances, a drumming workshop and a feature film screening of Animal's Cloud by Emirati director Rawia Abdullah.
Chung’s performance will close the festival on Friday with his first major public comedy performance in more than two years.
An inclusive brand of comedy
Not that he was absent from our conscious. As a matter of fact, the 38-year-old's visibility has never been higher, courtesy of a starring role in last year's hit Ramadan television series Saq Al Bamboo (a television adaptation of the award-winning The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi) and being the face of a large travel company's regional advertising campaign.
But it is the comedy stage on which Chung feels most comfortable; after all, that’s where he got his start.
“I love being on the stage and interacting with the audience,” he says.
“The thing that I always try to do with my comedy is for the material to be inclusive. I want everyone to be on the joke as opposed to the joke being on them.”
It’s an observational comedy style that he has refined over his 12-year career. He explains that development not only stemmed from maturity, but also from people’s reaction – some more critical than others.
“My comedy at the beginning of my career was mostly focusing on ethnic stereotypes, and that’s because I look a certain way and I speak a language that’s different to the way I look,” he says.
“So before I was mostly focusing on accents – I do Filipino, Korean and a few others – and now things have changed. I won’t say that there has been a backlash to that form of comedy, I would say that the conversation has developed and there are more interesting things that are happening in the world today that are worth talking about.”
And Chung is not short of material. His background and life experience – a Dubai-based funny man, who was born to a South Korean father and a Vietnamese mother and raised as an Arab in Jordan – has enough anecdotes and reflections to fill many shows.
It was that unique mixture that convinced producers of the 2007 Axis of Evil comedy tour to take a shot on the aspiring performer and asking Chung to take part.
Performing alongside Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed, Iranian Maz Jobrani and Palestinians Aron Kader and Dean Obeidallah, the tour was a success throughout the region with nearly 30 shows performed over a month.
“The joke in the show was that they needed a Korean to complete the Axis of Evil and I would just wander into the show,” he recalls.
“It was a great experience and I was basically learning the craft each night on the job. The performer that I became at the end of the show was totally different than the one that began the tour.”
The UAE and South Korea – a beautiful relationship
Chung’s Abu Dhabi show will take on personal significance as South Korea is the Abu Dhabi Festival’s guest of honour.
Chung joins a legion of South Korean performers who will participate in various shows as part of the festival, the highlights being the Korean National Ballet's staging of Giselle on March 7 and the Korean Symphony Orchestra concert on March 8.
Chung says this is all part of the great affection the UAE and South Korea have for each other. This was symbolised this week with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, arriving on a tour of South Korea on Tuesday.
“I think it has been a beautiful relationship that has grown organically,” he says.
“There is a sharing of ideas and appreciation of South Korea culture from K-pop to Korean dramas. When it comes to the dramas, actually, a lot of people in the UAE watch it because there are similar values – there is respect to elders, family values and no overt behaviour. It is almost like a parallel universe to people who live in the Gulf.”
Festival in the Park is held at Umm Al Emarat park on February 28 and March 1. Free entry. Activities begin at 10am on February 28 and from 4pm on March 1. For details go to www.abudhabifestival.ae