If you studied American history in the public school system, more than likely you never learned about the Chinese Exclusionary Act. As this article (recently shared on My Performing Art’s Facebook page) describes, much of Asian American history is left out of syllabuses and textbooks. Before I encountered The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin in History Theatre’s Raw Stages festival in 2016 (then under the title Paper Daughters) I knew very little, if anything, about this period of history. The act, signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prohibited immigration of all Chinese laborers and was meant to last 10 years but instead was renewed in 1902. It was the first law that presented a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. In order to get into the US, Chinese citizens bought documents of other family members, friends, and neighbors who had relatives in the US and assumed these names.
Harry Chin (Song Kim) does just that. When we meet him, it is the 1970s, he is living with his daughter Shelia (Meghan Kreidler) and struggling to work at the restaurant where he is a chef. Throughout his days, ghosts of his American wife, Laura, (Sandra Struthers), a poet who did not make it through immigration (Sherwin Resurreccion), and his wife in China, Yuet, (Audrey Park) haunt, tease, and torment him. As the ghosts send him into flashbacks of his past – falling in love with Laura, the harrowing immigration process with a monstrous immigration officer (Rolando Martinez), and writing to Yuet whom he will never see again, Harry grapples with being a father and an immigrant, trying to come to terms with his past and his present.
The cast is marvelous and captures the humor, heartbreak and the haunting of this tale wonderfully. Struthers and Park and particularly wonderful as the wives and Resurreccion brings a playful humor into his ghostly poet. Language shifts greatly in Jessica Huang’s script and accents appear and disappear (Harry speaks unaccented English when he is speaking Chinese, his accent appears when he is speaks English to Shelia and Laura; the immigration officer speaks in unintelligible garbled noise to convey Harry’s inability to understand and the officer’s crude, abrasive behavior) and it’s fascinating to see it all interwoven together. I am particularly fond of shows that provide challenges in terms of design and general theatricality and this production does just that. Sandra Struther’s first ghostly appearance – appearing inside the chassis of a car – is spine-tingling and brilliant. With the wandering ghosts, the jumping between a ship at sea, Shelia’s home and Harry’s new apartment, the kitchen of a restaurant, and all the places in between, each locale generates its own atmosphere and emotional quality for Harry. With spectacular lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo, powerful scenic design by Joel Sass, beautiful costuming by Trevor Bowen (including some stunning ghost costumes in the second act), beautiful sound design by Katherine Horowitz, and wonderful props design by Abbee Warmboe, this is truly a dream team of designers (so much so I thought I could feel the temperature drop in the room as ghosts appeared and smell chow mein as Harry cooked).
It’s easy to remark on the timeliness of this production – with current immigration policy trying to prohibit another specific group from being allowed into the US, its place in the season is almost uncanny. While timely and relevant sound like operable words, it’s more than just that. Stories like this keep repeating themselves and American history is full of them. It’s timely because prejudice and xenophobia never stopped being a problem and because it’s a story we still fail to remember. However, Harry Chin’s will haunt you, just like the ghosts who fill up his kitchen. You won’t be able to forget him once you leave the theater. And, like me, you might walk out feeling hungry – for knowledge, for diversity, for answers, for change. Harry Chin hungered for a new life, a better life, and sacrificed much in the process. What must we sacrifice in order to make sure his story is told? So others like him can be welcomed to our country? So that ghosts of all of our pasts stop clamoring for our attention and can actually be recognized?
The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is written by Jessica Huang and directed by Mei Ann Teo. It is playing now through April 9th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket and show information an be found on the History Theatre’s website.
And if you go, be sure to check out the “Gateway to History” exhibition by photographer Wing Yong Huie both inside and outside the building of the theater, showing those who were personally affected by the Chinese Exclusionary Act.