The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" - MN History Theatre

Source: historytheatre.com

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.

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Citizen

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

In 2014, Graywolf Press published Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A blend of poetry, lyric essays, social criticism, and images, this groundbreaking book focuses on race relations in America – especially microaggressions and repeated racist incidents. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve encountered. As I read it for my MFA program this semester, I was elated to see that Frank Theatre was performing an adaptation of the book. Having seen it both opening night and at a Sunday matinee with a talk-back, I’m still struck by it.

A story like this only grows more important as the days continue. If you’re mesmerized by the film Get Out and still are emotionally recovering from We Are Proud to Present in the Dowling Studio, then Citizen should be your next thing to watch. Using a collaborative ensemble featuring Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson, this performance splits Rankine’s narrator – who frequently uses the second tense to tell their accounts – into several voices encountering racism that often goes overlooked. Recounting illness cased by dealing with racism every day, a white colleague confusing one African American person for another, a neighbor who calls the cops because a friend who is staying next door is making a phone call from the driveway and he looks suspicious, Rankine’s book does not back away from showing the sheer multitudes of microaggressions and subtle racism that occur daily and the ensemble does a masterful job of portraying them. The poetry in the original work is profound and to hear it pour of the tongues of these incredible actors will wrench at your gut, overwhelm you emotionally, and haunt your mind.

If you haven’t read the book, you won’t have a problem following the story, but for those who have read Rankine’s work, the way that media is brought alive is particularly gut-wrenching. From footage of Serena William’s tennis matches to photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the subjects captured on the page are put in front of our eyes, making it impossible to ignore the argument being made.

Of course, reading a book is far different from watching a show and some of the intimacy of Rankine’s work is lost. But theater asks us to share an experience with our neighbors, making for an added level of complexity for how to negotiate space with a show like this. Theater audiences tend to be mostly white in Minnesota and, undoubtably, this is an important show for Minnesotans, especially white liberal Minnesotans, to see. But you can’t always gage where a theater audience is at or where a show registers for them. At the post-show talk-back on Sunday, which included Shannon Gibney and Peter Rachleff as panelists, I was struck by white audience members who were afraid of making microaggressions and announced their discomfort, drawing parallels from the show to reconstruction after the Civil War rather than present day, and pinpointing Trump as an exceptionally racist president, rather than a more vocal on whose precedent was set long ago. Hearing comments that seemed out of touch from what I saw staged concerns me, not that the show isn’t working and isn’t presenting its message clearly, but that audience members have more work to do than I thought. I’m going to step out of reviewer mode for a moment and talk as a community engagement and advocate. I believe that we should have conversations about theater, especially after shows like this. But it concerns me when certain things continually occur during talk-backs – a white male always speaks first; people of color are sharing real, recent instances where certain events are have happened while white people feel the need to discuss their discomfort or show that their only context for these events was in the past or in the South; and African-American panelists and audience members having to do all the work and all the teaching to make white audience members understand. Talk-back should be learning moments but, as it came up in this talk back, here and in our day to day lives, white allies need to do more to jump in, advocate, and explain. As the conversation became uncomfortably focused on white discomfort, I wondered what I, what we, as audience members, panelists, and human beings in general can do to be better allies? How can we help guide talk-backs to keep them from going in outrageous directions? What can we do to correct behavior or explain why a certain comment is given at the wrong time or in the wrong space – and not just in the theater in but in our everyday lives?

Needless to say, this show has given me a lot of food for thought. I cannot stress the importance of the show enough or the brilliance that is Rankine’s work. Read it, see it, and talk about it. And keep talking about it. And don’t stop talking or working or fighting racism in America.

Citizen is adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s book. It is directed by Wendy Knox and is playing at Intermedia Arts now through April 2nd. Tickets are available on Frank Theatre’s website.

For more on this production of Citizen, check out the live video I did with Kendra Plant from Artfully Engaging where I chat with Wendy Knox and Hope Cervantes about the production!

The Awakening

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Source: facebook.com/SavageUmbrella

I’ve been trying to find the words to describe Savage Umbrella’s The Awakening, playing now at the Southern. And I have to admit that I’m more or less lost for words.

This isn’t a new phenomena for me recently – more and more I’m finding it hard to discuss shows I’ve seen in an review or post. Part of that I think is due to pressures around me. And part of that is due to how do I, as an artist, discuss another artist’s work?
The Awakening has the added caveat of being a highly musical and visual piece, so much so that I can’t describe the experience because you simply need to see it. And while any show is like this, The Awakening, based off of Kate Chopin’s landmark novel of the same name, takes emotional moments and performs them through movement and musical styles. A novel which takes place primarily in the mind of its protagonist, the unhappy Edna Pontellier who desperately wants to break out of the fragile mold society has forced her into, it at first seems an impossible work to adapt to stage. However, it’s the perfect story to tell because it is so emotional and, with the waves of feminism we ride like waves on the sea, it once again feels very present and very live in our current culture. Though it deals with Victorian women and their yearnings, it contains a force that is still very much alive in the lives and minds of modern women.
With a marvelous ensemble of Emily Dussault, Nick Wolf, Amber Davis, Seth K. Hale, Alexis Clarksean, Mike Swan, Russ Dugger, Nathan Gebhard, Lauren Diesch, Nayely Becerra, Rachel Kuhnle, Tinne Rosenmeier, Aaron Henry, Eric Marinus, Thomas Ferguson, and Daniel Rovinsky, with music performed by Nic Delcambre, Carley Olson, and Alissa Ona Jacobsen, the world these performers create grips you and ensnares you. Edna’s life of leisure on Grand Isle which becomes a life caged in back in New Orleans becomes a portrait of a life that cannot be fully lived as long as one’s society does not fully accept you. In the middle of women’s history month and in discussions of current events, a play like this has never felt more important.
The Awakening is adapted and directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe and created by the Savage Umbrella ensemble, with music by Candace Emberley. It is playing now through March 18th at the Southern Theater. Tickets can be purchased on Savage Umbrella’s website.