David Henry Hwang
True Heart Theatre
New Diorama Theatre
While some people are becoming fascinated by their genealogy and roots others are trying to come to terms with cultural change.
Hwang’s play, first seen in 1998, looks at both topics in a story rooted in his own family history. The current version differs in that it frames events which take place in a Chinese backwater in 1919 and the early 20s with scenes that reflect the play’s own genesis.
They show a young man interviewing his grandmother about her early life, just as Hwang did, though he was only ten years old when his parents allowed him to travel to the Philippines to do exactly that himself.
The old lady Ahn is here played by veteran Chinese actress Jacqueline Chan who also plays her younger self as the story of her father and their family is presented. Siu Hun Li plays both the grandson interviewing her and his great grandfather Tieng Bin. Both give strong performances and Jacqueline Chan has no problem in shedding the years to suggest her much younger self.
Tieng Bin runs a successful business in the Philippines while leaving his three wives behind in China (Lourdes Faberes, Tuyen Do and Yuna Shin). We first meet him returning after an absence of three years. He has been exposed to western ways and Christian missionaries and invites the Rev Baines (Sid Phoenix) to his house.
It is an interesting picture of a world, although a new Chinese Republic is emerging led by Sun Yat Sen in which old traditions dominate. Religious belief centres on respect for the ancestors, a man has several wives, each with their own role in the household hierarchy, and girls’ feet are still bound in infancy to keep them small. Into this society come ideas of individualism, one god, monogamy and female independence.
The English missionary, so sure that his beliefs are unchallengeable, patronising about even other European peoples (the English are not barbarian pigs the Chinese think but that certainly applies to Frenchmen), is not an admirable portrait, though he seems well-meaning but this man is quick to follow advice on how to make his proselytising more acceptable.
Tradition says that wives follow their husbands and as Tieng Bin becomes convinced that he should adopt western ways, even dressing a favourite wife in European dresses, the conflict of ideas begins to create drama where previously little has happened.
First Wife prefers to join her ancestors rather than abandon them, but Hwang neither presents any case for tradition or questions Christianity. Certainly Ahn, having welcomed the liberation western ideas will give her as a girl beginning with having her feet unbound, still seems as obsessed with gospel stories as a grandma.
However, the young man with his iPhone technology set against Bible stories shows another confrontation with a new world, but Hwang leaves it to the audience to expand and explore it.
Director Ng Choon Ping and designer Moi Tran have given the play an elegant staging and luxurious traditional costumes. Black, wooden frames hung with gauze panels surround the acting area backed by high gauze curtains.
Characters move half-seen between the two and can enter around or through the gauzes in a way that is always a reminder that these are memories that we are seeing, memories that young Ahn is sharing.
Three young women in grey are used both as household servants and, like Chinese Opera prop men, this helps merges action with memory and hints that this may only be a partial reality not history.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton