“Ching Chong Chinaman”: SiS production at the Richard Hugo House

There’s been quite a few articles in local papers concerning this play, and I think they pretty much cover what I think about the show — while the technical aspects of it are there, especially the comedic timing, the show falls flat.

I have the unique experience, however, of having some insider information about the show’s process. I know the stage manager of the show, and she explained a little about the director’s interesting tactics. The director was focused hugely on the physical humor and timing of the show — each scene had a lazzi that was worked relentlessly in rehearsal until it was perfect.

I completely understand that. There’s a lot of the show that needs that, and it works pretty well, although it was not always noticeable (for example, the scene where Desdemona, the daughter and main character, is gathering cans of food for the food drive and is interrupted by J was worked for several hours during one rehearsal. The timing, apparently, had to be perfect — but I don’t think it needed that much work, as it was merely 20 seconds or so of the show).

However, I think this focus on the physical timing of the show left out some hugely important parts of the plot itself. There’s an underlying, subtle, poisonous racism in the family. Now, I will add the caveat here that I am white. Very very caucasian. So I don’t know what it feels like to deal with racism in society, and since I’m pretty freakin’ liberal, I worry about it a lot. But, the show is really, deeply tragic, and I think this point was missed. Completely. SPOILER: the two children are adopted. While their parents are Chinese, and the kids are raised to believe they are Chinese, Desdemona is actually Korean, while her brother Upton is Japanese (we think — the father doesn’t remember, one more slap of the tragedy of that subtle racism). There’s racist side comments about other Asian cultures throughout the show, and while I understand starting with this sitcom-style slapstick humor and focusing on perfecting the timing, the point of the show was missed so broadly that the whole rehearsal effort fell flat. Why would you work on lazzis rehearsal after rehearsal if you don’t get the emotional depth necessary to tying the whole show together? The only scene where I felt this was accomplished at all was, oddly enough, another lazzi — right after Desdemona discovers she’s adopted, and shrieks “…and I’m KOREAN?!” she desperately tries to remove a bracelet, from her biological mother, from her wrist. Her father had shoved it onto her and left. Her mother, finding out she’s pregnant with her own biological, Chinese child, drifts off in a dream of babies. Desdemona is left alone. Elizabeth Daruthayan’s desperation was beautiful and heart-wrenching — kudos. But, one moment does not a good play make.

I would also like to give a shout-out to the incredibly talented Kay Nahm, who played multiple parts throughout the show, including a stereotypical Chinese performer, a Korean child adopted through a program like Save the Children, a nurse, a graduate of Princeton, J’s Chinese mother, and assorted other parts. She was fantastic. Nothing in the interpretation of the plot tied this play together, but Kay’s performances did hold my interest.

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