09 December 2012

'Golden Child'

My friend Diana and I took out a season’s subscription at the Signature Theatre Company again this year, but instead of the Residency One program, which focuses on the works of a single playwright, we went with the Legacy Program at Diana’s preference, which this year is presenting plays or performances by four earlier writers-in-residence from past seasons.  (I’ve already reported on the first Legacy production, Sam Shepard’s Heartless, on 10 September on ROT.)  As I was still interested in catching the main residency season, three plays by David Henry Hwang, I asked another friend to accompany me.  Although he agreed, after I bought the tickets he had to drop out because of rehearsals for a production of his own he was directing.  I asked Diana to pick up the seat, and so she and I returned to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the evening performance of the Obie-winning Golden Child on Wednesday, 28 November.  The production had gotten a good notice in the New York Times by Charles Isherwood on 14 November, but I was as much interested in seeing the play, which I’ve never seen, as in catching this particular presentation, so Isherwood’s opinion, however encouraging, wasn’t key.

Golden Child was first staged by James Lapine in New York City, opening in the Newman Theater at the Joseph Papp Public Theater (in a co-production with the South Coast Repertory, which had commissioned the new play) on 19 November 1996 where it ran a little under a month.  After a production at South Coast in Costa Mesa, California, where it played from 10 April to 9 February 1997, Golden Child tried out at the Singapore Repertory Theatre from 13-25 January 1998 and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre from 13 February-15 March 1998.  After some revisions during the California and Singapore runs, the production was remounted briefly at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, opening there on 2 April 1998 for 69 performances.  It won 1996-97 Obies for playwriting and performance (Tsai Chin as Eng Siu-Yong) and was nominated for Tonys for best play, best featured actress (Julyana Soelistyo as Ma and Eng Ahn), and for best costumes (Martin Pakledinaz).  The Signature revival, the first major New York restaging since the début 16 years ago, began previews at the Alice Griffin Jewelbox Theatre on 23 October and opened on 13 November; it’s scheduled to close on 16 December (extended from 2 December).  The production has been directed by Hwang’s frequent collaborator, Leigh Silverman, who first worked with the playwright on the workshop of Yellow Face at the Public in  2007 and went on to stage Chinglish (2011) and the current Golden Child revival.  (Silverman will also be mounting the STC production of Hwang’s new play, Kung Fu, later in the season.)  Presentations of 1981’s The Dance and The Railroad (5 February-17 March 2012) and the writer’s newest work, Kung Fu (Fall/Winter 2013) will follow Golden Child at STC.

The two-hour play begins in 1968 as a teenaged Chinese-American boy interviews his Chinese-born grandmother in Manila about the family’s history.  Hwang has said that Golden Child was inspired by just such a conversation he had with his own grandmother when he was 10: “I felt that it was somehow important that these stories not be lost with her.”  (In the original version, Hwang used a playwright and a ghost to set up the story.)  Set in Fujian (also called Fukien) Province in southeastern China in 1918, the play’s central story focuses on Eng Tieng-Bin, who’s returned home from a three-year business sojourn in the Philippines.  He brings with him modern, westernized ideas—and a British missionary, the Reverend Baines.  To the polygamous Eng, the old ways now seem wrong.  Foot-binding, which he has come to see as disgusting, already has begun for his young daughter, Ahn.  Taking place between the overthrow of the Chinese imperial dynasty (1912) and the eventual establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949), the play is Hwang’s exploration of Chekhovian terrain: the change from one world to an entirely new one for a people steeped in generations-old traditions: polygamy, ancestor worship, opium-smoking, and the suppression of individualism, among the main ones. 

Born in Los Angeles in 1957, David Henry Hwang was trained at the Yale School of Drama and saw his first play, FOB., staged in 1979 at his dorm at Sanford University where he got his BA; he briefly studied playwriting with Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornés (both previous STC writers-in-residence) at what became the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival.  A study of the conflicts between the native-born Asian Americans and their “fresh off the boat” immigrant parents and grandparents, FOB became Hwang’s first major production (and his first Obie) when it was staged by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980.  (Hwang’s own parents are immigrants to the U.S.)  The play explores a theme to which Hwang returns often (including in Golden Child), making him a prominent voice for not only Americans of Chinese and Asian heritage, but those with recent immigrant roots of many other cultures and nationalities—anyone who endures the conflicts between old traditions and the newly-adopted American ways.  He’s far more than merely an ethnocentric playwright, however; his themes and ideas have implications relevant to us all.  In the ensuing three decades, Hwang has emerged as the most preeminent Asian-American playwright and, having accumulated a slew of awards and honors from every aspect of American letters and culture, including a Tony and a Drama Desk Award (both for M. Butterfly, 1988), three Obies, and a handful of Tony and Pulitzer nominations, a significant voice in American theater.  Hwang’s a writer who always has something to say that’s worth listening to and contemplating, even if the stage production might not fulfill the promise.  Both his dramaturgy and his ideas are substantial.  As a theater writer, he gives special meaning to the phrase “man of parts.”

In addition to M. Butterfly in 1988 and the short run of Golden Child in 1998, Hwang has been represented on Broadway with Chinglish in 2011-12 as well as two Disney musicals for which he penned the books: Aida (2000-04) and Tarzan (2006-07).  The dramatist also contributed a new book for the 2002-03 Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song.  (Face Value ran for 8 previews at the Cort Theatre in March 1993, but closed without officially opening.  The failure inspired Hwang’s 2007 play, Yellow Face.)  Hwang’s plays have been staged in regional theaters large and small all across the country (and abroad) as well and the dramatist has produced a number of screenplays, including the 1993 film adaptation of M. Butterfly as well as a few TV movies, and opera librettos.  

I didn’t see the earlier New York productions of Golden Child, so I have no basis for a comparison of this revival with the originals (which is probably just as well), but I can see that it must have been a terrific introduction of Hwang and his work to those who were just hearing about him after his Broadway début with M. Butterfly.  It reveals the thematic focus of the writer, presents a view of the ancient culture of his heritage to which he feels so drawn even though he’s grown up as a mid-century American kid (like me, as it happens), and exhibits several of the playwright’s techniques.  The framing device, the mid-20th-century scenes between grandson and grandmother, within which is couched the 1918 family tale, for instance, and the portrayal of “past” characters by the same actors playing “present” ones (the grandmother is played by the same actor, a very young-looking, and terrifically animated Annie Q., who appears as the child Eng Ahn, and her grandson is portrayed by Greg Watanabe who is Eng Tieng-Bin) are central to the production as is Hwang’s use of his own family history.  (I’m not familiar with all of Hwang’s works, but Golden Child may be the most literally biographical of his plays—with the exception of Face Value/Yellow Face, based on an actual 1991 controversy in which Hwang was focal.)  Some may find Golden Child too literal in its depiction of both family lore and 20th-century Chinese history, but considering how unfamiliar most theatergoers probably are with those aspects of American and world events, I don’t think it is.  I, myself, enjoyed the representation of the world of 1918 China and I even appreciated the directness with which Hwang delineated the life of his forebears as they were encountering Western ideas and customs for the first time.  (It’s actually quite amusing to hear the misconceptions and stereotypes the Chinese characters have of European people and ways, especially in light of Western views of Chinese and Asians dating from the same period.  The Chinese characters sometimes call Westerners “Occidentals,” for instance, the same way we used to call Asians “Orientals,” a label about which Hwang’s apparently sensitive.)

One thing I found especially interesting is the portrayal of Reverend Baines, the Anglican missionary Eng brings home with him from Manila.  He’s described by one reviewer as “a man eager to bring Jesus to the entire village” and could so easily be presented as a true “white devil” (which is what Hwang’s Chinese characters often call Westerners, including once inadvertently in front of Baines).  But  he’s not, he’s a well-meaning and respectful man who wants to impart the tenets of his religion to anyone who’s will listen.  Yes, he’s a missionary and proselytizer, which presupposes some level of arrogance, but he tries to learn Chinese and when he encounters the women of the household with bound feet, he shows no disgust or revulsion even as he pressures Eng to stop the practice.  (It’s Eng who orders the unbinding of his young daughter’s feet, with the child’s encouragement but over the protests of Eng Siu-Yong, his first wife and Ahn’s mother, and Eng Luan, his second wife.)  Baines also doesn’t raise the subject of polygamy until Eng Luan, the only one of the three who attends the discussions with the missionary, asks about the Christian policy on the practice.  (She knows that if Eng converts, he must dismiss two of his wives and remain married to only one; she plans to be that wife.)  Even then, Baines explains the Christian view of marriage without outwardly condemning the Chinese tradition.  Now, it should be noted that the Engs’ story unfolds the way the elderly Ahn tells it, and she’s resolutely stressing the conversion to Christianity as a great blessing. 

(I should note that Diana objected to one technique Hwang uses in his depiction of Baines.  As the missionary tries to learn Chinese, we “hear” him speak in pidgin English while the Chinese characters speak perfectly grammatical, unaccented standard English.  Diana wasn’t sure what this signified at first—she asked me what it meant—and then said she thought it was unnecessary.  I don’t agree; it’s a theater convention—that is, it’s not literally real—but it makes its point while, at the same time, turns the mid-century practice of portraying Asians as pidgin-speakers—think Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto in the movies, both played by Caucasian actors—upside down.  Grandma Ahn, in the framing scenes, also speaks pidgin—because she's then talking to her grandson in English while during the flashback story, she’s speaking Chinese with her family.  This isn’t the only instance of theatricality in Golden Child, so it’s not out of line with the overall “highly presentational style” of the play, as New York magazine’s Scott Brown called it, which “takes a bit of getting used to.”  Brown described Hwang’s use of such theatrical devices as on-stage assistants—who help with set, props, and costumes—and ghosts as “somewhere between living-room naturalism and Peking Opera.”)

Ahn, who appears to be about 10 or 12 at the time of the story, clearly views the westernization and the conversion from traditional ancestor worship as an advance and not a betrayal of beloved traditions—she wants her feet unbound, even though she knows it will be painful, and had voiced her distaste for the practice before her mother and “aunties.”  Hwang seems to be presenting the shift from traditional Chinese ways to Western practices as a prelude to the family’s eventual immigration to America and its ultimate Americanization, beginning with his own generation.  According to Golden Child, it’s neither good nor bad at its core, but is simply what happened to a huge number of Chinese (and other Asian) immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century, a combination of hope and displacement that left repercussions down the generations, as suggested by Ahn’s 14-year-old grandson who’s looking for the connection to his cultural heritage that he’s lost.  (He’s travelled to Manila to record his grandmother’s recollections because relatives in America either don’t have the memories or can’t speak English well enough to communicate them—and he doesn’t speak Chinese.)  In fact, Hwang doesn’t really take sides in the conflict between the old ways, as represented by Siu-Yong and third wife Eling, and the new, foreign ones, as adopted by Eng, Ahn, and Luan (who begins wearing western clothes almost as soon as Reverend Baines arrives). 

The three principal modernizers each has a different motivation: Eng chooses to westernize because he’s a businessman and sees the west as the rising economic power with whom he wants to do business and where he wants to succeed.  He also clearly believes that Christian and European ways are stronger and perhaps even more moral that the old Chinese ways.  It is the Future and Hwang says that Eng wants “to move his family forward and himself forward.”  Ahn wants to adopt western practices because she is young and wants to be modern.  She’s already shown a streak of irrepressible individualism—she speaks against foot-binding before her father and Baines arrive—and is viewed by her elders as willful.  (She gets away with it because, she explains, she’s a “golden child,” as her nanny’s husband tells her, having brought him luck at gambling.)  Western ideas appeal to her personality.  Luan approaches westernization as a practical choice.  She sees that her husband is gravitating toward Christianity and she intends to be the one wife standing when that process is complete.  She’s something of a conniver and a manipulator, and as the middle wife, her position in the household is weak because she hasn’t the standing of first wife Siu-Yong or the love Eng feels for the third and youngest wife, Eling, the one he chose for himself, so she sees westernizing as the key to changing that status.  I suspect that Hwang, himself, sees American values reflected in all three impulses—but that he also sees in the other characters’ devotion to the traditional beliefs a form of stagnation that turned China into a sleeping giant. 

The domestic drama, the smaller world within the Eng home, has its own dimensions, as the ideal Chinese family that the women describe in words reveals its secrets and illusions.  The real story of the family dynamic, which develops in detail following the intermission in act two, is about the women, particularly the three wives.  Eng is the engine of change, but he’s nearly ignorant about the goings-on in his house.  The sisterly wives aren’t as united as they say they are and each one has her private issues of which Eng is unaware both because of his long absence and because he’s oblivious to what actually goes on in his house. 

Diana was disappointed that Hwang didn’t express a conclusion of the implied debate or come out with some kind of definitive statement on the subject of westernization, assimilation, tradition, and cultural heritage, but I liked the way he laid out the elements as he saw them and let the characters all convey their own points of view—or imply them.  “Did Tieng-Bin destroy his family or set them free?” asks Time Out New York’s Diane Snyder.  “It’s left to his descendants to discover clarity amid the convoluted muddle of ancestry,” and it feels to me as if the author may have been conflicted about the clash of cultures, so letting us see the various sides without showing us his own conclusion is dramatically the right choice for me.   Indeed, Hwang has said that he starts composing a new play when he has a question, “something I don’t understand,” and he writes plays “to find out how I feel about the issue.”

Director Silverman elicited good, strong performances from the whole cast in any case.  Hwang hasn’t written the characters with many hidden layers, and Silverman didn’t insert any.  It’s all very straightforward and unambiguous.  Each member of the household establishes his or her personality (mostly “her”: Eng is the only male in the household—there are apparently sons, but we never see them—and Baines is the main story’s only other male character) in the first scenes and continues to develop it in a pretty straight line, with one or two little twists. 

While it was hard to buy Watanabe as a teenager in the first and last scenes, he was a credible presence as Eng and persuasively evinced the conviction of a man who’s decided where he needs to go and proceeds to get there.  His Eng Tieng-Bin is still dictatorial, as much as he tries to behave like a more progressive Western man and the contradiction is visible in the character’s demeanor and the difference in the way he treats his rebellious daughter and his disobedient wives.  Annie Q.’s older Ahn comes very close to caricature, with her high-pitched voice and pidgin English, but as the child Ahn, the actress is consistently in sharp contrast to the generally more staid older women, including Lesley Hu’s third wife, Eng Eling.  As Eng Siu-Yong, Julyana Soelistyo (who played Ahn in the 1996 première), is both commanding and prickly in the early scenes, and suitably spooky when she returns as a vengeful ghost later, and Jennifer Lim, as second wife Luan, is determined and calculating.  Matthew Maher’s Reverend Baines, despite a somewhat shaky British accent, is steady and sincere as the proselytizing cleric, exuding a sense of both sympathy and admiration, however unexpected on his part, for his potential converts. 

Neil Patel’s unit set looks exactly like period pavilions I’d seen in China (as well as the example on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese Garden Court).  Grandma Ahn’s home in Manila transforms into the Engs’ pavilion home in Fujian by the removal of a few panels and the addition of traditional Chinese chairs and magically we’re in 1918 provincial China.  Anita Yavich’s gorgeously brocaded costumes, in various hues of red (the color of happiness in China), and the wives’ makeup (hair styles and wigs were by Tom Watson) instantly evoke the time and place as we’ve come to recognize it from period photos and films set there.  The atmospheric use of Chinese music (the sound is designed by Darron L West) enhances the overall sense that we’ve been transported to the world of Hwang’s great-grandparents. 

In the press, Charles Isherwood was reservedly enthusiastic about the revival.  In his New York Times review, he described Silverman’s take on the play as “more intimate and more overtly comic than” the 1996 première, though, he asserted, “the comedy recedes into the background” as the tension builds.  But, he added, aside from Soelistyo’s Siu-Yong, “[t]he rest of the cast fares less well.”  In the New York Post, Frank Scheck wrote that “the play tries uneasily to meld Western and Eastern styles” but that “Silverman’s well-acted, visually elegant production shows the piece certainly deserves another look.”  Calling the Signature production “engaging,” Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News said the play’s “not particularly deep and a bit too jokey for its own good.”  Nonetheless, the News review-writer pronounced Hwang’s family story “well-told” and the STC cast “polished.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer decreed that Silverman’s staging “feels oddly stilted and lacks the elegance of the earlier ones.  The structure is neater, but the reach, less captivating” than the première version.  In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky acknowledged that the cast is “talented” and that Silverman’s direction is “graceful,” but ultimately asked “with so many Hwang plays to choose from, why did this one need revival?  Like the less-than-welcome ghost of First Wife, Golden Child might be better off not resurrected.”  In contrast, Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen called Golden Child “one of Hwang’s best works, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking” and dubbed Silverman’s staging of the “exemplary and very welcome” revival “perceptive.” 

In the New Yorker, John Lahr dismissed the revised production, saying, “What began as a cross-cultural drama has been reimagined as a documentary on pre-Christian Chinese customs.  What was theatrically dynamic now feels merely anecdotal,” while New York’s Brown decreed the play “startlingly effective.”  It’s a “rich, bracingly affecting work,” in the words of Snyder at TONY. 

On the Net, Elyse Sommer, who saw both the Off-Broadway première and the Broadway remount, said on CurtainUp that she felt “the main characters struck me as having been deepened” from the earlier versions and saw “more humor than I remember.”  On TheaterMania, however, Andy Propst found that the “consistently stylish production” felt “like a bit of a tarnished experience” because of the “disorienting” (which I doubt was intended as a pun, by the way) mixed styles.  “Both the play and production stumble,” Propst declared, “when the action shifts from the distaff members of the Eng household.”  On TalkinBroadway.com, Matthew Murray felt that the play is “awash in a quiet stateliness that doesn't always amplify the theme” and that even Silverman’s “precise, serene” direction “can't do much to compensate for that.”  Murray concluded that the passage of time since the play’s début hasn’t “dulled the intellectually absorbing way with which Hwang dissects a culture at the crossroads, but they also haven't deepened it,” either. 

As I said earlier, I have no basis for the comparisons on which so many of the reviewers have drawn, but I can say that I found the STC revival of Golden Child a satisfying experience both theatrically and intellectually.  I’m more than looking forward to the rest of the Hwang season at Signature, which I intend to catch (and on which I’ll report) as it unfolds.


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