Wires Crossed

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I can safely say that David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning M.Butterfly is one of the plays that shaped my love for theater.  I saw several local productions when I was growing up in Manila in the 1980s and I was just deeply impressed by the stylized approach to live performance and the impeccable, impactful, very clever use of language.  The major themes of M. Butterfly- the tension between Asian and Western cultural norms and perspectives; the nature of sexual identity – were important, resonant themes for a gay kid growing up in an Asian city that was often called the most Western city in the Asia-Pacific Rim, a city filled with multi-national corporations, expatriates, and the enveloping presence of American pop culture. But I have always been unsettled by Hwang’s portrayal of Asian, specifically Chinese, culture in M. Butterfly – how Song Liling, the Peking Opera singer who turns out to be the opposite of what she has purported herself to be, trafficked, both explicitly and subtly, in deception, ambition, and power plays, and how the culture she inhabits condones these traits and the grey ethical areas they inevitably create.  And pity the white guy, Gallimard, clueless, weak-willed, trapped.  Many theater critics and aficionados have lauded Hwang’s portrayal of Sing Liling, and Chinese culture by extension, in M. Butterfly as brazen – Asia finally portrayed not as some exotic unknown but as powerful, willful, and able to subdue the machismo and hubris of the West.  Well, uhmmm, ok.  I personally don’t think cultural relations can be reduced to powerful vs. non-powerful, moral absolutes vs. moral ambivalence.  Cross-cultural discussions, because of context and history, will invariably always be complex.  So though I liked a significant amount of Hwang’s new play Chinglish, now in a world premiere production at the Goodman Theatre before it transfers to Broadway in the fall, it still seems to have some of the same value judgments that bothered me with M. Butterfly.

Daniel is a businessman from Cleveland who is trying to win the contract to create the signage for the new cultural center being built in the province of Guiyang, China.  He learns very quickly that doing business in China means employing and maximizing guanxi, or the personal relationships and connections he builds with his customers, in this case the Culture Minister and Vice Minister of the province.  He employs Peter, an Australian who has lived in China for 20 years, and considers himself almost Chinese, as a “consultant” to navigate the complexities of securing the contract, but things don’t turn out to be what he expects; I’ll leave it at that since the twists and turns of the narrative in typical Hwang fashion is best experienced than read.  I must definitely give Hwang credit for writing scenes in both English and Mandarin, and ensuring that audiences pay attention since subtitles are employed generously.  The bilingual approach to the play is definitely critical in conveying how much can be lost in translation, and this approach leads to some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a play in recent years (the scene at the restaurant with Daniel and Vice Minister Xu talking about the signage contract being awarded via “the back door” is classic, both clever and bawdy).  I think Hwang also makes potent points about China’s already widely-known and written-about global aspirations (for example, Dan’s involvement with the collapse of Enron increases his credibility with Guiyang’s government leaders, because he was part of something that has impacted the world, albeit negatively).

But Hwang’s portrayal of Vice Minister Xu, and her unbridled ambition, her ambiguous perspectives on fidelity, marriage, and love, not to mention office politics (I wouldn’t want to be the Culture Minister if she’s around), and her aggressive pursuit of the dopey, amiably flawed American, Daniel, is bothersome to me.  Since Chinglish is primarily a comedy, Xu’s views on the world is portrayed as funny-haha, but also funny-different, and different coming across as something less morally acceptable, because it is ambiguous, than Dan’s Midwestern, salt of the earth views on the world. Thankfully Xu is played with a lot of dignity, warmth, and shading by the wonderful Jennifer Lim.  Lim effectively conveys Xu’s resolve in her cultural beliefs but also openness to Dan and his experiences (and I’m not sure if it’s because of the actress or the writing).  It’s a smart performance with perfect comedic timing.  I am also a little perturbed by Hwang’s portrayal of Peter (played with a lot of appeal and flawless Mandarin-speaking by the British actor Stephen Pucci) and how he represents the possibility that the longer you stay in China, the more likely you adopt some of the culture’s seemingly negative traits such as nepotism and pretending to be someone you’re not (that whole business about Peter being an English teacher in reality versus a business consultant, and why he would pretend to be the latter, is quite murky to me).

Hwang writes Daniel as a Jimmy Stewart-type who is in above his head but who has the best of intentions for his family back in the US, and James Waterston plays him as an attractive aging frat boy who does no harm, no foul, looking really cute and befuddled while everyone is speaking Mandarin around him. Uhmm, ok…and the Chinese characters are portrayed as conniving and politically savvy?  Why isn’t Daniel portrayed more as a money-grubbing, reckless corporate cowboy (and there are many of those in China right now) to balance things out?  Because Daniel is ultimately who the American audience needs to identify with?  And that is again bothersome for me.

The rest of the cast is pretty good and Leigh Silverman’s direction is tightly-paced and milks the scenes for laughter without being crass or cheap.  David Korins’ stunning set design, fluidly, intriguingly morphing into the Minister’s office, a hotel lobby, a hotel room, and various restaurants, is the best I’ve seen this season so far.  Chinglish is a good play with lots of sexy, smart humor, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Hwang.  I just wished that in 2011, with a theater audience that is already more multi-cultural and more globally-savvy, viewpoints from a 1988 play wouldn’t rear their heads again.

Chinglish is at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., until July 24.  See it in Chicago before it opens on Broadway in the fall.

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One Response to “Wires Crossed”

  1. Desiree Says:

    Racial issues explored in the arts (and beyond) are almost always problematic – simply because someone WILL find a bone to pick. Some of the claims and outrages from the NAACP and similar organizations are laughable – it’s like they feel they’re not doing their job if they don’t turn an issue into a controversy.

    That being said, I believe it’s these same monkeys on the back (harangues? phobias?) that make it completely hard for any minority to author a work that deals with questions about their position in society. In my experience, they either blow it out of proportion because they undyingly need to be heard so much or they are almost mocking and derogatory, as Hwang’s Song and Xu may be. Very few hit the pantheon of accuracy – August Wilson, some Suzan Lori-Parks – and they do so because they have a story to tell, which in itself proves a point, rather than set out to prove a point, and then piece the plot together.

    But, one might argue, better to start a conversation than remain stuck in erroneous symbolism, right? It’s the same way we feel about Next’s Thai presentation. Without the innate cultural background, you can only accept what the artist is providing you as the Dickensian truth. To truly appreciate the arts, the audience needs to school themselves so that watching a production is interactive, rather than reactive. However, not everyone has that opportunity nor privilege nor impetus, so the role as creator is important – and allows for playing god. And that is why you create – so you can have an opinion, and it’s important to start the conversation, and it’s just as important for the recipients to question.

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