Ching Chong Chinaman – Play Review
Written by Lauren Yee and directed by Jeffrey Bracco, this is a beautiful and funny yet irreverent and witty play, tackling the complex subject of race in California.
The ultra-assimilated Wong family is materially comfortable and has a stay at home mom, Grace (Chiho Saito), who mostly orders takeouts or makes canned meals, a brilliant daughter, Desdemona (Monica Ho), who cannot speak any Chinese language, a son, Upton (Anthony Chan), who has made winning video games a sole focus of his life and has employed the services of freshly arrived Jianquing (Nick Louie), an indentured servant (with his own American dream) , and Ed (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias), the father who for the most part, feels no tug from the past, from history or culture or the circumstances that brought them their children.
What does it mean to be a Chinese, a Japanese, an Indian, in Silicon Valley? Ultra competitive Ho who has her eyes set on gaining admission into prestigious Princeton and must win every competition including canned food drives, whose parents assure her that they will love her just the same if she gets into Stanford instead, flies into a rage at their inability to understand the importance of her getting into Princeton. Is Ho a product of culture or of growing up in the competitive environment of Silicon Valley? And is it a mere co-incidence that she is growing up in Silicon Valley? Ho gives a brilliant performance as this complex character, one minute deeply embarrassed by the cultural insensitivity of her parents who cannot pronounce Jianquing and call him Ching Chong, the next, avoiding Jianquing altogether because she is unsure of how to relate to him; one minute, engaged in desperate attempts to find something terrible in her own background that she can use to write a winning college essay; next minute, showing utter and complete disregard for the orphan child abroad, who is supported by her contribution and now aspires for the same American dream.
Chan’s performance is just as brilliant as a teenager, whose focus is so solely occupied with winning video games that he chooses to skip the family vacation and goes instead to Korea, to compete in a video game competition. In the end, Chan emerges as a more authentic character, and his words of affection give comfort to his family. Despite the language barrier, Saito and Louie find something akin to soul-matism in their mutual love for dancing, which soon transforms into something less platonic. Their dance moves are fantastic and serve as beautiful distraction when the dysfunctionality of the family gets too intense. Performance of Arias is nothing short of amazing, even as he finds himself at times incapable of fulfilling the needs and desires of his wife, his daughter, his son, even as he begins to use the services of Louie in pursuing his own dreams and later just accepting Louie’s out of place transformation as part of the family. Arias finally holds his family together, embracing all of it’s dysfunctionality. Anna Lee’s performance in multitude of diverse roles is awesome and Yee’s use of magical realism, to bring in characters otherwise unavailable due to distance in geography or time, is brilliant.
Kudos to House Manager, Robyn Winslow. This play is running at the beautiful City Lights Theater in San Jose. For tickets and more information, go to www.cltc.org .