Following the American Dream by way of Asia

cltc-ching-chong-chinamanBy Ande Jacobson

Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman may not be the most politically correct play in existence, but it certainly has found a home at City Lights Theater Company.  The play is surreal at times and unfolds in a satirical, sitcom fashion as Yee explores the American Dream through the completely assimilated Wong family.

Following a clever curtain speech conveyed through calls to the Wong’s answering machine, the play opens in a photo-op.  The family members are sitting for their holiday portrait while simultaneously throwing out random thoughts about America, Christmas, and racism.  The scene changes and we learn more about the Wongs.  Ed Wong (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) is the patriarch working to give his family support, both financially and emotionally.  Grace (Chiho Saito) is Ed’s wife and mother to their children Desdemona (Monica Ho) and Upton (Anthony Chan).

Desdemona is 17 and has dreams of attending Princeton in spite of her not quite up-to-snuff performance in calculus.  Upton is 15 and has no interest in school.  Instead, he wants to rule in the World of Warcraft community as he spends every spare moment he has gaming.  His problem is that in order to achieve gaming domination, he needs to train much harder than his school and family commitments allow.  To work around this, he arranges to bring a Chinese indentured servant, Jinqiang (Nick Louie) to their home to help take over his extraneous non-gaming activities.  Jinqiang (known as “Ching Chong” or “J”) eventually helps Desdemona as well.  Anna Lee rounds out the cast playing eight distinct characters.

Director Jeffrey Bracco has a creative take on this one including working with lighting designer Nick Kumamoto and scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti to create some slick effects when characters have to suddenly materialize.  Due to the nature of the writing, the flow is a little choppy on stage with blackouts between each scene even without set changes.  Resident composer and sound designer George Psarras covers the blackouts with a combination of original modern jazz/funk mixed with some Latin jazz, though a few of the scene changes drag a bit as we wait for the music to finish.  One nice musical effect occurs every time a scene opens in Upton’s room announced by a drum and cymbal hit in conjunction with lights up.  Psarras also injects some big band and Latin music into a few key scenes.

Except for some blocking where he’s too obviously cheating downstage when talking with some of his stage family, Arias is natural as Ed. There’s gentleness about him, especially compared to his overwrought children.  Since he’s facing downstage anyway, Arias occasionally addresses the audience directly letting us into Ed’s head.

Ho plays toward the stereotype of a hypersensitive and hyperactive, angst-ridden, teenage girl yelling much of her dialog.  Her Desdemona is a drama queen completely wrapped up in her world as she obsesses over her heritage and tries to write a standout entrance essay to get into Princeton. She’s openly dismayed over her parents’ apparent lack of Chinese identity and has some startling scenes with both Arias and Lee as she resorts to an online service to research her genealogy.  Chan is more pedantic as his character obsesses over his computer game.  At times, he sounds as if he’s channeling Rod Serling in a more dissociated, narrative persona, particularly in many of the scenes set in Upton’s bedroom.

Saito is initially the calm one as Grace tries to sooth Desdemona.  Grace seems without purpose or passion early on as she’s either shutdown or overwhelmed by her louder family members.  She later finds her bliss and has some nice scenes with Louie including some smooth swing-dance inspired moves choreographed by Lori Martinez.  Saito and Louie have solid stage chemistry in their scenes together even when they aren’t dancing.  Although Louie’s Jinqiang is nonverbal much of the time and begins almost as a piece of furniture, his character develops nicely.

Lee is marvelous moving from character to character, each with a different presence, manner, speech pattern, and of course unique costume.  Since most of her characters are recurring, she has to stay on top of each one, successfully flipping between metaphysical personas or avatars to real people in far off places.  She even has to cover multiple languages and does so very naturally.

Gasparinetti’s wonderfully detailed unit set works well giving us a laundry room, kitchen, and a bedroom with all the amenities from cabinetry to linen shelving and quaint wall decorations.  The only set changes relate to minor prop differences such as wall hangings or the bed covering changing to depict a location change.  He also provides an upstage platform behind a scrim that allows some depth and illusion for many of the apparitions.

Ching Chong Chinaman is a fun evening’s entertainment.  There’s a bit of profanity and some adult innuendo, so it’s probably not appropriate for very young children, but it is typical City Lights fare with its unorthodox view of the American Dream.

What:  Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman

Where:  City Lights Theater Company located at:  529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA 95112.

When:  Thursdays – Sundays through 24 February.

See cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.

(Photo courtesy of City Lights Theater Company)

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