There are shockingly few roles written in English-language plays for actors of Asian ancestry. When the musical, Allegiance, played here, many of the cast member biographies listed appearances in a production of Miss Saigon or Flower Drum Song. The best production I saw last year in London was the world premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s play, Chimerica, which featured a mixed Asian and Anglo cast.
Alas, Allegiance has resorted to crowd-funding to help raise the money needed to open on Broadway, and Chimerica, despite transferring to the West End, has yet to be performed in the U. S. Meanwhile, The King and I is being revived by Lincoln Center this fall. I will leave any conclusions to be drawn from these examples to the reader.
Always one to take risks, Moxie Theatre closes its ninth season with the West Coast premiere of Jade Heart, by Will Cooper. Under the leadership of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Moxie has given a persuasive production to a play that still needs work.
Jade McCullough (Dana Wing Lau) is the adopted daughter of Brenda McCullough (Julie Sachs). Brenda adopted Jade from a Chinese orphanage. Jade’s birth mother had left her in swaddling clothes at a busy marketplace, probably because she was a girl. Under China’s “one child” policy, rural parents in particular wanted boys, who would potentially help with field work and bring in money to the family. Girls were seen as an expense, rather than as an asset. Jade did have a portion of a heart left with her; according to Chinese custom the matching portion of the heart would have remained with her birth mother.
Brenda was insistent on raising Jade as American. She spoke only English, and while Brenda encouraged her to learn about Chinese culture, she drew the line when a woman she hired to teach Jade Mandarin seemed to be indoctrinating her. Brenda didn’t like it when Jade referred to herself as “Asian American” or as “Chinese American.”
Jade, for her part, felt somehow incomplete in her American identity and harbored a romantic fantasy of finding her birth mother, to the point of conjuring up an image of her China Mom (Dana Byrne). A trip to China with Brenda helped to dispel the fantasy, albeit not completely.
As Jade grew, her life became an interesting hybrid. She longed for an Asian identity but developed interests in British literature, particularly Chaucer, to the point of earning a doctorate in that subject. Along the way, she was introduced to Duan Chengshi (Albert Park), an engineering student from Beijing, and romance developed.
Mr. Cooper’s play sensitively portrays the duality Jade feels, as well as the difficulty Brenda and several of Jade’s Asian friends have with that duality. It uses the device of skipping around in time to tell the story. That device has its advantages in keeping audiences on its toes, but its downside is a tendency toward repetition. The young Jade has a tendency to accuse Brenda of being a bad mother whenever she doesn’t get her way, and Brenda’s insistence on “American,” not “Asian American” or “Chinese American” gets old quickly, particularly when Brenda seems sensitive enough to realize what a conflict in her identity is doing to the daughter she loves dearly.
Time hopping also has a tendency to drop in pieces of information that seem significant but aren’t followed through. At one point, for example, Jade and Brenda fight about Brenda’s potential need for medication, but the topic is dropped, so the scene seems superfluous. And, when the big “reveals” come late in the play, the information provided isn’t particularly surprising – and, one wonders why it wasn’t brought up sooner. [php snippet=1]Still, Moxie does this play proud with a lovely production. In particular, Natalie Khuen’s scenic design is probably the most beautiful I’ve seen on the Rolando Theatre stage. It is also highly functional, providing appropriate playing spaces where the fantasy/reality duality can be maintained. Sherrice Kelly’s lighting brings out the beauty in the scenic design quite nicely, and Emily Smith’s costumes are crucial to understanding the sudden time shifts as the play progresses.
Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is certainly one of the top directors on the local theatre scene, and her productions are always worth seeing. Here, she’s cast the show beautifully and coaxed nuanced performances out of the principals (and efficiently staged the scenes where nuance is not needed).
Ms. Lau makes for a lovely Jade, and she is most effective as the grown daughter who needs to set aside her fantasies and make a life for herself that is independent of Brenda. Ms. Sachs’ early scenes don’t allow her much depth, but she grasps it as the play progresses. Ms. Byrne and Ms. Lai are effective in multiple roles.
But, it is Mr. Park whose performance pops out from the others. He shifts ground with ease from playing Chinese functionaries to portraying the student who will become the love of Jade’s life. His handsome, though slightly formal, engineering student not only is perfectly drawn but is also guaranteed to melt hearts.
Despite its current flaws, Jade Heart fills an important gap in telling stories of the Asian experience in the U. S. And, Moxie’s production makes this particular story well worth telling.