By Sarah Downs
How many steps does it take to meet the future, and how many steps will lead you home? What part of your identity must you abandon in order to survive? In the case of Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, self effacement became erasure as men and women hollowed themselves out emotionally in order to survive a brutal gauntlet to gain U.S. citizenship. The U.S. had passed Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, banning all laborers from China from entering the United States (this after Chinese muscle had built railroads across the country). The Act was later revised to permit a small number of Chinese to enter, provided they survive an elaborate interview process designed to reject all applicants.
In The Far Country, playwright Lloyd Suh brings this untold story to the stage, following the traumatic journey of a young man, in search of what he hopes will be a better life, and how that voyage nearly shatters him. The play is a revelation and an act of reverence — visceral, well-constructed and beautifully written.
Act I opens on the interview of Han Sang Gee (Jinn S. Kim), who has presented himself for U.S. Citizenship as a U.S. born Chinese. In a clever layering of dialogue to simulate the translation of the English questions to Chinese via an interpreter, H.P. Yip (a quietly sympathetic Whit K. Lee) and back again, Gee’s interview with Inspector Harriwell (a deftly officious Christopher Liam Moore) results in literal double talk. Director Eric Ting keeps the energy taught as the exasperating process continues.
As Gee, himself a fabrication of a fictional past, Kim plays an extraordinary duality – the ‘ignorant’ foreigner going through his interview, whose heavy accent and traditional garb mark him as ‘less than’, and the intelligent man, the real Han Sang Gee. He is a chameleon who transforms into the ugly American. For Gee there is no past. There is only the future. There is only the new identity.
The Exclusion Act gave rise to a practice of indentured servitude, whereby American Chinese would bring over young people from China – for a price — coached in false histories down to the minutest detail, with which to pass the test to become Americans. If successful, these young people would spend years toiling to earn their way out of their indenture, until such time as they had the money to repeat the process with an indentured servant of their own. Thus, Gee ‘buys’ the citizenship of Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), predicated on Gyet’s surviving detainment and the relentless, invasive interrogation as a Chinese born child of an American father.
Yang as Moon Gyet carries enormous weight on his young shoulders. Absolutely believable as a 16 year-old boy, Yang balances the artlessness of his character’s youth and the more Americanized self he becomes. Your heart aches for him, as it does for his mother, Low (Amy Kim Waschke). Waschke embodies the stoic mother, who struggles with the conflict between harsh practicality and maternal love. Her son must change his name; he must forget his family, forget her, in exchange for an uncertain future.
Ben Chase, as the Inspector interviewing Moon Gyet paints a menacing portrait of a cynical interrogator, circling the boy like the predator he is. The echo of his derision and cruelty hangs in the air even after Chase leaves the stage.
In Act III Ting relaxes the energy somewhat, in a welcome, hopeful relief. We meet Ah Yuen (a lovely Shannon Tyo) whom Gyet has returned to China to fetch back with him to the States. Both sweet and practical, Yuen brings some gentle laughter to the stage. She intertwines her fate with Moon Gyet. And the story goes on.
Junghyun Georgia Lee’s costumes delineate the opposing worlds of China and San Francisco. Loose fitting garments in muted shades of rust and sand silently convey the poverty of a small Chinese farm, contrasting perfectly with the buttoned up three-piece suits of the white interrogators, pacing under harsh light in their dark, sterile offices.
The set design by Clint Ramos, surprising in its glass and chrome modernity, frames the action in an uncompromising superstructure. Yet as it morphs into various spaces, lit with emotional precision by Jiyoun Chang, the structure loses its dominance. The space expands, embracing Earth’s four elements with beautiful stage effects of rushing water, wind and rain, the grey of stone remembered, of nature lost.
Double talk. Double lives. Two memories. Two selves. A forgotten name. But what’s in a name? Everything.
The Far Country, Lloyd Suh, directed by Eric Ting. With Ben Chase, Jinn S. Kim, Whit K. Lee, Christopher Liam Moore, Shannon Tyo, Amy Kim Waschke and Eric Yang. Scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Fan Zhang, and wigs, hair and makeup by Tommy Kurzman.
Please note: Masks must be worn inside the building.