Theatre Mirror Reviews - "That Gentleman from China"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark


"That Gentleman from China"

Written and Directed by Doris Chu

Costume Design by Elena Ivanova
Original Music Score by Alia Chevchenko
Stage Design by Jiang Yun
Lighting Design by Qin Feng/Jiang Yun
Stage Manager Greg Drake
Costume Managers Jing Li Hong, Ming Zhang

Oong Ar-Showe.............................Joseph M. Salonga
Louisa Hentz................................Rochelle Fuentes Te
Ar Kan....................................................Rishard Chen
Mary Flynn..................................................Lisa Remo
Director........................................................Feng Tian
Stage Manager...........................................Greg Drake
Ritza Elizabeth
Narrator #4/Josephine Hentz/Mark Hopkinton
Chris Wrenn
Narrator #5/ Governor John McDougal/White Miner/Ralph/James Strobridge/San Francisco City Official/Mob Leader/Butler/Mayor Sullivan/Senator Cooper
Tom Mazur
Narrator #2/Josewph/Governor Peter Bernett/White Miner/Waldo/Charles Crocker/P.C.Huntington/ California State Official/Mob Leader/William Oong/Senator Sargent
David Dobson
Narrator #1/George/Judge Bennett/Henry Hentz/White Miner/Governor Bigler/Leland Stanford/Frank Pixley/Mob Leader/Mr. Cochran

Doris Chu's "That Gentleman from China" seems almost more a pageant than a play. It chronicles both the life of a successful tea-merchant here in Boston and the prejudice and persecutions of immigrant Chinese in California. The presentation on a big bare stage with minimum props is almost Brechtian, with four actors stepping from brief historical-setting lectures into illustrating scenes in which they play thirty-four different people from the past. The triumph of this technique is that the continuing characters are made intimately human, while the sweep of history from a new perspective provides an equally fascinating background.

Here Joseph M. Salonga plays Oong Ar-Showe, who came to Boston at 25 in about 1850, converted to Christianity in order to marry an Irish girl (played by Rochelle Fuentes Te), and until her death 26 years later in 1878 lived the rich social life of a successful businessman and philanthropist with his home in upscale Malden, with two daughters and a son who became a lawyer. He may have been the first Chinese to marry a non-Asian and the first to become a naturalized American citizen, but with children grown and wife dead he went home at last to his native China, after large farewell party attended by the cream of Malden society.

This tale of acceptance and success contrasts sharply with the exploitation, persecution, and eventual exclusion of Chinese immigrants on the Pacific side of America, where cheap, efficient Chinese labor made the western leg of the transcontinental railroad possible, yet their "yellow peril" was denied legal and voting rights. The rioting, exclusion acts and slurs rife in California apparently came to Mr. Oong's attention only late in his own placid "lucky" life, but the awareness left him feeling he could never find true acceptance in America, and so he went back home to die.

This two hours of vibrant history demands dozens of instant-characters from this excellent cast. Jiang Yun stretched across the back of the big black box of stage a swath of what look like floor-length cellophane that reacts strongly to colored lights by Qin Feng, but the twenty some scenes come alive with only a table and a few chairs, half a dozen hand-props and excellent mime. The one concession to realism is a series of stunning period gowns for the ladies designed by Elena Ivanova and constructed by Janice Adler that keep two backstage dressers working continually.

This is a movingly instructive play, teaching both Asians and "round-eyes" like me chapters, both embarrassing and inspiring, that remain hidden in the books of American history. But its portrait of that gentleman from china, once seen, is unforgettable.

Love,
===Anon.


"That Gentleman from China" (till 23 April)
ASIA ON STAGE/INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(617) 542-4599

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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